When diversity isn’t the right kind of diversity
By Pamela Paul
The death of Queen Elizabeth II has dominated headlines this month, homages to her reign and dissections of the Harry and Meghan situation unsurprisingly pushing other news aside, especially other stories from Britain.
But even amid all the pomp, one news item out of Britain has attracted curiously little attention. Liz Truss, the new Conservative prime minister, announced her Cabinet, and for the first time ever, not a single member of the inner circle — what’s referred to as the Great Offices of State — is a white man.
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, is the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian immigrants. The mother of the foreign minister, James Cleverly, emigrated from Sierra Leone. The new chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, was born to Ghanaian parents.
Did the left break into applause? Were there hosannas throughout progressive Twitter heralding this racial, ethnic and gender diversity as a step forward for society?
Instead, the change was dutifully relayed, often with caveats. “Liz Truss’s cabinet: diverse but dogmatic,” noted The Guardian. The new team was criticized as elite, the product of schools like Eton, Cambridge and the Sorbonne. These people aren’t working class, others pointed out. They don’t sufficiently support the rights of those seeking asylum in Britain or policies that address climate change.
“It’s a meritocratic advance for people who have done well in education, law and business,” Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that focuses on issues of immigration, integration and national identity, told CNN. “It’s not an advance on social class terms.”
This is an interesting criticism. “Meritocratic,” used here in a pejorative sense, means based on ability and achievement, earned through a combination of talent and hard work. Traditionally, merit served as the primary consideration in hiring, but some people today see the very systems that confer merit as rigged, especially against minorities. In an effort to rectify that imbalance and to diversify the workforce, particularly for leadership positions, it has become common practice in hiring — in the business and nonprofit worlds, as in government — to make racial or ethnic diversity a more significant factor.
The trouble is that for many of the same people, ethnic and racial diversity count only when combined with a particular point of view. Even before Truss’ Cabinet was finalized, one member of the Labour opposition tweeted, “Her cabinet is expected to be diverse, but it will be the most right-wing in living memory, embracing a political agenda that will attack the rights of working people, especially minorities.”
Another Labour representative wrote: “It’s not enough to be a Black or ethnic minority politician in this country or a cabinet member. That’s not what representation is about. That’s actually tokenism.”
The implication is that there’s only one way to authentically represent one’s race, ethnicity or sex — otherwise you’re a phony or a pawn. Is that fair?
I’m not politically aligned with Truss on most issues. This is not the team I’d choose to lead a country reeling from COVID, an energy crisis and the twin disasters of Boris and Brexit. But it’s Truss’ prerogative to hire people with whom she is ideologically aligned and who support her policies.
And one has to assume those new hires joined her willingly and with conviction. Surely they, like all racial and ethnic minorities, are capable of the same independence of mind and diversity of thought as white people — some people Trumpy, other people Bernie.
Nor are they the first conservative minorities to hold top positions of power in Britain. It was the Conservative Party that, despite widespread antisemitism, first appointed a Jewish-born prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in 1868. The three women who have served as prime ministers — Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and now Truss — have all been Conservatives. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was no lefty, yet he made a point of emphasizing ethnic and racial diversity among his leadership appointments.
Black and other ethnic minority voters in Britain aren’t uniformly lefty, either. They cast 20% of their votes for Conservatives in 2019.
A similar diversity of political opinion among minorities exists in the United States, and it bewilders the left. An increasing number of Latinos are running as and voting for Republican candidates. Donald Trump got more votes from ethnic minorities in 2020 than he did in 2016. Black men’s support for Trump increased by 6 percentage points the second time around. And that was after the murder of George Floyd, an event assumed to have galvanized many minority voters on the left.
In his prescient 1991 book, “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby,” law professor Stephen Carter decried many of the assumptions around diversity nascent at that time, including the notion that racial or ethnic minorities are expected to think as a group, not as individuals. He bemoaned “the idea that Black people who gain positions of authority or influence are vested with a special responsibility to articulate the presumed views of other people who are Black — in effect, to think and act and speak in a particular way, the Black way — and that there is something peculiar about Black people who insist on doing anything else.”
It’s been three decades since Carter’s book was published, and that lamentable assumption has only gained purchase. As he pointed out then: “In an earlier era, such sentiments might have been marked down as frankly racist. Now, however, they are almost a gospel for people who want to show their commitment to equality.”
It seems odd to have to point out in 2022 that “diverse” hires can be every bit as diverse on the inside as they are on the outside. For every Ketanji Brown Jackson, you’re liable to get a Clarence Thomas. Apparently, we need constant reminders that there’s more to people than meets the eye and that in multicultural societies, an acceptance of diversity must be more than skin deep.