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Wisdom and Ignorance about Diversity

Wisdom is knowing how ignorant you are.

Sadly, there is little wisdom in America about the touchy subject of diversity, especially among influencers in academia, media, politics, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue.  They are noticeably ignorant on the subject but don't realize it.  Worse, they think they are "woke" but are actually "sleep."

Examples of their ignorance will be discussed momentarily, including the dubious claim in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that diversity improves the bottom line.

I'm ignorant about most things but not about diversity.  The next two paragraphs explain the basis of this biased opinion but can be skipped if you're not interested.  The paragraphs are inserted as armor plate to deflect the personal attacks that inevitably come from disagreeing with diversity orthodoxy.  

My knowledge of diversity goes back to 1) being a follower of Roosevelt Thomas when he began the diversity movement in 1990 with his landmark article in the Harvard Business Review; 2) going on retreats years before that with blacks to have open discussions about race; 3) leading corporate efforts years before that to achieve equal opportunity in employment, to stop discriminatory practices, and to reach out to minorities through voluntary affirmative action; and 4) being an avid reader of history, sociology, anthropology, literature, and philosophy, including Black Liberation Theology.


And as a college student before all of that, I lived in the barrio and attended a university with a large number of Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals.  And several years before that, I worked as a teen as the only white employee on an otherwise all-black janitorial and maintenance crew at an exclusive country club in racially-charged and -segregated St. Louis, which has been the center of racial divisions going back to before the Civil War.  At the time, the country club was closed to blacks, Jews, Catholics and Italians, with the last viewed by WASPs as just a smidgen above blacks.

Today, those without wisdom about diversity lump together WASPs, Jews, Catholics and Italians—as well as a hundred other unique racial/ethnic groups, including Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Turks—into the category of "white," or worse, the category of "white privilege." This is not because the lumpers are "woke" and have given it any deep thought, but simply because that's how the government lumped together these diverse peoples a half-century ago.

Having created the fiction of a homogenous white monolith in which everyone supposedly thinks alike, shares the same values, has the same advantages and privileges, and controls the levers of power, the unwise now claim that this non-diverse group is not inclusive and thus has to be made so, not only for reasons of social justice but also because diversity will make the artificial white group smarter.

For much of the country's history, there was indeed a fairly non-diverse group of whites at the top of society, known variously as Anglos, WASPs, Brahmins, and bluebloods.  Largely excluded were Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Catholics, poor whites, and the great wave of Southern European immigrants, including my Italian grandparents.  But it's not as if these other groups got along with each other, at least not at first. 

When my fraternal grandfather was a coal miner in Southern Illinois, fights and even riots would break out between the races, just as they continue to do today between race-based gangs, especially in prisons.  Then when the family moved to St. Louis, they were wary of Irish cops and corrupt aldermen from the Democrat machine, which is why they and other Italian immigrants established their own community, including schools and businesses.  Blacks had begun to slowly do the same, but a push for integration decades later would result in the closing of some very good all-black schools (along with some horrible ones).

In the same vein, in distant San Francisco, swarthy Amadeo Pietro Giannini established the Bank of Italy, which would become Bank of America.  He established the bank to serve immigrants, farmers and fishermen who were underserved by white-shoe and white-bread banks. 

One more tidbit about my ethnicity:  The recent New York Times piece, "How Italians Became White," doesn't mention Giannini but does explain how Italians went from being seen as near-black to being seen as white.  The piece is partly correct about how they made the transition but leaves out other reasons that would be politically-incorrect to enumerate in today's prickly world, such as Italians having close-knit, two-parent families that provided a secure base for climbing the social ladder.  In any event, it's not just Italians who became white-like over the decades.  Other races and ethnic groups also became white, figuratively speaking, in terms of assimilation, acceptance, and socioeconomic advancement—most recently, the Han Chinese and East Indians.

In other words, the blueblood white group gave way to other groups over time, but without the need for highly-paid diversity officers in corporations and diversity deans in universities.

Yet artificial racial/ethnic categories continue to be used by the unwise, not only the "white" category but also categories for blacks, Asians and Hispanics (and to a much lesser extent, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders).  The "black" category is the least artificial category, although even blacks are not a monolith.  But the "Asian" and "Hispanic" categories are as artificial as the "white" category, because different racial/ethnic groups are lumped under each one, as if the categories are homogenous instead of heterogenous. 

This lumping is not only insensitive but runs counter to the idea of diversity.

Then there is the problem that some racial/ethnic groups don't quite fit cleanly into any of these categories and are left in a racial limbo.  A case in point is East Indians, who happen to be one of the most successful groups in America.  In fact, in a ranking of income by religious affiliation, Hindus now rank close to Anglicans and Methodists in income.

Muslim Pakistanis are also in racial limbo.  The same with Russians who hail from the Asian part of Russia.  That would be the part where early people crossed over an ice bridge to present-day Alaska, where they eventually became Native Americans and divided into scores of tribes, as humans are wont to do.

Roosevelt Thomas launched the diversity movement with the premise that America's racial demographics were changing and that corporations needed to reflect these new demographics—that is, to be more racially diverse—if they wanted to know how to market to the growing population of people of color and thus sell more stuff to them.  It was brilliant framing.

