The Cascading Complexity Of Diversity
And why the New York Times still doesn't get it.
(Catholic New Yorkers fill the sidewalks as Pope Francis rides down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick's Cathedral. By Richard Drew-Pool / Getty Images)
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?
Caernarfon, Wales, 8.43 am
Burning the GOP To The Ground?
In the nascent debate between those who believe the GOP should be razed to the ground in the coming election and those who want to preserve its institutional structure, while reforming it, I’m in favor of the latter. I’m an institutionalist. You can’t simply throw an entire political party into the trashcan, however repellent it has become. At the same time, I’m earnestly hoping for a crushing wipe-out in November, because only that is likely to lead to any recognition that the rot is too deep for superficial treatment. If that happens, we stand a chance of real reform.
And this cannot mean a return to the status quo ante. That would ignore the lessons of the 21st century — that neoconservatism’s desire to rule the world is a fantasy, and that zombie Reagonomics has been rendered irrelevant by its own success and unintended failures. What the right needs to do, quite simply, is to seize the mantle of cultural conservatism while moving sharply left on economics.
Here’s the gist of a platform I think could work. The GOP should drop the tax cut fixation, raise taxes on the wealthy, and experiment with UBI. It needs a workable healthcare policy which can insure everyone in the country, on Obamacare private sector lines. (Yes, get the fuck over Obamacare. It’s the most conservative way to achieve universal access to healthcare we have.) It has to promote an agenda of lower immigration as a boon to both successful racial integration and to raising working class wages. It needs finally to acknowledge the reality of climate change and join the debate about how, rather than whether, to tackle it. It has to figure out a China policy that is both protective of some US industries and firm on human rights. It needs to protect religious freedom against the incursions of the cultural left. And it needs to become a place where normie culture can live and thrive, where acknowledgment of America’s past failures doesn’t exclude pride in America’s great successes, and where the English language can still be plainly used. No big need to change on judges (except finding qualified ones); and no reason either to lurch back to worrying about deficits in the current low-inflation environment.
I believe this right-of-center pragmatism has a great future. It was the core message behind the British Tories’ remarkable success in the 2019 election, and if it is accompanied by an explicit disavowal of the bigotry that has festered under Trump, so much the better. The GOP will likely be facing a more leftwing Democratic party under Biden and in 2024, which will help. And it needs, in its rejection of woke orthodoxy, a better appeal to those in the younger generations who are beginning to tire of the endless lectures and killjoy censorship, but who yet love and yearn to see enthusiasm for the racial and cultural diversity of the under-35s.
The trouble, of course, is that GOP elites would have a hell of a time achieving this set of policies with its current membership. Damon Linker has a terrific piece about the problem of Republican voters most of whom “remain undaunted in their conviction that politics is primarily about the venting of grievances and the trolling of opponents. The dumber and angrier and more shameless, the better.” And this is real. The paranoid, pugilistic, Palinesque subculture that underpins much of the party today seems uninterested in reason, or the compromises necessary to move the country in any positive direction. The instinctive whataboutism, the fathomless devotion to an obvious con-man just because he has the right enemies, the philistine paranoia, the conspiracy theories, the commitment to the game of political theater rather than to the task of political persuasion runs deep, deep, deep.
Damon has no idea how to change this culture. I do: leadership. Look at how easy it was for Trump to shift the party by force of his personality. I see no reason why someone else couldn’t shift it yet again — not back to pre-Trump but forward to a new fusion of nationalist realism, populist economics, and cultural conservatism. By cultural conservatism I don’t mean another round of the culture wars — but a defense of pride in one’s country, respect for tradition, and social stability. There is also, I suspect, a suppressed but real desire for the normality and calmness that Trump has eviscerated. David Brooks sees a few candidates: Josh Hawley, Ben Sasse, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio.
I know that looking around the rightwing media these days is not likely to give anyone optimism that this could happen, and I’m not pinning my hopes on anyone in particular. But history does, from time to time, throw up new figures who manage to take a political party from the wilderness to something far saner. Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, Blair, Cameron, and Boris come to mind. Individuals matter — they can set a new tone, encourage a new atmosphere. If Trump loses badly, someone might be able to forge a more moderate and sane message from the wreckage. If he wins re-election, it is of course over — and not just for a sane GOP, but for the country as a whole. But the saplings of a new conservatism could begin to sprout in the ashes of a political forest fire. And a period in chastened defeat would help them grow.
Kualapu’u, Hawaii, 7.30 am
The 1620 Project
This year has been a particularly demoralizing one for this little town at the very end of Cape Cod. It was supposed to host an epic anniversary: it’s been 400 years since the Mayflower Compact was signed on a ship in Provincetown Harbor, the first serious sketch of what government could mean in the New World. The original plan was to settle in Virginia, but rough seas had the ship finding Cape Cod instead. Those onboard were a mix of religious fanatics and others, such as merchants and craftsmen, whom the Puritans called “strangers”, and, because the ship had landed outside the jurisdiction of Virginia, some of the strangers argued that the contract signed with the Virginia Company at the start of the journey was null and void. They were no longer bound together — a potentially hazardous prospect in an unknown and scary new environment.
