I had breakfast with a few of my buddies the other day, and after listening to them discuss a number of issues -- from old TV shows to local restaurants to Florida vacation condos -- I came away with questions about two particular issues.
The first one is race. One of my friends is a lawyer for a public employee union (one of the few of us who's still working). He's white, middle class, lives in the suburbs. He professes to be liberal. He belongs to a Unitarian church, volunteers at Habitat for Humanity, voted for Barack Obama both in 2008 and 2012.
Somehow we got talking about cellphones, and that led to discussing Blackberrys, and because they have keyboards, that in turn led us to reflect on whether any of us had taken typing in school. (I myself took typing in summer school, after 11th grade.) The lawyer said he signed up for typing, went to one class, and dropped out.
Then the lawyer started talking about the secretaries he once had in his office and how well they typed. He was particularly impressed with one woman who he said could type 80 words per minute. "That's really fast," he pointed out. "She didn't make any mistakes either. She was a great secretary." But she left work at some point -- he didn't explain why -- and suddenly he was talking about how they then had several black women who were secretaries for the firm, in the 1990s.
"They could type, maybe 35 words per minute," he scoffed.
"Actually, that's not too bad," one of the guys offered, "if they're accurate. I used to earn money typing papers for kids in college, and that's about what I did."
The lawyer acknowledged that, but according to him these secretaries were just not as good. "And all they did was complain," he went on to say, not in a rant, but just telling his anecdote. "But of course, we couldn't do anything about it, because they were black women, and we were white men."
And so here's the question: How do we ever get over the race issue as long as guys like this -- older white guys who profess to be liberal, who vote Democratic -- report this kind of personal experience about people they work with?
And I wonder how much he reported to us was accurate. Did those secretaries really type only 35 wpm -- less than half the speed on their white counterpart? Did the black secretaries really complain, like he said they did? And was he being forthright when he said they couldn't do anything because the lawyers were white, and the secretaries were black?
Was this fellow offering a moment of honesty about what we sometimes think of as affirmative action? Or was he being a racist? I know what my black friend at our community college would say: Racist all the way! Yet, all of the older white guys at the table, all of whom think of themselves as enlightened and non-racist, seemed to take the story as matter of fact.
Then there's the other issue. Fast forward to 2013. The lawyer said his firm doesn't have secretaries anymore. Nobody does. They have paralegals. Everyone does their own typing, not onto a typewriter but into a computer.
The firm replaced (I'm estimating now) roughly eight secretaries, making a decent wage, with five paralegals, who are more highly skilled, and more highly paid. But because there are only five of them instead of eight of them, they actually cost the firm less money.
Doesn't this kind of explain, in a microcosm, the unemployment problem we have today? The lawyers are doing just fine. The firm is doing well. The more highly skilled workers are making money. But the lower skilled personnel, the old secretaries . . . those jobs have been eliminated.
See the problem?