The Magazine

The Diversity Taboo

You can't solve a problem no one will talk about.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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A RECENT PSEUDO-SCANDAL at the Justice Department is yet another depressing reminder of intractable racial taboos--although not the kind we usually hear about from hand-wringing pundits and civil-rights scolds.

At the end of October, the New York Times accused the Justice Department of covering up a study critical of its "diversity" hiring and management. The department had posted the study--a $360,000 piece of boilerplate from the diversity-consulting industry--on its website. About half the text had been very visibly blacked out. Among the redacted portions, gleefully reported on the Times's front page, were such standard "diversity" findings as the fact that more minority lawyers than white ones perceive "stereotyping, harassment and racial tension" in their workplace.

For the Times and likeminded Bush administration critics, the story was a glorious twofer: Not only was Attorney General John Ashcroft, that scourge of civil rights, abusing his minority employees, but he was trying to conceal it. Senator Edward Kennedy blasted the department for ignoring "diversity" issues. Representatives John Conyers Jr. and Jerrold Nadler issued a demand, in self-professed "outrage," that the Justice Department's inspector general investigate Diversitygate.

This scandal was a fake. The missing portions of the diversity study (later exhumed by a computer sleuth) had been redacted for a perfectly good reason: A rule in the Freedom of Information Act exempts advisory and "predecisional" material from disclosure. The deletions contained positive information about the department, just as the posted text contained "negative" findings, such as the higher attrition rate of minority hires.

But there was a scandal in the episode, albeit a longstanding one: the enduring charade about minority underachievement in the workplace. Every month, businesses and government agencies lavish vast sums on diversity "consultants" to come up with every reason other than the correct one--the skills gap--for why they do not have a proportional number of black and Hispanic employees. And, just as regularly, elite opinion-makers hold up the results of such sham studies as proof of American racism.

The Justice Department's recent diversity study, produced by KPMG Consulting, was a classic of the genre. Here was page after page of complicated graphs calculating to the hundredth of a percentage point the ratio of black, Hispanic, and female attorneys in every possible position within the department. Here was the disparagement of the white male "dominant culture norms," along with the call to "be more creative about defining qualifications" (i.e., to gut standards for minorities). Here was the inevitable push for tying the pay of managers to their promotion of minorities. But, above all else, here was the scrupulous, all-encompassing silence on every page of the document about why this futile exercise was undertaken in the first place: the dearth of qualified minority attorneys to fill those minutely tabulated Justice Department slots.

The real missing data from the Justice diversity study are these: In 2002, only 29 black applicants were qualified without a racial boost for a top-ten law school (from which the elite branches of the Justice Department recruit), compared with 4,500 college seniors nationwide, as Jonathan Kay has reported in Commentary. The situation was identical a decade ago: Only 24 black applicants met the academic requirements for the top 10 percent of law schools in 1991, according to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. Naturally, those schools were not about to let the lack of preparedness among minority applicants stand in the way of demonstrating the schools' high-minded embrace of racial balance. They admitted 420 blacks to their first-year classes anyway, thus ensuring that nearly all would start out with a disadvantage compared with their white and Asian peers.

The results of such racial double standards are predictable: Over a fifth of affirmative-action law students from the 1991 cohort, for example, dropped out. With few exceptions, black students post grades near the bottom of their class. As a result, almost none qualify for law review. The bar exam failure rate for affirmative-action beneficiaries is far higher than for merit-based admits. Nearly a third of the 1991 quota admits failed after three attempts, a rate seven times that of whites, according to the Thernstroms.