My earlier efforts at equal opportunity and affirmative action were not brilliant framing, because they were based on the premise and personal experience that social and corporate mores were changing for the better after the upheavals of the 1960s and just needed some nudging.  As such, the profit motive wasn't necessary to achieve assimilation and integration—or diversity, if you will.  As an example, I didn't get pushback when I told the executives of a large insurance conglomerate that they should change their policy of not allowing black claims adjustors to adjust claims in white neighborhoods. 

Besides, contrary to what Thomas had implied, it doesn't take the same race to sell to the same race.  After all, prior to the diversity movement, the Germans at Mercedes Benz, the Japanese at Toyota, and the Russians at Stolichnaya Vodka had black customers but virtually no blacks at company headquarters back in the home country.   And Nike became the leader in basketball shoes, even though it is headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon, which is only 2% black, and not in Watts or Albany, Georgia.

Likewise, Mars, Inc., doesn't need to employ children as brands managers to market candy to children.  A former brands manager of M&M's once told me that he learned how to market to kids by hanging out where they hang out and plugging into their social networks.

In any event, it stretches credulity to believe that a black brands manager with a graduate degree from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania is going to instinctively know the needs and wants of impoverished Chicago blacks who live with the dangers and despair on the Westside and Southside of the city.   To suggest that a black individual is representative of all other blacks is to suggest that all blacks are the same. 

Which takes us to the Wall Street Journal article mentioned at the top of this commentary.  Titled, "The Business Case for Diversity," the article claims that diversity is good for the bottom line, as if there aren't more compelling reasons for hiring and advancing all races and ethnic groups as a matter of equal opportunity. 

The fallacy of the article is that it used twenty big and rich companies to prove the hypothesis, including, amazingly, JP Morgan, a company that can afford legions of diversity managers and the best and brightest hires from all racial groups, which is something that smaller companies cannot afford.  JP Morgan executives also undoubtedly know that companies in the public eye have to signal their diversity virtue nowadays in order to ward off attacks by social-justice activists and social-media mobs.  

The fallacy becomes even clearer in a quick read of business history.  It is historical fact that JP Morgan was one of the most profitable and powerful enterprises in American history long before "diversity" acquired its current meaning. 

In addition to the foregoing fallacies, the Wall Street Journal study used a strange measure of diversity.  To quote, it used "the age and ethnicity of the workforce, the percentage of women in leadership roles, whether the firm has diversity and inclusion programs in place for employees, and the makeup of the board."  

It's a safe bet that ethnicity was determined from the standard racial/ethnic categories of white, black Hispanic, Asian, etc. and not from an actual accounting of the unique racial/ethnic groups force-fitted into each category.  As such, it is not known how many Arabs and Filipinos are in leadership positions at the company.  For all we know, the company avoids hiring them.    

It's just as complicated to determine the benefits of diversity at the nation-state level.  Some of the least diverse nations rank near the top in income, education, quality of life, civic trust, life expectancy, and personal security from crime.  Conversely, some of the most diverse nations rank near the bottom in these criteria.  As such, it is difficult to prove that diversity is a plus, especially given that it is nearly impossible to isolate the variable of diversity from all the other variables. 

Likewise, as history has shown and keeps showing, wars, revolutions, genocides, and civic strife tend to take place where different races and ethnic groups share the same space or border.  On the other hand, there are notable exceptions in history and the current day.

My opinion is that diversity has a lot of value, for a simple reason:  that the more that people of all races and ethnicities rise through business and society, based on their knowledge, education, talents and ambition, the better it is for everyone.  It's a tragic loss of human capital that so many Americans do not have the opportunity to live up to their full potential, because of being dealt a bad hand at birth, especially—trigger warning:  something politically-incorrect is on its way—those who didn't have the benefit of growing up in a two-parent household.     

Returning to the subject of diversity within corporations, there is a practical issue that comes into play.  It is simply not practical for companies (and other organizations) to have a workforce that is a perfect refection of the hundreds of distinct races and ethnic groups in America, no matter how many diversity officers the companies have, how much money they spend, or how many central plans they write.  

This reality can be seen in today's commercials and ads, which are less about a given product or service and more about showing how virtuous a company is regarding diversity. This produces some laughable results.  For instance, during a popular TV show, I counted the races that appeared in commercials.  Blacks appeared in three-fourths of the commercials, usually as the main character, even though blacks are only 12% of the population.  This is better than in the past when they didn't appear at all, but it is off-putting because it is so transparently condescending and staged.  Of course, as with characters of other races in commercials, they are all hip, fit, attractive, and successful—and often shown in biracial relationships, which is a good sign that the nation has recovered from the anti-miscegenation laws of the past.  (Biracial marriages now account for 18% of marriages in the U.S., which runs counter to the belief in some quarters that we are still a racist country.)

Unless hundreds of people star in a commercial, some races and ethnicities will be left out, and companies and their ad agencies have to decide which ones.  Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect that the decision turns partly on which groups will complain the least about being left out.  Perhaps that's why commercials don't include Muslim women in a burqa and ultra-orthodox Jewish men in shtreimel, tophat, payot, bekishe and tzitzit.

By the way, which of the official racial/ethnic categories do the above two groups belong in? And how many of them work for JP Morgan?

A closing request:  Please let me know if this commentary has been wise or ignorant.