The Spiral of Tokenism: Part 1
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love DEI
There has been a great deal of discussion around “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” in the past few weeks. Conservatives are organizing to get rid of DEI programs, while progressives are mounting defenses. This is the first time since George Floyd that criticism about DEI appears to be getting some traction, but it is already getting derailed, and institutions are finding ways to get around the anti-DEI measures.
I feel compelled to write about this issue, as I hope this is a unique opportunity to free ourselves from the corruption eating its way through our most vital institutions.
Unlike other “old-school” liberals, I do not think DEI is bad because it has gone “too far”. I think DEI is bad, period. Far from being “our strength”, the DEI version of diversity acts as a tax on institutions and degrades professional competency. In the social realm, it does even more damage: it crystallizes arbitrary divisions, fosters tokenism and implicit racism, while harming actual diversity.
The following is the first of at least two essays on the topic.
My hope is to convince well-intentioned liberals to see DEI for what it is, a blight on our social fabric, in the hopes that they will gain the courage to bury it.
Last year, a remarkable (edit: and possibly bogus)1 statistic came out from an analysis by Bloomberg: In the course of 2021, 94% of new jobs in S&P 100 companies went to “people of color”.
The response was of surprise from across the political spectrum—while all expected the post-Floyd years to lead to an increase in minority hires, 94% seemed…quite high. Discriminatory, even. But outside of conservative spaces, there was no outrage, nor did this finding do much to change the ongoing narrative of minority oppression.
It is hardly worth saying that in any other context, the Bloomberg analysis would be taken as a clear sign of a rotten state of affairs. It isn’t taken that way because our state is much worse than that: while no one attempts to defend the explicit racism in hiring decisions, hardly anyone worthy of note considers it all that fuss-worthy. Worse, if someone were to raise alarms about it, they would find that the castigation falls not on the racism, but on the character of the person attempting to draw attention to it, particularly if that person happens to be white.
Not that being a minority would spare you. Race-consciousness, evidently, means consciousness of the fact that there are some sorts of people who must not be sympathized with, whose interests are always malign, whose mistreatment cannot, by definition, be an injustice. To the students of history, it might be obvious that wherever injustice cannot even be named, it is likely to thrive. (94%!) But the first lesson of history is that no one learns any lessons from history.
This is especially the case of people who claim to be granted authority from history itself. It is they who are most interested in circumventing the most significant lesson that our history can teach us: that treating people differently based on a characteristic out of their control is unjust.
They attempt, instead, to define the problem out of existence, which, alarmingly, appears to satisfy many. (One cannot help but wonder at the possibilities. “Robbery equals theft plus power!” I shriek at the shopkeeper as he fumbles to open his cash register. “Homicide equals murder plus power”, I plea to the judge, later.) More serious people might try to rationalize it–solemnly proclaiming a duty to make amends for a historical injustice, but they too play fast and loose with long-standing principles (“collective punishment”, for instance).
Despite the poor attempts at justification, it has worked.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise–there are good reasons this nation might feel as if it owes its minorities a leg up in the game. (I’ll spare you the lengthy throat-clearing here, let’s skip to the part where I’ve condemned the obvious, and we are clear about my good intentions. Or if it's easier, I can remind the reader that I am a Woman Of Color and ineligible for Klan membership.)
But is it really “guilt” that’s driving it all? We are “guilt-tripped” regularly, sure–but does it work? Do we feel guilty, or do we feel that we have to feel guilty? Is the mechanism at work here a sense of true remorse, or is it social desirability? Are we compelled by the force of some argument–did careful reasoning lead the way? Or are we here precisely because it didn't—that we absorbed the consensus through our skin without bothering to check where it is taking us?
I admit, I was in denial about the latter for a very long time. As a committed meritocrat, I believed in the competence of the system and the people who inhabited its highest rungs and moderated the national discourse. Few without skill, dedication, and intelligence can get through to the end of the meritocracy maze, and I reasoned that this means they deserve the prestige and power that goes along with it. As a matter of fact, I still think they deserve the acclaim (insofar as anyone does), and it would be outrageous to deny the intelligence of our ruling class.
