Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Diversity, Diversity, Tra LALALAla LAAAH

I have this inner song in my head, about diversity, and I tried to express it in the title. Doesn't work. You are supposed to sing higher with the capitalized LAs.

I don't like diversity that much. I bet that came as a surprise to you! The reason I don't like diversity is that it has superseded fairness in our debates about gender, ethnicity and race. And I like fairness a lot.

Let me explain: Diversity dispenses with any attempt to match representation of a group to its actual size and replaces it with an attempt to have one or two faces from each group. Thus, diversity might be satisfied by, say, a Supreme Court which has eight men and one woman, as long as each of the men comes from a different ethnic background. Or more realistically, a firm might feel satisfied with its diversity if it has a few people of color/women/both scattered here and there in the organization and a few of them in some visible position.

Diversity explicitly rejects any whiff of quotas. But by doing that, it also forgets about fairness. If half of Americans are women, not having roughly 50% of power in the hands of women requires a long and careful explanation. In a fair system the Supreme Court should have four or five women. But a system emphasizing diversity doesn't aim at that kind of fairness.

So I'm exaggerating here a bit. But it is required, because we are so immersed in the diversity thinking and in a focus on the benefits of diversity. And those benefits do exist, of course. It's important to have minorities represented and it's important to have people with different life experiences contribute to public decision-making. But an excessive focus on diversity can be used to avoid actually being fair.

All this is hidden when we begin with a system which is all male and pale. Any move towards greater diversity also serves the goal of greater fairness. But if I had to pick between the two concepts I would pick fairness with proper safeguards for very small minorities to be also represented. A compromise, if you will.

What caused these musings? Monica Pott's TAP post on the Washington Post columnists. It's not the post that I criticize. It makes excellent points about what is wrong at the Post, starting with its title (But What About The Menz) and including this:

Out of 27 total columnists and reporters, three are black men and three are white women. The rest are white men.

Compare those figures to population statistics and what do you find? White men are very well represented. Black men are also well represented. White women are poorly represented. Black women? Latinos and latinas?

My point is not to demand quotas for all the different ethnic and gender groups, not at all. But a focus on diversity as opposed to fairness hides the fact that the main problem at the Post is about the lack of women.

Diversity doesn't necessarily address that, because three (white) women might look like a good representation for the category "women" in general if you forget that women are the numerical majority. A fairness approach reveals the flaws in that way of looking at the problem.

Diversity also has an additional problem. The TAP post discusses George Will's recent column and in particular this from Will on the Arizona immigration law:

Non-Hispanic Arizonans of all sorts live congenially with all sorts of persons of Hispanic descent. These include some whose ancestors got to Arizona before statehood -- some even before it was a territory. They were in America before most Americans' ancestors arrived. Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns and put plates in front of them at restaurants, not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m.

Monica notes:

I shouldn't even have to make the case here for why diversity is important. Today's George Will column, which suggests that liberals only contact with Latinos involves their gardeners and waiters, would have only been more egregious if it included the line, "Hey, some of my best friends are Hispanic!" Yglesias points out that there are few voices at the Post to challenge Will on his views and assumptions. And now, that's more noticeable than ever:

Anyways, the Post has a snazzy new PostPolitics page that helps you swiftly summarize the fact that there don't appear to be any Hispanic opinion writers at the paper who might be able to have a word or two with Will about this.

That is indeed one of the reasons why diversity matters: The different life experiences and opinions it offers. But what if all those life experiences and opinions were so commonly appreciated that it was no longer important to bring them into the public debate? Then diversity would lose some of its teeth as an argument for a more representative set of columnists at the Post, say. But fairness would not.