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The American diversity meat grinder
How the most diverse industry in America came to think of itself as having a Diversity™ problem
The American people have for equality an ardent, insatiable, eternal and invincible passion; they desire equality within liberty, and, if they can’t obtain it, they’ll desire it within slavery instead.
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The principal conflict in the United States right now is between the equality of political status that liberal democracy promises and the inequality that unfettered capitalism actually provides. The American Declaration of Independence thunderously declares “all men are created equal”, and yet the country’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) ranks it alongside heavily-stratified Bolivia. Liberalism announces ‘one person, one vote’ and ‘equality before the law’, and yet somehow the children of the wealthy have a plusher time on Christmas morning than those of the very poor (not to mention most other days of their lives).
The contrast is even sharper if you consider the equity that various social justice movements seek to achieve, whereby every sub-segment of society (at least those we fixate on) must be proportionally represented at every echelon of society. Or really, only in the elite reaches of the social firmament; nobody bothers with the racial diversity of lumberjacks, fruit workers or commercial fishermen. The equality of outcome pursued by ‘wokeness’ is a whole other bar to reach from mere equality of rights or opportunity.
In whatever stage of capitalism this is where corporations are the principal organizations that order society and through which people live their lives, it’s perhaps not surprising to see tech companies at the nexus of this contradiction.
Titans like Facebook or Apple relentlessly race to recruit the best talent and put them through an absolute wringer of an interview process designed to filter for The Perfect Software Engineer or The Perfect Product Manager. I’ve been through it myself many times—sometimes successfully, often not. The hiring rates, a handful among hundreds of candidates reviewed, resemble the acceptance rates at the universities that typically grace the résumés in question.
Whites form barely 50% of Google, which is less than their percentage of the population as a whole. If you were to institute affirmative-action style quotas in tech, you’d need a program for Whites given their under-representation.
Once our lucky job candidate is inside the corporate hegemon, the measurement doesn’t stop. Every tech company has an involved performance review process, aligned with whatever management gospel they believe. Employees, having spent long hours both working in Zoom meetings and bonding in ‘offsites’ (a mix of school trip and group therapy) are then asked to submit ’360-degree feedback’. Almost like East Germans writing Stasi reports on each other, employees rank all their colleagues according to whatever governing rubric or merit.
In the work-to-live culture of 2021 America, many of those colleagues are also personal friends, but the corporation always trumps such mere trifles. The ‘fifth quartile’, as we joked at Goldman Sachs, isn’t there for the next performance cycle. Hey friend and co-worker, sorry to see you go, the lucky survivor of the review cycle might say to a less fortunate colleague, but please make sure to send out your personal contact info at least a few minutes before IT cuts off your Slack access.
That’s just in the public companies where work still somewhat resembles the large companies of the pre-tech industrial era: the stakes are even higher among the high-growth startups. There, returns on techno-capital can be stratospheric, way beyond even other capitalism-soaked boom times of the past. Silicon Valley venture capitalists are fully willing to lose 90% or more of their portfolio knowing that just one successful IPO can make good on the entire fund. I personally know more than one person who went from grinding as a middle-class worker bee, struggling to afford pricey San Francisco, to enjoying generational wealth thanks to a stint working on what seemed an improbable idea (a mobile app hailing amateur taxis...that’ll never work!).
For every such person, there’s at least one (if not a dozen) other people who did the same job at a similar company which, for reasons beyond the control of any individual, did not make it. One engineer walks away with a million times what the other one did: Silicon Valley, baby! Anyone who says the code that the first engineer produced during that interval is actually worth a million times more than the analogous code produced at the losing startup is…probably that engineer.
Herein lies the problem: if venture-capital-fueled technology is the great amplifier of human talent, with more than a little luck also added to the mix, then the outcomes will be spectacularly unequal. Which is why the diversity agenda—the thought that all groups must enjoy equal representation everywhere we choose to measure, for all those groups we measure—reaches such a crusading fervor inside the tech industry. The peaks and valleys that must be pummeled smooth are Grand Canyon-esque in their proportions.
In a debate full of contradictions, a cursory look at the actual state of diversity in tech, or at least ‘diversity’ by any meaningful use of the term, reveals a less alarming picture.
This American need to take all the world’s cultural diversity and put it through the meat grinder of American racial politics and pop out five flavors of sausage, three of which are diverse, is maniacally parochial.
According to data from the American Community Survey, something like 39% of software engineers in 2015 were foreign-born, many times higher than the baseline 17% of foreign-born in the US workforce. The same people who highlight the supposedly glaring deficiencies in Silicon Valley ‘diversity’ are often the first to point out how roughly half of Silicon Valley ‘unicorn’ companies are founded by immigrants, or how 2/5 of the FAANG quintumvirate are led by immigrants. Such figures are counterintuitively cited as proof that increasing diversity is good. But, is Silicon Valley a den of White privilege, or is it an avenue of enormous success for non-American, foreign-born minorities? Because it can’t exactly be both.
The reality is that Silicon Valley is one of the most open and diverse industries in the United States. In my thirteen or so years working on countless teams in numerous companies, I was routinely the only born American citizen and the only native English speaker. With the added irony that per the regnant diversity calculus, Mr. García-Martínez, your utterly basic Cuban-American exile type from Miami, was the real diversity on the team and not ‘Farhan’ or ‘Huajin’ who got off the plane a few years prior.
The diversity reports from large public tech companies—they’re all required to publish them nowadays—largely bear this out. Consider a table from Google’s 2021 US diversity report below. Asians constitute over 40% of all of Google; that’s a 7x (over)representation versus their population percentage.
