The Mystery Relay: A Question of Justice and Fairness

Posted: August 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

I want you to imagine a scenario, and I’m not going to tell you why until the very end of this post.  Some of you might already know where this is headed, because I’ve used this metaphor in conversation before.  To my knowledge, this analogy is my own creation; that said, a quick Google search will pull up similar parables to demonstrate the same point, but I do not recall ever having heard it or read it before I thought of it.  So let that be my disclaimer – I think I came up on this with my own, but it’s entirely possible that someone made this or a similar argument before and I just think it’s mine.  Either way, I think it’s a great way to discuss justice and fairness – and to ask if those are the same thing, necessarily.

A very important race is about to happen – a long-distance relay that carries very high stakes for those involved.  The winning team will be set for life – they will win the Olympic gold, as it were – and will go on to long-lived careers as relay race runners.  We have two teams – I will call them Team X and team Y.  The players – five per team — are spaced out over this lengthy course.  Unbeknownst to Team X, or the final team members of Team Y, the first Team Y runner has bribed one of the officials to rig the race in their favor, and that official has constructed additional hurdles across the way.  In addition, the baton that Team X will be carrying will be heavier than the one Team Y will carry.  The running shoes provided to Team X have less traction and arch support than the ones provided to Team Y.  In addition, the judge has stolen the water bottles that Team X was supposed to have to run this race on what is a very, very hot day.

As the race is about to begin, the official begins counting down the time until the race starts.  He fires the gun to start the race, and the teams are off.  The official immediately stops the first Team X runner, claiming that they jumped the gun, and authorizes a five minute head start for Team Y.  After five minutes, Team Y has developed a considerable advantage over Team X, but Team X begins the race as the crowd watches on.  While the first leg of the race is being run, the later players of Team X recognize that they don’t have any water and immediately send their coach to find more, but that doesn’t help the first runner who is parched, already significantly behind, whose feet are beginning to hurt due to lack of support in the shoes, and who has already tripped twice because of the sabotaged soles.  By the time Team X passes the baton to the second player, Team Y now has an eight minute advantage.

The second runner fares a little better though, since he has some water and he was born a naturally gifted athlete.  He only trips once in his leg of the race, and while he was running, the first player told the coach that their shoes had been sabotaged.  The coach was able to get new shoes for the last three runners who would not be similarly handicapped.  When the second runner passes the baton, Team X is only trailing by six minutes.  In the meantime, an oversight committee has recognized that something is amiss and has removed the bribed officials and replaced them with unbiased observers.  As the race continues, they hustle to remove the additional hurdles that the fourth and fifth runners will face, but do not want to try to dissemble those on the third leg of the race to avoid confusion and refrain from interfering with the runners.

By the time the baton is passed to the fourth runner, all but a few of the extra hurdles have been taken down for Team X, and Team Y only has a four minute lead.   The officials are able to remove all of the superfluous hurdles on the fifth leg of the race by this point, but because the additional weight of the baton is so subtle, they do not recognize that it has been weighted improperly and is contributing even more to the unfair time.  They wish that they could start the race from scratch, but they only have the resources to host the race this one time and it would be virtually impossible to begin anew.  They recognize that the race was rigged from the start, but can do nothing about it except hope that the fifth racer can bridge the gap.  When the baton is passed to the fifth racer, Team X is only three minutes behind.

The fifth leg of the race is, by all appearances, completely fair.  No one – not even the runner – recognizes the extra weight of the baton.  By force of will alone, and because perhaps Team Y has gotten a little complacent in their lead, Team X almost closes the gap.  Ultimately, Team Y wins the race by just fifteen seconds.  The results, however, are not immediately announced.  The officials have convened over in a corner somewhere and seem to be intensely discussing the situation – after all, this race was certainly not one that was equitable for Team X.  After a short discussion, the officials announce that they have decided to award the Gold medal to Team X because of the unfairness, but promise that a Silver medal will be available to Team Y and that they will likely still get sponsored and have long and successful careers.  The final runner on Team Y is outraged – “This isn’t fair!” he says.  He didn’t even know that the first member of the team had bribed the judge, and he just ran his butt off.  His team had a better time and should win the Gold!  The crowd at this point is quite confused.  The family members of Team X are cheering at this unexpected announcement.  Some independent observers, well-informed about the race, recognized the disparity too and are cheering for the announcement.  But by and large, not recognizing the unfairness that existed all along, the crowd is outraged.  They say that the officials are simply discriminating against all of Team Y because of the actions of one misguided first player and a corrupt official.