But I wonder now whether that is enough. They have power, but can they wield it? Doesn’t leadership require courage and independence, too? These days I think a lot about how the long, complicated meritocratic mazes bring along costs, too—getting to the end is easier if you are smarter, but also if you are compliant.
“Just A Nudge”
Out of the many writings following the former President of Harvard’s ousting, my favorite was that of Bret Stephens in the New York Times, who clarified that the problem wasn’t Claudine Gay, but the environment that placed an unqualified woman into its most senior position.
“...The important question for Harvard was never whether Gay should step down. It was why she was brought on in the first place, after one of the shortest presidential searches in Harvard’s recent history. How did someone with a scholarly record as thin as hers…reach the pinnacle of American academia?”
Stephens wonders whether the toppling of the “model of excellence” by the “social justice model” is to blame, a process that may have begun as far back as the Bakke decision of the Supreme Court, which permitted race to be a factor in college admissions.
But it did not have to be this way, says Stephens.
“...The problem with Bakke isn’t that it allowed diversity to be a consideration in admissions decisions. It’s that university administrators turned an allowance into a requirement…if affirmative action had been administered with a lighter hand — more nudge than mandate — it might have survived the court’s scrutiny last year.”
Stephens’ perspective is shared by many of my fellow liberals. They too believe that the problem with racial preferences is not in principle–a little bit of extra credit to minorities is a good thing, a sportsmanlike leg-up for the downtrodden. They see the value in the DEI complex, and would like it to be contained, not abolished.
There is also a chorus of Jewish Americans who see the growth of antisemitism on campuses as a problem not originating in DEI, but rather, in faulty, misapplied DEI.
But they are wrong. There can be no such thing as “a little bit” of affirmative action–there are no stops on this train, as I will show.
Instead, the institution of racial preferences kicks off an an ever-expanding feedback loop, which I am calling the “Spiral of Tokenism”. I theorize that no matter how benevolent its intent, “positive” discrimination has a strong tendency to devolve into bald tokenism over time, and that the logic of that tokenism will reinforce itself, generating new justifications for “negative” racial prejudice.
Tokenism: Then and Now
Tokenism was understood by civil rights activists as a practice of superficial inclusion of a tiny percentage of minorities for the sole purposes of demonstrating a lack of prejudice. The word was a useful description of a practice that provided cover for otherwise discriminatory institutions (the organizational equivalent of saying that one can’t be racist because they have a black friend), while putting an immense burden on the tokenized individual to act as a representative of their entire racial group.
“Tokenism is hypocrisy. One little student in the University of Mississippi, that's hypocrisy. A handful of students in Little Rock, Arkansas, is hypocrisy. A couple of students going to school in Georgia is hypocrisy. Integration in America is hypocrisy in the rawest form. And the whole world can see it. All this little tokenism that is dangled in front of the Negro and then he's told, "See what we're doing for you, Tom." Why the whole world can see that this is nothing but hypocrisy. All you do is make your image worse; you don't make it better.”
Malcolm X, Michigan State University. 23 January 1963.
“But in the tradition of old guards, who would die rather than surrender, a new and hastily constructed roadblock has appeared in the form of planned and institutionalized tokenism. Many areas of the South are retreating to a position where they will permit a handful of Negroes to attend all-white schools or allow the employment in lily-white factories of one Negro to a thousand whites.”
MLK, NYT, Aug. 5, 1962
I argue that tokenism still exists, but does not look quite like it did in the Civil Rights Era. Modern tokenism reflects the changes brought upon since its inception: the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the broadscale acceptance of racial minorities in social life, the drastic expansion of incentive programs for minorities by both local and federal governments, and the subsequent entrenchment of DEI in administration.
