Racial Favoritism and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Earlier this year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) decided to disinvite two predominantly white high school choral groups from performance in the ASO's holiday concert. The ASO's decision was reportedly motivated by the high schools' lack of diversity, which caused a stir among people who believe in racial justice as opposed to racial favoritism.

The ASO didn't admit that their decision was racially motived. In fact, ASO vice president of marketing Charlie Wade offered only benign reasons for their decision in public. To get to the bottom of what happened, I used the Georgia Open Records Act to find out ASO's real reason for disinviting the non-diverse choral groups.

Previously unpublished emails reveal that the ASO's true reason was to "diversify the chorus" and to add "a chorus featuring more African-American kids," as ASO marketing VP Charlie Wade privately wrote. This is blatant racial favoritism, reflecting the exact opposite of the ASO's public remarks.

Prior to obtaining the emails, I had been critical of the ASO's astounding hypocrisy with regard to diversity. There are 100 musicians comprising the ASO, and only one is black, yet the ASO had the gall to implicitly fault local Walton and Lassiter high schools for being non-diverse. Now, after reading the emails, we should add dishonesty and racial favoritism to the ASO management's flaws.

Since the controversy began, Mr. Wade has offered bland, bureaucratic reasons for ASO's decision, such as wanting to "open the program to other [choral] groups" as the Marietta Daily Journal reported. "Two years ago we told the choral directors from Lassiter and Walton that, after their December 2011 concerts with us -- capping a four-year run -- we would invite other high school choirs to sing with the ASO beginning in 2012," Mr. Wade publicly claimed.

Missing from those evasive remarks is the blatantly racial criteria that motivated ASO's decision, a motivation plainly stated in emails obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act. In explaining why ASO is "making a change" of choral groups, Wade wrote to Cobb school officials in May 2011 that "we were interested last year in trying to find a way to diversify the chorus and discussed adding another school chorus, but space being limited and the inability to reduce the number of singers from your schools to make room brought us to a dead end." In a separate email, Wade specifically mentions "adding a chorus featuring more African-American kids -- and we need to continue trying to figure that one out." Judging from the emails, "diversifying the chorus" and "adding a chorus featuring more African-American kids" appear to be the sole reason that ASO decided to drop the Walton and Lassiter choral groups.

Mr. Wade, in his public statements, didn't mention that his decision was, in essence, affirmative action. Mr. Wade's evasions were bad enough, but the farce reached a crescendo when 11 Alive news asked ASO what their own diversity numbers were. In response, Melissa A.E. Sanders, ASO's senior director of communications, had this shifty justification to offer: "It is against our policy to share the race and/or ethnicity of our musicians, so I am unable to share that information." Cue the snare drum.

It's against ASO policy to share the race of their musicians, but it is their policy to explicitly take race into account when choosing choral groups. The hypocrisy and racial double standards on display here are astonishing.

The ASO maintains a website where interested members of the public can see exactly what type of diversity the ASO itself practices. According to my tally, which anyone may verify, just 1 out of 100 members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is black. This count includes four conductors, fifteen first violin, three section violin, twelve second violin, ten viola, ten cello, eight bass, fourteen woodwinds, sixteen brass, five percussion, and three keyboard players.

Yet, ASO president Stanley Romanstein had the nerve to claim, "We want the stages of the Atlanta Symphony, whether here, Verizon (Wireless Amphitheatre), or Chastain Park to reflect the diversity of Atlanta." The ASO is manifestly not serious about reaching such a level of diversity among their musicians or staff.

Presumably, ASO management wouldn't lay off orchestra members for being insufficiently diverse. If they did, it would be blatant racial discrimination. It's rather low that they would reserve that treatment for student volunteers, who are not protected by anti-discrimination laws because they aren't considered employees.

The fact of the matter is that the ASO couldn't achieve diversity among their musicians if they tried. Of the musicians in U.S. symphonies, 87% are white, according to a 2008 study by the League of American Orchestras. There is a very good reason for that racial disparity: interest in classical music is not proportionally distributed among racial groups. Hence the ASO president's goal of making "the stages of the Atlanta Symphony... reflect the diversity of Atlanta" is an absolute absurdity. To reach that goal, the ASO would have to alter the cultural preferences of racial groups, and reallocate musical tastes among those groups, a goal not easily achieved in a free society, not even in public schools.

Yet, the ASO wants to engineer the façade of diversity. They cannot and will not create that façade among their musicians. Understanding this reality, the ASO is now going to use student choral groups as racial props to garnish their stage with students who are more diverse than the members of the orchestra will ever be. This is cynical racial tokenism. Since the ASO doesn't have to comply with non-discrimination laws vis-à-vis student volunteers, they are free to invite or disinvite chorus groups based solely on the basis of race, in order to cheaply and superficially achieve the racial aesthetic preferred by ASO management.

ASO gave a valuable lesson to the students of the Walton and Lassiter high schools. The students will soon apply for college, where diversity dogmas and racial preferences will rear their heads once again. Their racial identity will in many cases set these students back in college admissions. This is unfortunate, but it's better to learn some lessons sooner rather than later.

There is ultimately a positive outcome to this chapter of the story: The ASO musicians themselves are "in dismay" over their management's politically correct handling of this matter. The musicians are now bypassing the ASO management to hold a school fundraiser with the Walton and Lassiter high schools. For that, the musicians deserve another ovation.

John T. Bennett (MA, University of Chicago, Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences '07; JD, Emory University School of Law '11) is a writer living in Atlanta, GA. Comments, criticism, and news tips are welcome at jthomasbennett@gmail.com.