If you had to pick a runner for your next relay team – who would you pick? Someone from Team X or someone from Team Y?  My bet is that, knowing everything you know about the race, you would pick someone from Team X who had to surpass insurmountable obstacles.  Sure, Team Y had the better overall time, but looking at the situation holistically you have decided that your team will be better served by Team X.  In this one instance, you’re going to ignore the quantitative score and make a more subjective decision based on individual characteristics.  I think that’s what you would do, anyway.  It’s what I would do.  For several reasons, actually.  It is obvious that Team X had to work much harder, and they didn’t finish that far behind.  There is a lot of potential there.  In addition, it’s the only truly just thing to do.  It might not be fair to that fifth runner on Team Y, who did absolutely nothing wrong himself and benefitted from an advantage that he didn’t even know about, but he is a good runner and he’ll probably be okay.

But now let’s pretend this isn’t a relay race at all.  Let’s pretend, instead, that this is actually the story of American history.  Let Team X represent, for the purposes of this discussion, African Americans.  Let Team Y represent White Americans.  The corrupt judge in this instance is slavery, and the five minute head start represents the time during which African Americans served as slaves.  Let the sabotaged sneakers represent the laws that made it illegal to teach blacks to read.  Let the removal of the judge represent emancipation, and the restoration of water the right of African Americans to vote.  Let the passing of the baton represent the passage of time from one generation to the next, and the additional hurdles laws like Jim Crow.  Let the people working to dissemble those hurdles be protestors fighting for and politicians implementing imperfect policies that remove most of the obstacles to success.  Let the family members of Team X represent the African American community, the independent supporters of Team X well-educated activists working for social justice, and the rest of the crowd represent today’s White majority.  Let those final runners be, for example, high school students today.  The runner for Team X is Black, and the final runner for Team Y is White.  Neither is responsible for the actions of their predecessors.  Let the heavy baton represent all of the subliminal messages that African Americans receive – subtle but systematic discrimination, both actual and perceived – that not everyone sees.  Let the gold medal awarded at the end represent admission into a highly-selective University.

And the judges’ decision to consider the totality of the circumstances in awarding that medal to Team X?  That’s the choice – the affirmative action – to try to correct past and present injustice. Knowing that Team X deserves it even if their time (grades? SAT scores? Extracurricular activities?) wasn’t as strong as Team Y on paper.   And sure, that final leg of the race – Team X and Team Y started on almost equal footing if you looked at their race individually.  Sure, it seems unfair that the final runner of Team Y – who did nothing wrong himself, and ran a great race – doesn’t get the medal.  But he’ll be okay in the end.

We need to examine issues of public policy in terms of the entire historical context rather than how things are right now.  And race certainly isn’t the only issue, though it’s one of the factors that has provided the greatest obstacles to human beings in our short history as a nation.  Does that mean that Team X always gets that bonus in their future races?  No.  But until they’ve recovered from that first race, and until that baton is weighted exactly as equal to the other, we need to continue to act within the context of the society in which we live.  When the Supreme Court likely hears a case on Affirmative Action this fall – or when you’re discussing the issue over the water cooler, or in a car ride home from the beach – I hope you really consider whether or not Team X is still very tired from their first race, and if that baton really has been fixed.

  1. Sven says:

    However, there is a guy I know who is a refugee from somewhere in Africa who just failed 2 classes because he did no work. I actually mean none at all. This man is here on vast scholarships and probably had affirmative action shoving him forward. He does not deserve to be here.

    Affirmative action also enabled a “get out of your shitty school district to a suburbia school” for inner city black kids. The school they went to was one of the best in the country. However, instead of doing work and getting ahead they dicked around and tried to prove how gheto they were to each other. One kid even beat up a 60+ teacher. He, as a black kid was suspended for 3 days. There was a white kid that was expelled for beating up a black kid who was the same size as himself. None of this has anything to do with history, these kids are being dumbasses right now.

    Affirmative action is bullshit, by all means there should be low-income scholarships and opportunities for kids that prove themselves. However, there are kids that do not deserve help. They just don’t know the opportunities that they are wasting.

  2. Brian says:

    I think it’s presumptuous to say, in the first instance, that he doesn’t deserve to be there. The man is a refugee. A REFUGEE. He isn’t the product of affirmative action as described in my relay race metaphor — he is the first runner in the race, held back and beaten down, and it’s a miracle that he’s alive. The things other students can learn from him (something it appears you haven’t tried) about their own privilege is reason enough to bring him into the fold.