Today's tokenism is still, in large part, the “superficial inclusion” of minorities. The tokens are held “apart” from the rest–they are held to different standards of behavior, achievement and general competence. Although today’s tokens receive authoritative credentials and titles, they are still primarily valued as avatars for a “victimized” collective, and their “inclusion” is above all a display that is meant to speak well of the including group, not a vote of confidence in their individual competence and expertise. The closest thing to professional respect they may receive is a reverence for their “lived experience” as a member of a marginalized people, but even that can be rescinded if they refuse to see themselves in those terms.
This means that decades after the passage of the rights revolutions of the 60s and 70s, women and minorities of various stripes are still denied equal dignity and worth as individuals, even as they gain considerable power as collectives.
For example, when an institution explicitly searches for and chooses a black woman for a prestigious position, the honor that is bestowed does not belong to her, nor can it. She may be the proximal beneficiary of the gesture, but it is ultimately directed to the collective to which she belongs.
This is why there were numerous calls to replace Claudine Gay with another black woman. The honor was bestowed on Black Womanhood, the political category, not on the black woman herself. This illustrates one important sense in which modern tokenism is unlike its predecessor: far from being objected to as a sign of contempt and condescension, tokenism today is demanded by activists.
So the question is: how did this happen? How did tokenism go from being despised to being demanded by an expansive DEI complex?
The spiral begins with a flawed premise: the belief that “unbalanced” representation of any group is, in itself, evidence of prejudice or discrimination.
For example, if an institution has no women in upper management, activists might claim this is sufficient evidence of the sexism of that institution. This sexism may be intentional, but it can also be “systemic”–arising from procedures and policies that are not intended to be sexist, but impact women differently than they do men. Similarly, if a field struggles to recruit numbers of a racial group in proportion to their numbers in the population broadly, then the activists will say that it is likely that this field is prejudicial towards the group.
The most hysterical among them will go further–they will claim that there is only one possible other reason for disparities other than discrimination: biological “inferiority”. They then reason backwards: If one disagrees with the notion that discrimination is causing disparities, then one must be saying that the underrepresented group is “inferior” in that arena, which is the same as saying they have less worth as humans. In other words, if you do not want to be a racist/sexist/-phobe, the activists say, you must accept the discrimination explanation for the existence of disparities.
So if you find yourself in a context without proportional representation, you must find that context (and yourself to the extent that you are related to it) guilty of discrimination and further, you must commit to addressing this disparity. Accepting this charge is like a plea bargain–you get off on a lighter sentence, in this case, of “unintentional” discrimination. But resisting the charge of discrimination, paradoxically, proves your racism. If you deny that the problem lies with you, then you are implying it lies with them, and then it's just a few more implications to full Klan membership, so it's best to just admit fault and receive the lighter sentence.
But then what? Given that the fault really doesn’t lie with you (as far as your lying, bigoted eyes can tell anyways), how can you fix what isn’t broken?
Fortuitously, a solution is presented by the more enterprising activists:
protection money an investment in various DEI initiatives. This solution works for the institutions–they can escape the worst of activist scrutiny, prove their ideological commitments, and (best of all) boost headcount of underrepresented populations by hiring them as DEI administrators. (The jobs aren’t crucial to the functioning of the organization, so the damage is minimal beyond the price tag.) Meanwhile, the activists can enjoy these well-paying but non-taxing jobs for which they are shoe-ins, and from which (to the eventual dismay of the institutions) they can amass even more leverage as in-house agitators. As DEI does nothing to correct for the causes of the disparity, it will always have a reason to stick around, and stick around it does.
In the next essay, I will explain why this shake-down scheme is, well, so hard to shake off, and later, explain why I worry that implicit racism is due for a comeback.
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According to commentator @RogueWPA, the Bloomberg analysis is highly misleading, “it doesn't mean 94% of hiring but 94% of net hiring”. You can find a discussion about it here. As I’m using the reaction to the report to illustrate my point, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me (except that, combined with the celebratory tone, a potentially cooked up analysis lends an even more bizarre twist to it all). Nevertheless, reader beware!