Why I (no longer?) hate the phrase “underrepresented minorities”

February 13, 2009 at 4:52 am Leave a comment

I used to cringe with disgust whenever I heard of the so called “underrepresented minorities”. I would get all red in the face, hyperventilate, and start ranting about how supporting these people is just reverse discrimination, how it is taking money away from the most meritorious and so on, and so forth. To hell with all political correctness! Now don’t get me wrong, I think that underprivileged members of the society deserve some degree of stimulus so that the ones with the most potential are not hindered in their dreams by their poverty and so that we can avoid a polarization of the society a la France on the eve of the Revolution.  BUT, my reasoning so far has been that this stimulus should be applied on the basis of one’s financial status, NOT their ethnic background or the color of their skin. I have, however, been missing one important point…

During a lively discussion on the subject, a colleague of mine, himself a member of an underrepresented minority, brought to my attention the fact that successful members of underrepresented minorities are important ROLE MODELS for their comunities and beyond. A lot of Latinos or African Americans don’t even consider college as an option, but may change their mind if they see enough faces like their own on campuses – faces of students, but also of staff and faculty members. It sends a much more powerful message than hearing or reading a story of an underprivileged white guy who made it as a university professor. That is why I think Obama’s presidency is important, even though I don’t buy into the unbounded optimism about his political genius and miraculous economic skills. Sadly, poverty-struck Caucasian students don’t have such clear role models to identify with, so all we can do is make sure that we widely publicize the success stories of all underprivileged people irrespective of their race or skin color.

I am glad I started that discussion with my fellow scientist and that I was proven wrong. I guess maybe, just maybe, I won’t start frothing at the mouth and shout obscenities the next time I hear about underrepresented minorities needing a helping hand. Oh, and speaking of fairness, equal treatment, and frothing at the mouth, be sure to check out this story on the WIRED Science blog (here’s the original paper on the PNAS website).

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Entry filed under: Biomedical research, Health policy, Philosophy of science. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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