After a hard year of reduced travel from the coronavirus, United Airlines decided it was time to announce a new initiative: “Our flight deck should reflect the diverse group of people on board our planes every day. That’s why we plan for 50% of the 5,000 pilots we train in the next decade to be women or people of color.” This type of corporate mantra is so common these days as to be unremarkable. But this announcement led to a lot of critical comments on social media—the dreaded ratio—about how this initiative has nothing to do with making flying safer.
United’s policies, however, are a rather typical expression of the ideology of diversity, a successor to the earlier, more limited concept of affirmative action.
The Emergence of Affirmative Action
Affirmative action followed quickly on the heels of federal civil rights laws. When the Civil Rights Act banned formal discrimination in 1965, many observers expected racial disparities in promotion, hiring, and graduation from universities to disappear quickly. This did not happen for a variety of complex reasons. Soon the courts changed the standards, focusing not on merely disparate treatment, but disparate impact. In other words, bad results were proof of discrimination, even without any discriminatory intent. Affirmative action and explicit quotas arose, in part, to avoid these outcomes.
Early proponents of affirmative action thought a little boost would even the scales. This had a certain logic to it, particularly for those that labored under the Jim Crow regime. Further, such help was “rough justice,” compensating the disadvantaged for decades of being held back.
As affirmative action matured, it became less popular. Racial tensions in the 1970s arose from new challenges, including forced bussing and rising crime. Economic stresses on working-class Americans from international competition made affirmative action particularly unpopular in blue-collar fields, where it was applied bluntly and painfully to the economically vulnerable.
The traditional American focus on merit, individual talent, and fairness remained in the background. Such race neutrality was, after all, the explicit moral basis for undoing Jim Crow. Even defenders said that affirmative action was, at most, a temporary response to temporary conditions.
In a quaintly optimistic opinion from 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor opined in Grutter v. Bollinger, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.”
Does anyone think this is going away in seven years?
From Affirmative Action to Diversity
The persistence of racial disparities, even after 50 years of affirmative action, is disheartening to many Americans. These disparities challenge the foundational American myth of human equality. In place of the earlier concept of equal treatment, and the limited proviso of affirmative action for historically disadvantaged black Americans, two intertwined concepts have since eclipsed their predecessors.
First is the neo-Marxist concept of “structural racism.” In a world with persistent inequalities of various sorts, coupled with widespread condemnation of racism, structural racism is a usefully amorphous explanation. It means, in essence, persistent inequality can only be explained by hidden and even totally unintended “structural racism.” Such unequal outcomes are said to be proof that something is deeply wrong with our country’s most basic concepts, such as fairness, merit, testing, and the like. The more granular causes of these outcomes are not terribly important. Anything that results in less-than-perfect lockstep results by racial cohort functions as proof of structural racism.
The other idea, and one with more positive connotations, is diversity. By the 1980s, the expansion of affirmative action became increasingly divorced from Jim Crow, most of which ended before incoming students and newcomers to the workforce had been born. At the same time, the justification for affirmative action had little connection to other groups, whether American Indians, Hispanics, Asians, women, or the like, who labored under far less restraint than black Americans. Diversity gave these policies a new lease on life by expanding their scope.
Diversity also promised to be good not merely for the beneficiaries, but for everyone and everything, including the bottom line. Diversity is “our” strength, not merely an advantage to those given specific help. Diversity policies had a large cohort of ready-made stakeholders, each guaranteed a particular slice of the pie.
Diversity has no real theorist behind it. There is no Rousseau or Marx of diversity. It just appeared, growing out of some dicta in an early affirmative action decision by the Supreme Court. In the 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell stated in a concurring opinion that the goal of “attaining a diverse student body” provided a “constitutionally permissible” reason to allow racial preferences in college admissions. From there, diversity initiatives permeated higher education and then the business world.
