The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I wrote on Thursday about USC Business School professor Greg Patton (who, among other things, is a specialist on business in China) being taken out of his business communication course, and being replaced by a different professor. Prof. Patton's offense: In a discussion of "filler words," such as "um" and "er," he gave the Mandarin "neige" (literally, "that") as a foreign example—and he pronounced the word, as do many other Mandarin speakers, similarly to "nigger." The word is apparently indeed used, routinely, as a filler word in Mandarin.
The USC business school dean's actions, and his abject apology for Prof. Patton's actions, has been met (rightly, I think) with a good deal of criticism. I blogged about one example, a letter from nearly 100 USC graduates who say the school's actions "cast insult toward the Chinese language." But here I want to suggest that the "Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022" letter demanding the action, and in particular this passage, actually risks harming the employment prospects of black students:
Our mental health has been affected. It is an uneasy feeling allowing him to have the power over our grades. We would rather not take his course than to endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities and by extension creates an unwelcome environment for us Black students. His careless comment has impacted our ability to focus adequately on our studies.
Let's consider a rational employer who is wondering whether to hire a black applicant to work in China, or anywhere else where the applicant would have to work around Mandarin speakers (whether those speakers form most of the environment or only a modest portion). And let's assume the employer actually believes the factual claims in the letter.
The employer, I take it, will wonder: How will the applicant be able to effectively function around Mandarin speakers, who say the same thing the professor said, except much more often? (To be sure, the word is apparently pronounced differently depending on the speaker's regional accent, but it often will be pronounced this way.)
The applicant's mental health, the employer has heard, will be affected. The applicant will be emotionally exhausted. The applicant will be unable to focus adequately on his job. The applicant will feel that the Mandarin speakers are disregarding cultural diversity and his sensitivities (presumably in the process having little interest in their cultural diversity).
Will the applicant be able to work effectively with the Mandarin speakers? Smile and sell products or negotiate deals with them? Be enthusiastic about a job that, by hypothesis, is affecting his mental health, that is emotionally exhausting him, and on which he is unable to focus?
Now say even that the employer reads the letter as limited to relatively high-status, powerful people like a professor saying the word, and thinks that ordinary coworkers or clients' saying it will have zero effect on the applicant's mental health and emotional state. (Not clear why there would be such a sharp difference based on the speaker's power, rather than perhaps a gradient, where ordinary speakers' saying the word would just have a slighter effect on mental health and cause a slighter degree of emotional exhaustion and a lesser loss of focus; but say this is so.) Still, the applicant might have to hear the word when his superiors say it while talking Mandarin; or when a powerful customer of the business says it; or when it's said by teachers speaking Mandarin in a training session within the company.
And the employer may well conclude that it's perilous to try to sort black applicants who have this reaction from those who don't. Imagine the employer decides to try to do such sorting, by asking each interviewee this:
Many of our employees, business partners, and clients are Mandarin speakers, and we have read that some people find it affects their mental health, emotional composure, and ability to focus when they hear Mandarin speakers say a particular word that sounds somewhat like a racial slur. [In the atmosphere we see at USC, of course the employer will have to speak in this indirect way.] Are you a person who would be affected that way? Or would you be able to ignore such a word, knowing that the similarity is just an accident of the sort that happens with two such wildly unrelated languages?
Do you think the employer will feel safe asking this, and confident in the answer? Or will the employer be afraid that even asking such a question would lead to massive public outrage, or perhaps a discrimination claim by someone who says that, yes, his mental health would be affected by hearing the word?
So if the employer believes the USC students' letter, it seems to me the employer has three options:
- Demand that all the Mandarin speakers in the employer's workforce, and among the employer's clients, contractors, and others, change their way of saying utterly commonplace things in their native language. That's 900 million native speakers—all of them who deal with the employer will have to change the speaking habits of a lifetime, in the name of "cultural diversity and sensitivities."
- Not make any such demand, and hire the black applicant, expecting that the applicant will be often suffering damage to his mental health, emotional exhaustion, and loss of focus (and perhaps that the applicant will make similar complaints, to the government, to the public, or to others, when that happens).
- Quietly find some way to avoid hiring black applicants, who (he has been assured) suffer from this sort of mental and emotional condition that makes it hard for them to effectively work around the employer's employees and customers.
Option 3, it seems to me, is the more likely. That's especially so since it's much harder for plaintiffs to prove discriminatory failure to hire (given that the great bulk of all applicants of all races aren't hired) than to prove discriminatory firing or discriminatory treatment on the job; using this option in the U.S. would be illegal, but we're talking here about is likely to practically happen, not what would happen in a hypothetical world where everyone followed the law. And beyond that, some applicants will be applying for jobs with foreign companies in foreign countries, where U.S. antidiscrimination law doesn't apply.
Now all that is if the employer believes the claims of effect on mental health, of emotional exhaustion, and of loss of ability to focus. I must say that I'm quite skeptical of such claims, which seem to me like political assertions made in a political document ("political" in the sense of politics within the educational institution) and not demonstrable claims about mental health.
If anyone has any real studies that show that hearing a foreign word (whether from a professor or anyone else) that is a homonym for a racial slur actually affects mental health or causes emotional exhaustion, I'd love to see them; but I know of no such studies. My sense is that, just as black criminal lawyers and employment lawyers deal professionally and calmly with having to routinely see and hear (and sometimes write and say) the actual word "nigger" in witness interviews, briefs, oral arguments, and more, so black MBAs who have to routinely hear Mandarin speakers say "neige" aren't really mentally or emotionally damaged by the process.
But presumably the letter was written to be believed. And is it really a good idea for organizations of black students to make assertions that, if believed, will make black graduates less appealing to many rational employers?