A shallow, reductive version of diversity that first gained a foothold in progressive political spaces has rapidly spread across American institutions and the corporate world. It values skin color and other inherited characteristics above all else, largely ignores class issues, and overlooks the benefits of real diversity, like the anti-fragile resilience created by fostering people with different viewpoints. Yet, despite the many flaws and dangers of this new orthodoxy—or perhaps because of them—anyone who challenges it, risks damage to their career and social life.
Just look at the case of Denise Young Smith. Young Smith spent almost two decades working her way up in Apple, becoming one of the few black people to ever reach its executive team. She was named vice president of diversity and inclusion, and in 2017 traveled to the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia.
At the summit, she was asked by a reporter whether black women would be a priority in her new role promoting diversity in the company. In her answer, she described a lonely rise through the ranks: “I’ve been black and a woman for a long time. I have been a first, I’ve been an only,” she said. She talked about hearing from other black women in the industry who shared stories about people assuming they were the assistant or secretary rather than the manager.
Her words were a powerful testament to anyone who has ever been stereotyped or been on the receiving end of low expectations due to the color of their skin.
But then, despite all her years of hard work and accomplishments, she made a fatal mistake and breached the etiquette of high liberalism’s diversity culture. “You asked me about my work at Apple, or in particular, who do I focus on?” she said to the reporter. “I focus on everyone. Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color or the women or the LGBT or whatever because that means they’re carrying that around ... Because that means that we are carrying that around on our foreheads,” she replied.
Then she uttered the sentence that really got her into trouble: “And I’ve often told people a story—there can be 12 white blue-eyed blond men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation,” she noted.
Within a week, the uproar over her comments forced Young Smith to write an apology. A few weeks later, her departure from the company was announced. She was replaced by Christie Smith, a white woman.
Neither Apple nor Young Smith has directly connected her departure to the controversy over her comments but they didn’t have to for the point to be made. The contemporary “diversity culture,” which I had first witnessed in progressive organizations, has spread across the entire corporate world and is enforced by a highly educated activist class. And what the culture dictated in this case was that Young Smith had to be punished for stating an obvious moral truth—that people are individuals, whose experiences and identities are not reducible to their race or outward appearance. Her humiliation served as an example and a warning to others: If a black female executive could be defenestrated for expressing the mildest criticism of the high-liberal definition of diversity as a matter purely of inherited background, then anyone could be.
My entire professional life, I’ve been a member of the progressive-industrial complex, jumping from think tanks to political action committees to left-wing publications and nonprofits. A few years ago, a troubling thought occurred to me: Had I ever been hired because of my ethnic or religious background?
I’ve worked in so many different organizations that touted their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity that I wondered if some well-meaning liberal hiring manager could have brought me onboard, not because they judged me the most qualified for the job, but because they thought my name and appearance would shore up their public image among other high-culture liberals.
To most Muslims in America, this is probably an absurd thought to have. Research has shown that Arab-sounding names tend to suffer, not benefit, from discrimination—one study from 2011 found that applicants with Arab-sounding names had to send two resumes for every one resume sent by job seekers with a white-sounding name in order to get a callback for an interview. This gap is even bigger than the commonly cited one for African American names.
But the progressive job network is not the same as the rest of the American economy—it is, on average, wealthier, better educated, and obviously more liberal. Within the rarefied environment of professional progressivism, racial diversity is not only seen as an inherent good, it is increasingly demanded by younger staffers and necessary to maintain status and reputation with the public. And what was once an ethos unique to progressive spaces has spread throughout the wider white-collar economy, as corporations spend billions of dollars promoting racial diversity.
True, there are many special advantages that people receive through no contribution of their own—physically attractive people, for instance, receive all kinds of benefits.
But that’s a reason for firms to think harder about making their hiring processes less biased, not more biased, by using more objective measures to recruit and hire employees who can help produce the best goods and services. It should also be a spur to take a real look at what diversity is, beyond corporate PR mantras and progressive slogans, and why, as Americans, we value it in the first place.