Earlier this year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) decided to disinvite two predominantly white high school choral groups from performance in the ASO's holiday concert. The ASO's decision was reportedly motivated by the high schools' lack of diversity, which caused a stir among people who believe in racial justice as opposed to racial favoritism.

The ASO didn't admit that their decision was racially motived. In fact, ASO vice president of marketing Charlie Wade offered only benign reasons for their decision in public. To get to the bottom of what happened, I used the Georgia Open Records Act to find out ASO's real reason for disinviting the non-diverse choral groups.

Previously unpublished emails reveal that the ASO's true reason was to "diversify the chorus" and to add "a chorus featuring more African-American kids," as ASO marketing VP Charlie Wade privately wrote. This is blatant racial favoritism, reflecting the exact opposite of the ASO's public remarks.

Prior to obtaining the emails, I had been critical of the ASO's astounding hypocrisy with regard to diversity. There are 100 musicians comprising the ASO, and only one is black, yet the ASO had the gall to implicitly fault local Walton and Lassiter high schools for being non-diverse. Now, after reading the emails, we should add dishonesty and racial favoritism to the ASO management's flaws.

Since the controversy began, Mr. Wade has offered bland, bureaucratic reasons for ASO's decision, such as wanting to "open the program to other [choral] groups" as the Marietta Daily Journal reported. "Two years ago we told the choral directors from Lassiter and Walton that, after their December 2011 concerts with us -- capping a four-year run -- we would invite other high school choirs to sing with the ASO beginning in 2012," Mr. Wade publicly claimed.

Missing from those evasive remarks is the blatantly racial criteria that motivated ASO's decision, a motivation plainly stated in emails obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act. In explaining why ASO is "making a change" of choral groups, Wade wrote to Cobb school officials in May 2011 that "we were interested last year in trying to find a way to diversify the chorus and discussed adding another school chorus, but space being limited and the inability to reduce the number of singers from your schools to make room brought us to a dead end." In a separate email, Wade specifically mentions "adding a chorus featuring more African-American kids -- and we need to continue trying to figure that one out." Judging from the emails, "diversifying the chorus" and "adding a chorus featuring more African-American kids" appear to be the sole reason that ASO decided to drop the Walton and Lassiter choral groups.

Mr. Wade, in his public statements, didn't mention that his decision was, in essence, affirmative action. Mr. Wade's evasions were bad enough, but the farce reached a crescendo when 11 Alive news asked ASO what their own diversity numbers were. In response, Melissa A.E. Sanders, ASO's senior director of communications, had this shifty justification to offer: "It is against our policy to share the race and/or ethnicity of our musicians, so I am unable to share that information." Cue the snare drum.

It's against ASO policy to share the race of their musicians, but it is their policy to explicitly take race into account when choosing choral groups. The hypocrisy and racial double standards on display here are astonishing.

The ASO maintains a website where interested members of the public can see exactly what type of diversity the ASO itself practices. According to my tally, which anyone may verify, just 1 out of 100 members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is black. This count includes four conductors, fifteen first violin, three section violin, twelve second violin, ten viola, ten cello, eight bass, fourteen woodwinds, sixteen brass, five percussion, and three keyboard players.

Yet, ASO president Stanley Romanstein had the nerve to claim, "We want the stages of the Atlanta Symphony, whether here, Verizon (Wireless Amphitheatre), or Chastain Park to reflect the diversity of Atlanta." The ASO is manifestly not serious about reaching such a level of diversity among their musicians or staff.

Presumably, ASO management wouldn't lay off orchestra members for being insufficiently diverse. If they did, it would be blatant racial discrimination. It's rather low that they would reserve that treatment for student volunteers, who are not protected by anti-discrimination laws because they aren't considered employees.

The fact of the matter is that the ASO couldn't achieve diversity among their musicians if they tried. Of the musicians in U.S. symphonies, 87% are white, according to a 2008 study by the League of American Orchestras. There is a very good reason for that racial disparity: interest in classical music is not proportionally distributed among racial groups. Hence the ASO president's goal of making "the stages of the Atlanta Symphony... reflect the diversity of Atlanta" is an absolute absurdity. To reach that goal, the ASO would have to alter the cultural preferences of racial groups, and reallocate musical tastes among those groups, a goal not easily achieved in a free society, not even in public schools.

Yet, the ASO wants to engineer the façade of diversity. They cannot and will not create that façade among their musicians. Understanding this reality, the ASO is now going to use student choral groups as racial props to garnish their stage with students who are more diverse than the members of the orchestra will ever be. This is cynical racial tokenism. Since the ASO doesn't have to comply with non-discrimination laws vis-à-vis student volunteers, they are free to invite or disinvite chorus groups based solely on the basis of race, in order to cheaply and superficially achieve the racial aesthetic preferred by ASO management.

ASO gave a valuable lesson to the students of the Walton and Lassiter high schools. The students will soon apply for college, where diversity dogmas and racial preferences will rear their heads once again. Their racial identity will in many cases set these students back in college admissions. This is unfortunate, but it's better to learn some lessons sooner rather than later.

There is ultimately a positive outcome to this chapter of the story: The ASO musicians themselves are "in dismay" over their management's politically correct handling of this matter. The musicians are now bypassing the ASO management to hold a school fundraiser with the Walton and Lassiter high schools. For that, the musicians deserve another ovation.

John T. Bennett (MA, University of Chicago, Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences '07; JD, Emory University School of Law '11) is a writer living in Atlanta, GA. Comments, criticism, and news tips are welcome at jthomasbennett@gmail.com.