TOP DOWN OR BOTTOM UP?

Classical music and professional basketball have something in common. The link may challenge some preconceptions about race.

The National Basketball Association, re-starting its season July 30, comprises 80 percent Black players. This racial makeup hardly represents a cross-section of the United States. Problem?

No way. Teams and fans want championships. That requires the best players.

Can you imagine the NBA—which once limited the number of Blacks—deciding that diversity overrides talent? Commissioner Adam Silver announcing that next season, Blacks—13 percent of America’s population—will be allotted 13 percent of roster spots?

Me, neither.

What about classical music? New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini (July 16) suggests that orchestras—heavily white—end the practice of blind auditions to achieve greater diversity. That was blind auditions’ original intent.

I sense a slippery slope.

In blind auditions, musicians play screened from judges. Is a candidate male or female, black, white, Asian, other? Judges hear the mastery of instrument and material. Maybe potential. They hire based on a word that has taken on a negative connotation—merit.

Tommasini believes that blind auditions fail minorities because orchestras don’t represent their communities’ ethnic makeup. Thus 40 percent of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s musicians should be Black. Nearly half the chairs in the Los Angeles Philharmonic should be filled by Latinos. This, while the vast majority of symphony-goers may be white.

I suggest a middle ground between merit and representation. A candidate who stands out at a blind audition should be hired. But a toss-up among several qualified candidates? Hire a minority.

On the other hand . . .

If Black and white hoopers compete for the same spot at the end of an NBA bench—15 active players—should the team hire a white player so the majority of fans can identify?

Back to the symphony world. Tommasini acknowledges a challenge that quotas won’t meet: “Some leaders in the field . . . say racial diversity is missing in the so-called pipeline that leads from learning an instrument to summer programs to conservatories to graduate education to elite jobs.”

True. Pipelines build for the future. Minority communities require increased resources devoted to pre-schools, teachers, WiFi connectivity, healthcare services and job training to improve lives from the bottom up.

In Los Angeles, Kadima Conservatory of Music—my son Yosi studies classical violin there—exemplifies this. Kadima trains young musicians of all ethnicities. Every child and adult must demonstrate talent to enter the program and work hard to stay in it. This pipeline and others like it will send prepared minorities to top orchestras and other classical groups.

If minorities are underrepresented in classical music and other fields—as opposed to the NBA and popular entertainment—encouraging interest in classical music and producing minority artists must begin with young children. This bottoms-up approach places us on a long and challenging road given the environments in which many minority youngsters live. To meet those challenges, Americans must take a step back to understand the dogged patience required—patience we seldom exhibit.

Achieving true equality of opportunity and the results it can produce demands a long-overdue commitment to communities in need. Also the wisdom to understand that shunning talented people because of their race or ethnicity adds new injustices to old ones.

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