Features

The diversity trap

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

Britain seems to be following America down a dangerous path. There’s your politician David Lammy accusing Oxford and Cambridge of racial bias — and refusing to listen when they point out they simply accept whoever gets top grades. Then there’s the author Lionel Shriver, pilloried because she dared to suggest (in this magazine) that privileging identity quotas over talent might be a mistake. It seems the UK is succumbing to the same madness over diversity and quotas that has plagued the US for half a century. The hope is that quotas lead to a fairer, more tolerant society, but the reality is very different. 

Across the Atlantic, American institutions have enshrined diversity and inclusion as their guiding principles. From university admissions to life-or-death professions such as air-traffic control, we have sanctified diversity so completely that many treat the idea of choosing applicants based on merit as if it were tantamount to nailing a ‘whites only’ sign to the door.

Despite its seeming popularity, affirmative action has always presented a problem for even its most ardent supporters: it is a racist policy. There is no other way to describe it. Almost ten years ago, a Princeton study found that racial bias had already crept in: Asians and whites had to score far higher on their SAT exams — 450 and 310 more points respectively, from a total of 1,600 — to have the same odds of being admitted into elite universities as black students. As a black American, I don’t use the term ‘racist’ lightly. But intentionally making it harder for people of a specific race to enter a certain sphere of society is the definition of racial discrimination.

That this is racist would be a banal observation if not for the fact that supporters of affirmative action see anti-racism as central to their identities. How do they resolve the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously supporting and condemning racism? By heeding the legal cliché: deny, deny, deny. For instance, an article last year in the Harvard Crimson entitled ‘Welcome to the Harvard Black Community’ mocks the idea that ‘black students are gifted spots through affirmative action’ outright. But that is precisely what occurs. Nor is racial discrimination an unfortunate and small side effect of the policy, as is sometimes implied. Racial discrimination is the policy.

Many lessons have emerged from America’s adventures in diversity and inclusion — lessons the UK ought to learn sooner rather than later.


The first is that preferential policies will be sold as if they are unanimously supported by historically marginalised groups, even when the facts indicate otherwise. For instance, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 57 per cent of blacks agreed that race or ethnicity ‘should not be a factor at all’ in the college admissions process. Back in 2001, a similar poll conducted for the Washington Post found 86 per cent of blacks agreed that decisions about hiring and admissions ‘should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race/ethnicity,’ even if the goal of a preferential policy would be to ‘give minorities more opportunity’. Such poll results are decidedly inconvenient for proponents of affirmative action, who prefer to paint the practice as hugely popular among blacks, the better to tar their critics as racists.

How many women writers actually want to be held to a lower standard so that Penguin Random House can achieve a perfect 50-50 gender split? What percentage of Muslims ask to be treated this way? How many people with disabilities desire this? The lesson from America is clear: never assume that the answer is ‘all’ or even ‘most’. 

Of course, even if every member of a group did favour a policy, that wouldn’t mean that the practice is wise. Which brings me to the second lesson: do not assume that preferential policies are good for the groups said to benefit from them. In the US, the consequences of affirmative action for blacks have been unclear. For every study that finds a benefit, another discovers an unintended negative consequence. On the one hand, it seems obvious that placing someone in a more elite college or a higher-paying job would be good for them. Yet preferential policies often throw minorities into academic environments for which they are underprepared; they cause the people penalised by such policies to resent those who benefit from them; and they send a signal to minority youths that they will never be expected to compete on a level playing field.

Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that proponents of affirmative action care whether or not the policy works. Nearly all of the data needed to adjudicate the wisdom of the policy has been kept secret for decades. The latest data suppression scandal comes from Harvard University, which found in a 2013 internal report that its admissions process was biased against Asian-Americans. It estimated that if it were to consider only academic credentials, then the proportion of Asian-American students admitted would more than double — from 19 to 43 per cent. 

In the midst of a recent discrimination lawsuit, plaintiffs have unearthed evidence that Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants low on personality traits such as ‘courage’ and ‘kindness’, driving down their odds of being admitted. According to the New York Times, Harvard ‘fought furiously’ to keep this a secret.

Another minor scandal occurred more than a decade ago when two Harvard professors found that over half of its black students were not the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action — i.e., they were not the descendants of American slaves but the children of recent immigrants to the US. Since then, university administrators have blocked inquiries into the demographic make-up of black students at elite schools, sending a clear message: do not ask how we admit students, where they are from, and whether they thrive after they get here. In other words, do not ask for any data that bears on the questions of how, or if, affirmative action works. Proponents of affirmative action do not behave like adults instituting a wise policy by ethical means, but like adolescents guarding a dirty secret. 

The third lesson is that appeasing diversity advocates is a poor strategy. If you begrudgingly submit to some preferential policy, reasoning that diversity advocates will be satisfied once it is implemented, then you have the logic of progressive activism backwards. As a space gets more diverse, diversity advocacy does not decrease; it increases. Consider universities. Why do we see the most energetic demands for diversity and sensitivity in precisely the places that are already the most diverse and sensitive? Because diversity demands do not vary with the level of societal prejudice, but with the level of societal guilt. Where white guilt is endemic, demands to redress racism will be strongest, regardless of how much racism actually exists. Where colonial guilt is endemic, demands to redress xenophobia will be strongest, regardless of how much xenophobia actually exists. Diversity advocates do not go where they are most needed, but where they are most powerful.

If American institutions continue to worship the false gods of diversity and inclusion, then we will never get past race. Indeed, progressives have hijacked America’s public conversation on race so thoroughly that the phrase ‘getting past race’ now sounds like a quaint platitude from a bygone era — even to those, like myself, who believe it is the only goal worth pursuing. Martin Luther King spoke of a dream that his four children ‘will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. That dream is becoming ever more distant, as the ‘diversity’ agenda reboots racial discrimination for the 21st century. British institutions should learn from the past 50 years of America’s history so as not to repeat our mistakes.

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