Cultural diversity can be an asset to a workplace because it provides varied perspectives and ways of thinking about the world. One study from 2018 found that global Esports teams with greater cultural diversity make more money. Single-country teams won 30% less prize money on average. For every representative from another country the team added, prize money would jump almost 32%, all else being equal. The reason for this, the researchers suggested, is because different cultures can look at the same sets of challenges in different ways, and so in a given situation having people from a greater number of backgrounds increases the likelihood that one of them will have the experiences or perspective geared to success in that particular task. Intellectual diversity, which necessitates different thought processes—each with their own strengths and gaps—can be a powerful tool for enhancing teams and achieving better outcomes, whether it be in the workplace or our system of government.
But too often our conversations about diversity are shallow and focused only on that narrow set of characteristics that is politically valuable. These conversations are most pernicious when they obsess over race, giving illegitimate power to what is a social fiction, which is why I would feel shame or guilt if I ever found out I was hired to any position, or handed any form of charity, solely due to the color of my skin. I want to believe that my accomplishments are my own and that what I have to add comes from my ideas and experiences, not an arbitrary characteristic that has value as a chip in a system of social status. Moreover, the knowledge that I was granted a special favor due to the accident of my birth would mean the opportunity was denied to someone else.
Young Smith had to be punished for stating an obvious moral truth—that people are individuals, whose experiences and identities are not reducible to their race or outward appearance.
While liberal diversity culture can go as far as advocating for outright racial quotas, there is very little discussion of promoting differing modes of thought or true multiculturalism. In fact, in the progressive spaces where I have worked, it increasingly appears that the desired outcome is for employees to look different but think exactly the same; the end state is a monoculture that defeats the whole point of meaningful diversity. Where, for instance, are the liberal publications preaching the value of diversity that are also recruiting more pro-life writers? Polling shows Hispanics, America’s most populous minority group, tend to be more conservative on abortion issues than the rest of the population, a position that has nothing to do with race and everything to do with religious values.
Perhaps, it should be no surprise that moral panics about race have seized the liberal upper-middle class in recent weeks. This group of people has so little in the way of substantive disagreements, that arguments for promotion via race are simply an extension of office politics by other means. Yet, to merely write this all off as the ideological extremism of an idle class misses just how damaging it is—to the country and to the value of true diversity—to have the concept hijacked and tainted in this way.
In a multiethnic, pluralistic country it is crucial that meaningful opportunities be extended to every corner of society so that no one feels like they are left out due to the amount of melanin in their skin. I recall a story a friend told me during former President Obama’s campaign; his mother was a teacher in Georgia who taught a number of African American children.
He told me that Obama’s campaign was inspirational to them, and there was a noticeable change in their school performance. For years, we had been told and had believed that only a white person could be president. The fact Obama ran a competitive campaign and went on to win produced a cultural change in America because it disproved the idea that racism was such an invincible cosmic force that the majority of Americans would never vote for a black, biracial man to lead them.
But that doesn’t mean we should start appointing people to positions because of the color of their skin. Obama won a hard-fought, underdog campaign where he bent over backwards not to make himself the archetype of any particular racial or ethnic group, nor ask people to vote for him out of charity or obligation. He describes rising above such tribal identity beautifully in his memoir The Audacity of Hope:
As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.
Like Obama, I want to take satisfaction in my accomplishments without thinking that I was given any advantage due to the color of my skin.
And it turns out, I’m not alone. A recent Pew poll shows that 74% of Americans say companies should make decisions about hiring and promotions by only taking a person’s qualifications into account, “even if it results in less diversity”—that includes a majority of every single racial group. By a similar margin, Americans oppose the use of racial preferences in college admissions.
If those facts surprise you, perhaps it demonstrates my point. Homogenizing racial groups—either through old-fashioned biological racism or the woke epistemology of flattened “lived experiences” our melanin content supposedly imparts—hides the great diversity of thought within our ranks. Our diversity culture will remain shallow until it learns to look past the color of a person’s skin.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.