The Compact was a way to keep the company intact, mandating an elected leader, declaring fealty to King James I, and a set of laws applicable to everyone, Puritan or stranger, as long as everyone affirmed some kind of Christianity. It was a fusion of the religious energy and consensual government that gave the New World its spiritual and political direction. You could even call it, in some ways, the true founding of America, before the Enlightenment.
It was certainly viewed as a significant moment when the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association decided to build a gigantic and (to my mind) hideous monument to commemorate it, and president Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1907 and president Taft dedicated the finished 252-foot tower in 1910. The anniversary celebrations were all set when Covid arrived to scotch them all, turning this little town usually bustling with tourists into something markedly less feisty. My favorite t-shirt of the summer has a pilgrim’s face on it, with “400” printed beneath it. And the pilgrim is wearing a mask — as all good Ptowners now do.
Yes, some of this is hype. The colonists only spent five weeks in town, before they left for Plymouth, to find a place with better freshwater supplies, and, some say, to escape all the gays hanging around. But if you tried hard, you could trace the uniquely religious nature of America from these humble, improvised origins, along with its strong and pioneering attachment to democratic norms. In some ways, these themes run throughout American history, defining us down to this very day. Call it the 1620 Project, if you like. Maybe at some point the New York Times Magazine could devote a whole issue to it.
Dissents of the Week
Many readers took issue with my criticism of the BLM slogan, “White Silence = Violence.” One compares it to a key slogan from the AIDS crisis:
As a gay man of a certain age, it reminds me of “Silence = Death,” a slogan that effectively conveyed the fact that lack of attention to HIV/AIDS was killing people. I think the current version of the slogan has nothing to do with “woke thinking” and everything to do with a call to the general population to stop tolerating police racism because people are dying or having their lives ruined. I would suggest that in evaluating some of the BLM statements and demands, imagine “gay” being substituted for “black.”
Point taken. But I was a quibbler with ACT-UP as well on this question. I recall having a spirited fight with Larry Kramer once specifically over his rhetorical over-reach. I thought it was de trop to describe Anthony Fauci, for example, as a “murderer”, or to equate negligence by a government official in an epidemic with the act of actually killing someone. Sins of omission, I argued, needed to be distinguished from sins of commission — and there was a difference between, say, the cowardly German who kept quiet and the Nazi who hunted down local Jews at night. Larry responded, of course, by telling me to knock off the Catholicism. And I see the difference between an aggressive slogan and an actual argument.
But accusing people who are doing and saying nothing of actively committing violence seems to me to an even bigger leap. Another reader:
I’m struck that you can’t see the clear logic behind “White Silence = Violence.” It is not a stretch, and no postmodernism required, to imagine that a person who remains silent and fails to intervene in the case of violence against another is as complicit in the violence as the perpetrator. This has, in fact, been a common trope throughout history. See Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a number of Martin Luther King Jr. writings (e.g. “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people”), etc. Have you become so blinded by your apparent distrust (is hatred too strong a word?) of BLM that you cannot accept, or even hear, such an oft-repeated concept?
It seems to me there’s a distinction between the ACT-UP slogan “Silence = Death” and “White Silence Is Violence” — and it’s the word “white”. ACT-UP didn’t polarize in this way. “Straight Silence = Death” would have let the gays off the hook, and it was gay silence that Larry was also targeting.
Another reader and “proud leftist” thinks I’m painting with too broad a brush:
The notion that the Left writ-large is dominated by an all-consuming logic of Critical Theory — a wokeness grounded in some amalgamation of postmodern Marxist atheism — is both empirically inaccurate and philosophically misleading. The intellectual genealogy you lay out starts out fine enough — yes, postmodernism was an attack on grand theory — but it quickly veers into sophistry. You can’t seriously engage with contemporary postmodern theorists and believe they must be atheists.
You ignore the many writers and activists on the Left (Nancy Fraser, Cedric Johnson, Adolph Reed, Matt Taibbi, many who signed the Harper’s letter) who have pushed back against noxious deployments of identity politics. You seem uninterested in the ways that contemporary socialists have thoughtfully engaged with the liberal tradition (no one’s arguing for a dictatorship of the proletariat here; the dominant thread on the DSA Left best approximates something like early 20th century English guild socialism).
But, most of all, your column and recent tweets lack any sense of proportion — yes, the Twitter-fueled attacks on people like J.K. Rowling are unfair, but black people are getting fucking killed and our president has responded by doubling down on white supremacy. Isn’t this much more pressing?
The pull of humanism is much stronger than that of identarianism, and the recent protests against racial injustice are a testament to this — millions of people, across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality, took to the streets in pursuit of meaningful action. Their ideologies vary dramatically (liberals, social democrats, socialists, anarchists, libertarians), they range from deeply religious to atheist, and they have different goals — from reformist to radical.