    The second scenario you describe isn’t affirmative action, but school integration. Your understanding of African American culture (“trying to prove how ‘gheto'[sic] they are”) leaves a lot to be desired. .Try picking up a book called “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” I think it can be enlightening. And again ,violence is always wrong, but you don’t know the totality of the circumstances — perhaps the kid was suffering from mental illness. Equality isn’t always providing the same punishment for the same crime — it’s providing appropriate discipline. In general, the reverse is true and black students are MUCH MORE LIKELY to be disciplined starting in elementary school for breaking the rules than white kids are (not because they’re more likely to break them, but because they’re more likely assumed to be breaking them). Anyone can find the exceptional cases, and you just found one.

    You might not realize this, but affirmative action does not allow someone who is UNQUALIFIED to be hired/admitted to a school over someone who is QUALIFIED. It is illegal to establish an arbitrary quota system, and race cannot even be a “tie-breaking” factor. All of this has been decided by the courts already. Affirmative Action only allows race to be considered as a factor, and does not violate the 14th amendment because diversity (in he classroom) is considered a compelling state interest in and of itself.

    It’s not just about income — the roots of classism do not go as deep as the roots of racism in this country. You’re speaking from a place of ignorance and should sit down with the refugee and learn his story, and maybe you’ll see why the school let him in.

    • Sven says:

      I come from a country where it is impossible for me to go to a Mechanical Engineering degree because whites are just not accepted to any of them. Med school too. They also fired all the white engineers (because we need more black ones) from the electrical company only to have to rehire them when the constant brown-outs got too bad. The black against white violence was so bad in the 90’s that the population of whites dropped via emigration from 20% to 7%. It has since become more egalitarian, but I moved from this. My grandmother lost relatives in the genocide against whites in Zimbabwe. Luckly for me my Dad is smart and worked hard to a place of some privilege in America and paid out of pocket (with little life saving from the moves) for University in America. Other members of my family were not as lucky, they worked their ass off sleeping on the floor of a shop at night in Australia. This refugee moved to America when he was younger than me and was given a huge UN-funded social support network that he and his parents (who are the actual first runners) have thrived in. Many years later he tried to use the “woe-es-me” card on me to pass him despite not handing anything in and bombing all the exams because he was too focused on work. Keep in mind that he had no communication about any of this until 2 days after the class ended. His story may be fantastic, but that is not a good character make.

      My point is not that these programs should not exist, it is that there are freeloaders. This guy barely remembers what his parents ran from, yet he still tries to use this story. His parents defiantly needed a step up to get started in this country, they did not have a job nor qualifications to run to and to banish them to a life of poverty would be terrible. My student has demonstrated his commitment to school (my class is not the only he failed) and I believe that someone more deserving should get the leg up that he is getting.

      I put a big label on the kids that were acting “gheto”, there were some in the program that really hit the books and were shining examples. Others fought and failed classes. I chose that example because it served to greatly reinforce the racism in that community. The program back-fired because the fighting-and-failing black kids were given too much leeway that came to a head when the teacher was knocked out. That particular act was senseless, the kid had no respect for her and was mentally fine (my brother sat next to him in that class). These kids are given an opportunity, and there is a limited number of bus seats. I reckon the kids that squander it should be left off the bus next time around. School integration in general is fucked up from the start because America is so badly segregated. How the hell do you go about fixing the glaring just below the surface racism that is so rampant in this country if kids cannot play together and parents avoid each other.

      My english teacher would kill me for 2 mini-essays, but you get my point.

      • Brian says:

        I’m sorry to hear about what seems like a very difficult childhood for you. It strikes me, though, that your past experience has created in you certain opinions and prejudices that do not hold the same value in this country.

        And I agree that in some cases, affirmative action backfires — the student who seemed like he would be successful is not, for whatever reason. But the general admissions process backfires as well. Some people fail, and that’s just how the world works. That doesn’t mean that we should be setting public policy based on the exceptional cases.

        Much of the racism that exists around people “acting ghetto,” and one of the reasons I was frustrated by your original comment, is the result of not understanding African-American culture. What some priviliged whites see as ignorance/stupidity is actually a cultural thing and linguistic phenomenon (African American Vernacular English) and not necessarily a question of intelligence.

        And I told you that I thought violence was always wrong, but again — the reason the disparity might have existed might have been a result of learning disabilities and special education requirements. If that student had been on an IEP, the process of disciplining him would have been different, and it becomes much harder to suspend/expel someone with any sort of IEP or 504 plan. You could also argue that they might not be the most successful at the new school, but they’re the ones who need it the most. It’s a complicated sociological issue and there are always going to be bumps in the road.

        I love the comment. I created this site so that people could comment. I disagree with you (and your labeling of the situations you’ve described as affirmative action, when in fact they might be something entirely different) but it is important to have well-considered discussion. Might I ask how you came across my blog? You don’t strike me as someone I know personally, so I’m curious.

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