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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But faced with the choice of copping to bias or explaining the difficulty of finding qualified minority applicants, there's not a prominent organization that won't fall on its sword as a racist. (The Jayson Blair fiasco at the New York Times offered a variant on this formula: The Times preferred to let its journalistic standards be impugned rather than admit that it had overlooked reporter Blair's patent failings because of his race.) And so the New York Bar, skewered by its black associates, dutifully ordered itself into diversity training and set itself ever more rigorous hiring and promotion goals, as if its members hadn't already been frantically trying to find and promote black attorneys. Likewise, the Justice Department, accused by its minority employees of "harassment and stereotyping" and accused by the press of not hiring and promoting enough minorities, has merely hung its head and promised to do better through new undertakings like a loan repayment program and more "equitable" assignment of cases.

Although an event sometimes forces momentary honesty about the skills gap, the racial taboo always triumphs in the end. While covering the recent Supreme Court affirmative-action challenges, for example, even the liberal media could hardly avoid mentioning the 200-point SAT gap between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other. But those moments pass without a trace, and the New York Times and other press outlets quickly go back to reporting on the underrepresentation of minorities in this or that organization as a sign of bias, as the Wall Street Journal did in November, informing readers that "high turnover among people of color" suggests the employer does not value diversity.

The drive of elite institutions to fill their token roster of minorities, no matter the costs to the tokens or to their own standards, only perpetuates the racial taboo by giving a false impression. The smattering of black and Hispanic faces on the bench, in law and medical school classes, and on the brochures of selective colleges makes it harder for the public to grasp how severely minorities lag behind the norm in reading and math. Worse, preferences keep the institutions that use them on the sidelines of educational reform and cultural change. Remove their ability to practice racial window-dressing, however, and many would try to actually shrink the skills gap rather than just cover it up.

The only time the University of California system sought to systematically improve California's abysmal schools was after the U.C. Regents, in 1995, banned the use of race in admissions. In response, university administrators launched a massive outreach program into high schools and elementary schools to prepare minority students for competitive enrollment. Had the Supreme Court struck down educational preferences this summer, many colleges, law schools, law firms, and businesses would have been forced into a similar crusade--at least until the next dodge for covertly reinstating quotas had emerged.

In her recent decision upholding affirmative action, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave colleges and law schools 25 years to continue papering over the racial skills gap. Expect another 25 years of inaction on minority skills, more pseudo-scandals about low minority representation, and an ever fatter diversity industry laughing all the way to the bank.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and the author of "Are Cops Racist?"