Sullivan: The Cascading Complexity Of Diversity And why the New York Times still doesn’t get it.

Sullivan has a point. While measuring and tracking representation is essential, there is also a need to recognize the complexities involved, not least of which are the intersectionalities among race, gender, LGTBQ, education, place of birth etc.

So while in a broad sense organizations and institutions should broadly reflect the diversity of society and diversity, an exact match is virtually impossible and tracking over time can assess progress.

Representation gaps are useful indicators of systemic barriers and racism. But like many indicators, they should be used to further understanding of the nature and time period that influence those indicators. For example, underrepresentation of Blacks in government policy positions may reflect a lower percentage of Black university graduates which in turn reflect systemic racism in streaming Black kids away from academic programs:

In a fascinating series of tweets, and a memo, the News Guild of New York — the union that represents 1200 New York Times employees — recently set out its goals for the newspaper, especially with respect to its employees of color. Money quote: “Our workforce should reflect our home. The Times should set a goal to have its workforce demographics reflect the make-up of the city — 24 percent Black, and over 50 percent people of color — by 2025.” It also recommends “sensitivity reads” at the beginning of any story process, and wants a pipeline for jobs with a minimum of 50 percent people of color at every stage of recruitment.

It’s a very thorough attempt to ensure that antiracism, as it is currently understood, is embedded into every individual’s job, every story, every department, every decision in the paper of record. But what I want to focus on is the core test the Guild uses to judge whether the Times is itself a racist institution. This is what I’ll call the Kendi test: does the staff reflect the demographics of New York City as a whole?

I’m naming this after Ibram X. Kendi because his core contribution to the current debate on race is the notion that “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups” is racist. Intent is irrelevant. I don’t think many sane people believe A.G. Sulzberger or Dean Baquet are closet bigots. But systemic racism, according to Kendi, exists in any institution if there is simply any outcome that isn’t directly reflective of the relevant racial demographics of the surrounding area.

The appeal of this argument is its simplicity. You can tell if a place is enabling systemic racism merely by counting the people of color in it; and you can tell if a place isn’t by the same rubric. The drawback, of course, is that the world isn’t nearly as simple. Take the actual demographics of New York City. On some measures, the NYT is already a mirror of NYC. Its staff is basically 50 – 50 on sex (with women a slight majority of all staff on the business side, and slight minority in editorial). And it’s 15 percent Asian on the business side, 10 percent in editorial, compared with 13.9 percent of NYC’s population.

But its black percentage of staff — 10 percent in business, 9 percent in editorial — needs more than doubling to reflect demographics. Its Hispanic/Latino staff amount to only 8 percent in business and 5 percent in editorial, compared with 29 percent of New York City’s demographics, the worst discrepancy for any group. NYT’s Newsroom Fellowship, bringing in the very next generation, is 80 percent female, 60 percent people of color (including Asians), and, so far as I can tell, one lone white man. And it’s why NYT’s new hires are 43 percent people of color, a definition that includes Asian-Americans.

But notice how this new goal obviously doesn’t reflect New York City’s demographics in many other ways. It draws overwhelmingly from the college educated, who account for only 37 percent of New Yorkers, leaving more than 60 percent of the city completed unreflected in the staffing. It cannot include the nearly 19 percent of New Yorkers in poverty, because a NYT salary would end that. It would also have to restrict itself to the literate, and, according to Literacy New York, 25 percent of people in Manhattan “lack basic prose literary skills” along with 37 percent in Brooklyn and 41 percent in the Bronx. And obviously, it cannot reflect the 14 percent of New Yorkers who are of retirement age, or the 21 percent who have yet to reach 18. For that matter, I have no idea what the median age of a NYT employee is — but I bet it isn’t the same as all of New York City.

Around 10 percent of staffers would have to be Republicans (and if the paper of record nationally were to reflect the country as a whole, and not just NYC, around 40 percent would have to be). Some 6 percent of the newsroom would also have to be Haredi or Orthodox Jews — a community you rarely hear about in diversity debates, but one horribly hit by a hate crime surge. 48 percent of NYT employees would have to agree that religion is “very important” in their lives; and 33 percent would be Catholic. And the logic of these demographic quotas is that if a group begins to exceed its quota — say Jews, 13 percent — a Jewish journalist would have to retire for any new one to be hired. Taking this proposal seriously, then, really does require explicit use of race in hiring, which is illegal, which is why the News Guild tweet and memo might end up causing some trouble if the policy is enforced.

