Americans have never ceased arguing over the merits of inclusion and diversity, but two recent events have reinvigorated those debates. And unexpectedly, they have also revealed—or perhaps re-emphasized—the limits of “diversity” as a justification for programs of racial and gender preference.
The first involves affirmative action in college admissions. Last week, the Trump administration announced its plan to direct the resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward admissions policies deemed discriminatory against white applicants. Broadly understood as an attack on affirmative action, this policy reflects the conservative belief that racial diversity is not a compelling enough interest to justify race-based preferences. Indeed, the announcement refers to “intentional race-based discrimination,” a clear statement of where the administration stands. The Department of Justice responded, saying this was just an investigation into claims that Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants—hardly a reassurance for those who see this as a wedge strategy to delegitimize affirmative action.
The second event involves Google, where a software engineer at the firm’s campus in Mountain View, California, wrote and circulated a 10-page memo criticizing its efforts at achieving gender and racial diversity. Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the engineer argued that the representation gap reflects biological differences between men and women, and that Google should not offer policies that facilitate diverse hiring. “Discriminating just to increase the representation of women in tech is as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts,” reads one bullet point.
The author recommends, instead, that Google promote “viewpoint diversity” by empowering employees with conservative beliefs, confronting its bias toward “diversity,” and ending “discriminatory practices” like separate programs and classes for underrepresented groups. The document, in short, is an argument for one form of affirmative action and against another.
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These events are of vastly different scales—federal pushback against dozens of universities versus a single critique at a single, albeit large, corporation—but they’re rooted in similar critiques of affirmative action and diversity. We should award opportunities on the basis of merit, not identity. Racial and gender diversity are superficial and secondary to diversity of ideas and ideologies. Or as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissent to the Supreme Court’s 2003 judgment upholding affirmative action at the University of Michigan, “ ‘Diversity,’ for all of its devotees, is more a fashionable catchphrase than it is a useful term … an aesthetic.”
To critics like those in the Trump administration or at Google, diversity is a pretext for unfair discrimination against those born outside a select predetermined class, usually black, brown, or female. “The very term ‘diversity’ craftily overshoots the actual goal in question. Mormons, paraplegics, people from Alaska, lesbians, Ayn Randians, and poor whites exert little pull on the heartstrings of admissions committees so committed to making campuses ‘look like America,’ ” wrote linguist and political commentator John McWhorter in a 2002 essay for City Journal, where he ridiculed the “diversity” criteria as essentially arbitrary and uninterested in the full scope of differences among Americans.
This was, and remains, a potent critique. The argument for diversity, for programs that facilitate its presence, is that schools and workplaces are enriched by the presence of different people from different backgrounds, especially those of race and gender. With a diverse classroom, both teaching and learning are improved; with a diverse workforce, companies are better able to adapt and improve. These arguments became ubiquitous after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, where it held that diversity was a compelling enough interest for universities and other institutions to use racial (and other) preferences. But if racial and gender diversity are compelling, why not ideological or political or regional diversity? What reason is there to reject the latter over the former, especially if promoting one impedes the other? And if the goal is ultimately better performance, why pursue anything that diminishes “merit?” Why discriminate to bring un- or underqualified candidates into an institution?
Which gets to the truth of the matter: We focus on gender and racial diversity because gender and race are the most salient identities for discrimination and disadvantage. There’s no doubt that people believe in diversity qua diversity, but it is also a bit of a smokescreen. As legal scholar Randall Kennedy notes in For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, diversity is a broadly acceptable rationale for affirmative action as it exists. It flatters the pragmatic instincts of many Americans; it is consistent with the meritocratic impulse (this candidate may not have the same score as a comparable white or male one, but he or she brings something real but unquantifiable to the table); and it avoids uncomfortable conversations around distributive justice and the R-word: reparations. It’s also essentially mandated by law—the Supreme Court has ruled out justifications rooted in historical unfairness. But when this stronger claim—that we prioritize racial and gender diversity over other kinds of diversity because it is an attempt to rectify discrimination against those groups, past and present—is left on the table, then the diversity rationale is all that remains, even if it can’t quite bear the weight required of it.
The background conditions of American society—rigid segregation in housing and education, broad inequalities in access to technology and learning, racial and gender stereotypes and prejudice—require some action to at least simulate an actual level playing field. And while it’s not adequate—affirmative action will not ameliorate racial or gender inequality—it remains a necessary form of distributive justice. Because of these policies, some individuals may not get that acceptance letter or job, but as Kennedy argues, “It is not unfair to enlist, to some extent, all Americans in that large, complex, and costly effort, including those who have had no hand in perpetrating racial wrongs. Membership in a polity entails contributing to the alleviation of its woes, just as it means sharing in the riches of its benefits.” In short, there is no a la carte patriotism.
It matters too that affirmative action isn’t malicious discrimination against men or white Americans; it isn’t an effort to stigmatize those groups or prevent their movement through American society. It is simply an attempt to make American life substantively fair instead of superficially neutral. (And in actual practice, it is rare that a white candidate is actively rejected in favor of a nonwhite one. Instead, candidates and applicants are accepted and rejected independent of each other.)
Diversity may not be the strongest basis for programs of racial and gender preference (although it means something that it has survived as such for almost 40 years), and there’s no question that any rationale would face harsh opposition. But if one believes seriously in inclusion, and if one acknowledges the actual disadvantages that mark the experiences of, for example, black women, then it’s difficult to sign on with either the Trump administration or the author of the memo at Google. Affirmative action isn’t perfect, but it’s better than keeping one’s head in the sand.