Whites form barely 50% of Google, which is less than their percentage of the population as a whole. If you were to institute affirmative-action style quotas in tech, you’d need a program for whites given their under-representation1.
Really though, that’s not how this apparent problem will be solved at all: the notion of ‘Whiteness’ will simply mutate.
‘White’ doesn’t really refer to a skin tone: it’s the set of people not offered any sanctioned sympathy in the otherwise ruthless battle for talent and resources. Arguably, ‘White’ has always been something more metaphysical than biological: the Italians, Irish, and Jews and various flavors of non-WASP were not ‘white’ in decades past, and only slowly acceded to ‘Whiteness’ as social mobility climbed and prejudice receded2.
In the still liminal cases, such as Jews and Asians, the fight over what’s ‘White’ (functionally, if not skin-tone-wise) is ferocious. A school in the Olympia, WA area excluded Asians from its tallying of minorities, causing an outcry among parents. Journalists citing a tech company’s diversity stats will lump Asians with Whites to make the fraction seem troublingly low.
Jews and Asians present a particularly thorny problem, because despite having been (and continuing to be) on the receiving end of much violence and discrimination, they feature very prominently among the upper rungs of American society. This isn’t supposed to happen in the reigning orthodoxy of ethnic success: such lamentable discrimination must be coupled with a failure to scale the American social and economic ladder. In order to paper over this violation of the laws of racial physics, various tricks are deployed. Jews for a long time now have been functionally white, and plaints of anti-Semitism—for example, the rash of attacks against Jews during the last Gaza escalation—fall on increasingly deaf ears3.
But what about Afghans? Iranians? North Africans vs. Sub-Saharan Africans? Are Nigerians really ‘Black+’ in the American sense of the word? Am I really ‘LatinX+’ despite having a Spanish passport? The reasoning here soon becomes as acrobatic as Simone Biles doing a backflip.
In the Asian case, the apparent success is debunked as a myth4, while admissions policy is designed to hamstring future success by heightening their bar to entry to elite redoubts like Ivy League universities. In an ongoing US Supreme Court case, Asian American plaintiffs have claimed Harvard, based on Harvard’s own admissions data, presents a higher admissions bar to Asian applicants. There’s no Asian academic success to explain away if there isn’t any, is there?
But what about Afghans? Iranians? North Africans vs. Sub-Saharan Africans? Are Nigerians really ‘Black’ in the American sense of the word? Am I really LatinX+ despite having a Spanish passport? The reasoning here soon becomes as acrobatic as Simone Biles doing a backflip.
This American need to take all the world’s (real) cultural diversity and put it through the meat grinder of American racial politics and pop out five flavors of sausage, three of which are diverse, is maniacally parochial. But if that’s what the butchers of Apple and Google HR are doing, then everyone has strong opinions about where they land on the other side of the grinder.
Silicon Valley is just a roaring machine for recognizing and rewarding (to often ludicrous extremes) any talent it can find by whatever means. Want to make American companies even more diverse, by any real definition of diverse, than they already are? Then let’s institute a points-based immigration system like Canada and New Zealand have, which streamlines global STEM graduates working at US companies. Let’s give the much-coveted US ‘green card’ to every engineering graduate of an American research university, so that they don’t have to engage in administrative shenanigans to stay.
The lovers of corporate photos with lots of non-WASP faces in them—beaming, hoodie-clad, from inside the gleaming interiors of Silicon Valley’s plush corporate campuses—could only be supportive of the idea. Let’s have accented English be (even more) the norm inside the country’s most successful companies. We might just be surprised at the result.
This piece also appeared in shortened and modified form in UnHerd, one of my favorite indie publications right now.
Of course, the elite Ivy League colleges already have affirmative action for whites: it’s called ‘legacy admissions’ and is how more than one new building is funded. Perhaps whites can do the same with Google: pay the cost of setting up a new regional office, and Chip Taylor IV can be a newly-minted product manager on the Google Photos team. It might be how Chip got into Stanford after all: 18% of all Stanford admits for the class of 2023 were either children of Stanford graduates and/or contributed to ‘higher education philanthropy’ (read: bribes for admission).
All that’s left of that era are terms like ‘paddy wagon’--American slang for a police van, due to the Irish ‘Paddies’ who were seen as typically occupying them--which even now sounds outdated.
The Jews are in the uniquely ironic position of having been a persecuted minority through much of their history, as well as being the target of one of humanity’s greatest crimes, but their success in the United States disqualifies them for state-sanctioned sympathy. The American left’s move toward institutionalizing anti-Zionism as a core belief as part of the broad BDS movement, is all the more reason to remove Jews from any protected category. Not only are Jews white now, but they’re aggressors in a global conflict (even the tax lawyer from Scarsdale, New York). America’s racial sausage grinder is a curious apparatus.
That ‘myth’ is deconstructed by suddenly becoming non-reductionist about racial classification, and examining the admitted (real) diversity of the ‘Asian’ catchall, and demonstrating that some sub-groups are not doing that well. That does not of course actually undermine the ‘myth’: it just narrows the reality of Asian success to a more finely-grained set.
The ‘myth’ of Hispanic under-assimilation could be deconstructed the other way, distinguishing between second-generation Cuban-Americans like me and the Honduran who just illegally crossed the Rio Grande. But nobody is incentivized to do that, other than someone maybe making the case that Cuban-Americans aren’t really LatinX+ and are functionally White (i.e., undeserving of separate treatment). Our racial magnifying glass grows or shrinks to suit whatever ideological purpose.