And all this leaves the category of “white” completely without nuance. We have no idea whether “white” people are Irish or Italian or Russian or Polish or Canadians in origin. Similarly, we do not know if “black” means African immigrants, or native black New Yorkers, or people from the Caribbean. 37 percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born. How does the Guild propose to mirror that? Ditto where staffers live in NYC. How many are from Staten Island, for example, or the Bronx, two places of extremely different ethnic populations? These categories, in other words, are incredibly crude if the goal really is to reflect the actual demographics of New York City. But it isn’t, of course.

My point is that any attempt to make a specific institution entirely representative of the demographics of its location will founder on the sheer complexity of America’s demographic story and the nature of the institution itself. Journalism, for example, is not a profession sought by most people; it’s self-selecting for curious, trouble-making, querulous assholes who enjoy engaging with others and tracking down the truth (at least it used to be). There’s no reason this skillset or attitude will be spread evenly across populations. It seems, for example, that disproportionate numbers of Jews are drawn to it, from a culture of high literacy, intellectualism, and social activism. So why on earth shouldn’t they be over-represented?

And that’s true of other institutions too: are we to police Broadway to make sure that gays constitute only 4 percent of the employees? Or, say, nursing, to ensure that the sex balance is 50-50? Or a construction company for gender parity? Or a bike messenger company’s staff to be reflective of the age demographics of the city? Just take publishing — an industry not far off what the New York Times does. 74 percent of its employees are women. Should there be a hiring freeze until the men catch up?

The more you think about it, the more absurdly utopian the Kendi project turns out to be. That’s because its core assumption is that any demographic discrepancies between a profession or institution and its locale are entirely a function of oppression. That’s how Kendi explains racial inequality in America, and specifically denies any alternative explanation. So how is it that a white supremacist country has whites earning considerably less on average than Asian-Americans? How does Kendi explain the fact that the most successful minority group in America are Indian-Americans — with a median income nearly twice that of the national median? Here’s a partial list of the national origins of US citizens whose median earnings are higher than that of white people in America: Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, Iranian, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, Armenian, Hmong, Vietnamese. One group earning less: British-American.

You can argue that these groups are immigrants and self-selecting for those with higher IQs, education, motivation, and drive. It’s true. But notice that this argument cannot be deployed under the Kendi test: any inequality is a result of racism, remember? Cultural differences between groups, class, education, IQ, family structure: all these are irrelevant. So how is it that immigrant Nigerian-Americans have a slightly higher median household income than British-Americans in the US? The crudeness of the model proposed for hiring and firing at the New York Times can make no sense of this at all.

It’s true, of course, that historical injustices have deeply hurt African-Americans in particular in hobbling opportunity, which is why African-Americans who are descendants of slaves should be treated as an entirely separate case from all other racial categories. No other group has experienced anything like the toll of slavery, segregation and brutality that African-Americans have. This discrimination was enforced by the state and so the state has an obligation to make things right.

But it is absurd to argue that racism is the sole reason for every racial difference in outcome in the extraordinarily diverse and constantly shifting racial demographics of New York City or the US. And it’s ludicrously reductionist to argue that oppression is the exclusive cause of differing outcomes for various groups, including women. America is too complex to be fit into these tidy, unifactorial boxes. It has far too many unpredictable individuals, defying odds, redefining identity, combining races and cultures, exercising agency, and complicating every simple narrative you want to impose on it. In fact, to reduce all this complexity to a quick, crude check of race and sex to identify your fellow American is a kind of new racism itself. It has taken off because we find it so easy to slip back into crude generalizations.

America is also a much more hopeful place than the woke left would have you believe — a country with a nearly unique mix of races, religions, and identities, in which whites are just one part of a kaleidoscopic whole, and not the most successful. And for all those reasons, attempting to categorize people in the crudest racial terms, and social engineering them into a just society where every institution looks like every other one, is such a nightmare waiting to happen. It’s a brutal, toxic, racist template being imposed on a dazzling varied and constantly shifting country.

But of course, this explicit reintroduction of crude racism under the guise of antiracism is already happening. How many institutions will it tear apart, and how much racial resentment will it foment, before it’s done?


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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