I am distressed, though, at how the coalitional politics prefigured in the protests — the potential to come together in a sustained movement for real and lasting change — are being undercut by the epistemological authority granted to glorified corporate consultants like Kendi and DiAngelo, for whom racial identity is an essence (not very postmodern!) that limits the possibility of lasting solidarity. Their fatalistic pronouncements threaten to become self-fulfilling prophecies.
A couple short points. I concede that the vast majority of people who got wrapped up in BLM protests are not students of critical theory; and that protesting against police brutality is actually what Christians are supposed to do. My tweet lacked any context and was dumb. What I was trying to argue is that the roots of critical theory are fundamentally atheist, are very much concerned with this world alone, and have no place for mercy or redemption or the individual soul. Christians who think they can simply adopt both are being somewhat naive. And yes, I feel the same way about “liberation theology” as well, however sympathetic the Pope now is.
I’m also very much aware that a big chunk of the left wants no truck with identitarianism — the old-school Marxists was unforgiving toward the 1619 Project — and see our problems as fundamentally ones of class. But they are not running the show right now. Another reader has a dark prophecy:
It seems to me the logical outcome of a broad application of critical theory will be a wider revival of white supremacy. Where there’s no possibility of redemption, resistance becomes inevitable.
Even so, I’m concerned but not yet alarmed. This critical nonsense is so wildly contrarian that I continue to believe it will burn itself out. We’ll see how matters develop once we’re past this Covid crisis, in which our isolation oddly reproduces the insularity common to the academic petri dish in which critical theory first developed.
In Defense of J.K. Rowling, Ctd
Keeping the discussion thread going, a reader who calls herself a “diehard Harry Potter fan” for whom “J.K.’s Twitter commentary had previously brought much joy” nevertheless criticizes a tweet of major contention:
The reader writes:
Leaving aside the underlying debate about biological sex, what I find frustrating is that the article J.K. tweeted used its words correctly, so she was spoiling for a fight without basis. The article is from Devex — Development Economics. Within international development, there is a huge effort to be very specific with the language used to describe target populations. Like in HIV, there was a shift from describing “gay men” as a high-risk population to “men who have sex with men.” The latter defines a behaviour/action that is associated with higher risk, while the former is a sexual orientation. Those two populations are a Venn diagram, not a circle.
So back to the Devex article: Menstruation is a huge issue in the developing world because it’s a major cause of school absenteeism among teenage girls. Gender factors (such as lack of education about menstruation), social factors (such as stigma and shame), and economic factors (such as having only one school uniform and no access to sanitary pads) mean that many menstruating girls simply skip school for a week every month. The long-term consequences on the gender-gap in education can be devastating.
Therefore, “people who menstruate” is the right term when describing education and aid initiatives that work around menstruation. “Women” includes premenstrual girls and post-menopause women, who are irrelevant when talking about menstruation.
A reader flags an Onion-like article from the WaPo and writes:
As an academic and biologist who has written a preprint on bird taxonomy, I found your summary of critical theory helpful in understanding a very vocal movement among my peers to get rid of eponymous English names for birds. This week, that movement took its goals to the broader public square.
Money quote from the op-ed:
We cannot subjectively decide — especially if the adjudicators are White — that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others. We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.
Our reader adds, “the op-ed was promptly and roundly set on fire in the comments section.” Dish fave: “First they came for the bird names, and I did not tweet … ”
In the ‘Stacks
In the spirit of supporting independent thinkers, here are some Dish-recommended pieces and podcasts from other peeps on Substack this week:
Jesse Singal talked to Freddie deBoer, a Dish alum, about the overlap of Twitter and mental illness. (Freddie just published his first book, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice.)
Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria, over at Popular Information, tackle a subject the Dish has long challenged: college football players going unpaid — except now, they are also expected to play during a pandemic. (One player was allegedly kicked off the team simply for speaking out in an anonymous open letter.)
Writing for Persuasion, the fantastic new forum created by Yascha Mounk, Jon Rauch devises a six-part diagnostic test for whether an incident is part of cancel culture or legitimate criticism. (If you haven’t read Jon’s taut, brilliant book on free speech, Kindly Inquisitors, get it here.)
The View From Your Window Contest
So, where do you think it’s located? Email your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. If no one guesses the exact location, proximity counts. Happy sleuthing! (The results of last week’s contest will land in your in-tray shortly, but if you’re not a subscriber, find them here.)
Thanks so much for your support — total subscriptions are now over 70,000, and paid subs are nudging 10,000. As I usually do, I’m taking a fortnight’s vacation in mid-August and I’ll be back the last week of the month. But keep the dissents coming — email@example.com — and I’ll tackle them when I return. The Window View contest continues while I’m vegging — so for that, see you next Friday.