By the 1990s, diversity itself became an entire industry. There were diversity consultants and chief diversity officers. Everyone in the public and private sector now mouths platitudes in support of diversity. An important factor missing from all the diversity talk was data. One reason, of course, is that certain questions are simply too dangerous to explore. The wrong conclusion can lead to pariah status, as The Bell Curve authors learned.
This is why diversity is especially prominent in soft fields with vague metrics of productivity: higher education, government, journalism, nonprofit management, marketing, and human resources. These fields have diffuse responsibility and limited accountability. Bad work by a mediocre employee cannot easily be measured or found out.
In a sense, diversity is a luxury good. Profitable enterprises can absorb people who are not the best of the best, particularly for jobs where being the best is not an important requirement; other talented and hard-working people can cover the slack. In large organizations, there are also jobs where less skilled people can do relatively little harm, like “community liaison.”
For more tangible fields, like firefighting or police work, the costs of lowering standards are more tangible—sometimes directly causing real headaches—but there is little courage inside or outside organizations to speak frankly about the costs of diversity.
Does Anyone Want To Fly On An Airline Where Diversity Is Priority One?
This brings us back to United Airlines. There are certain jobs—heart surgeon, pilot, oil tanker captain—where there is almost no room for error. There is a linear relationship of talent and skill, and those on the customer side, as well as the general public, insist on excellence. Mistakes are immediate and costly.
In response to customer criticism, United insisted there would be no degradation in standards or quality. This seems unlikely. In every other field where diversity becomes the watchword, excellence becomes a secondary priority. After all, excellence is rare. Whatever criteria were used to pick the best people before could simply be applied to all comers, the results listed first to last. Everyone knows this would undermine diverse outcomes.
Even so, this is the way it’s still done in professional sports. And while the NBA is not diverse, strictly speaking, racial disparities are largely irrelevant to the audience. In fact, one of the joys of sports is its celebration of talent and the clarity of winning and losing in a world filled with so much politics, mediocrity, and ambiguity.
But in every other department of life, particularly when historically disadvantaged minorities or women are not advancing in lockstep, the ready-made explanation of structural racism or bias rears its head. The results themselves are the problem, even though the standards—surgical skill, piloting acumen, or infantry officer—are fairly objective and long-established.
Another important reality undermines diversity propaganda. Hiring and promotion are zero-sum games; to advance one group, one must artificially hold back another. For example, United has said it will definitely not hire more than 2,500 white men to be pilots no matter how skilled. These messages have an impact. Even so, we are told “diversity benefits everyone,” and it is “our” strength.
Surveying the country, it’s hard not to see a more general reduction in quality across the board . . . not in strength, but fragility. Consider the recent COVID episode. Does this look like a society with a lot of resilience, or one with highly skilled elites and decision-makers?
Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry of the Ethics and Public Policy Center recently described the situation quite precisely:
[A]ffirmative action . . . was the product of a very self-confident America, one that knew that it had such an unprecedented surplus of competence and social capital that it could afford to trade away a fraction of it for the sake of social harmony. . . . The society that sent men to the moon and had every church and synagogue packed could afford some social experiments. . . . By contrast, the idea that 2021 America is a place where everything already works so well and everyone is already so talented that we can afford to relax standards a little bit (more) is just empirically laughable.
The diversity myth has several dimensions. As already discussed, one is the idea that lowering standards can be done without degradation in results. Another is that diversity helps all of us, even as white men have become minorities on college campuses and are particularly excluded from gatekeeper institutions to the elite, such as the Ivy League. Finally, there is the idea that diversity will heal our racial tensions. This last part appears to be false by all evidence.
Instead, as America has become more diverse and more committed to diversity as a goal, it has become race-obsessed, with increasingly strident demands being made for revolutionary change, including the release of violent prisoners, the supposed victims of “structural racism.” Race obsessions arise where the focus is on the racial makeup of outcomes, rather than on a fair process.
One would think the airline business is fundamentally simple: get people from point A to point B quickly, cheaply, comfortably, and, most important of all, safely. Presumably airplanes not falling out of the sky is just as important as who wins the Super Bowl.
But for United, safety has to fly coach.