The Quest for Diversity is Far From Complete

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Hands from diverse cultures (Image Credit: The Medium)

For as long as human thought has been recorded, equality – a principle found in most cultures – has demanded respect for all people; Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, instructs to “treat like cases as like”. Inherent in such equality is diversity – the equal treatment and inclusion of diverse populations – thus if equality is treated as a moral necessity, so must diversity.

The foremost issue with centering diversity as an end in contemporary politics is that it may not be the most urgent societal issue. For example, in the pursuit of diversity, corporations are encouraged to adopt hiring practices conducive to diversity. Many refute such hiring practices since there are now ostensibly the same opportunities for all people – in our modern liberal society, minorities are legislatively protected from discrimination. It might even be insulting to suggest that minorities should be coddled through positive discrimination. The 2010 Equality Act has produced noticeable improvements; for example, in 2020, the proportion of BAME adults in work has risen from 60% to 69% from 2004 to 2019. Furthermore, the proportion of black students at Oxford has risen from 1.3% in 2016 to 3.7% in 2020, finally aligning with Britain’s ethnicity statistics. This data shows that there have been societal improvements; potentially, that equality has mostly been established. Therefore, while diversity is important, continuing to pursue it may not be as imperative as modern discourses makes it seem.

While everyone has the same rights in Britain, this is merely formally – the law cannot prevent every act of injustice. It cannot protect victims of hate crimes. It cannot deconstruct societal prejudices that one grows up with. It cannot defend a minority if an employer circumvents the Act by phrasing discrimination in a way that is not overtly prejudicial. If diversity is not prioritized, one risks deepening historic inequalities. While, as outlined above, 69% of BAME adults work, their white counterparts already had an employment rate of 74% in 2004, and 78% were working by 2019. The societal disparities of history cannot be righted through law alone; the Equality Act has arguably had little effect on discriminatory behavior. Worryingly, since 2012, rates of hate crimes have consistently risen – there has been an increase of 37% in 2022 compared to 2021. This is not to diminish the importance of formal equality, but to further attest to the importance of rooting out injustices which persist in our society. Thus, while legislation may grant formal equality, this is only a small part of the solution – substantive equality is needed, which can only be attained by centering diversity.

There are numerous societal benefits on the path towards a diverse substantive equality. A feature of the human experience is that it differs for every individual; people belong to myriad disparate demographics. Bringing together different sets of experiential knowledge (due to different upbringings) increases the efficiency and cohesion of a unit, as well as the quality of ideas formed by the group. Three studies carried out by McKinsey since 2014 affirm this; their research has shown that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely (as of 2020) to have above-average profitability than those in the bottom quartile; concerning ethnic and cultural diversity, the most diverse companies outperformed others by 36%. An example of the benefits of diversity can be found within the ecumenical World Council of Churches, who have advocated for justice and peace through work such as the Program to Combat Racism during the Apartheid. This involved the unification of diverse religious ideologies; a homogeneous group would not have the same variety of beliefs, which would have led to a less multi-faceted, and thus less beneficial, solution. Diversity within a community challenges biases, fosters tolerance, and encourages solidarity; without these products of diversity, it is impossible to reach the telos of equality. Diversity thus provides means by which society can achieve its ends, as well as concrete tangential benefits present through all aspects of society.

However, there are dangers to diversity – not least tokenism, where corporations engage symbolic gestures of diversity to launder their own image. Tokenism portrays a false sense of diversity (and thus inclusivity towards minorities), and, in media, presents minorities as one- dimensional. The Big Bang Theory, for example, appealed to its predominantly white American audience by having the sole non-white main character, Rajesh, fall susceptible to repeated gags and stereotypes – his un-American (Indian) accent, his inability to talk to women, his friendliness with snakes. In the context of business, it can negatively harm all parties – members of majority groups might miss out on opportunities, and those in the minority might be disrespected by being seen as merely a means of social control (outlined by Kanter, 1977, in Men and Women of the Corporation, a pioneering exploration into tokenism). Additionally, dangers for businesses increase if they use the mere presence of diversity as a proof for the presence of equality. For example, the 1976 DeGraffenreid v General Motors (highlighted by Crenshaw’s 1991 paper Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color, one of the first academic writings to seriously consider intersectionality) case involved five black women appealing against a company policy they felt targeted black women. However, the court suggested that since (only white) female employees were hired prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, General Motors could not have been prejudiced against women. Winning the court case, General Motors did not change their practices, and the token hires continued to experience discrimination. This is not to suggest that members of minority groups should not be hired; rather that their hire should be accompanied by wider institutional changes instead of being viewed merely as a quick means to an end. The General Motors case shows that tokenism negatively impacts employees from marginalized backgrounds, and creates conflict between groups, which is counterproductive to equality – therefore surface- level diversity is harmful to the true aims of diversity.

Barring practical advantages and disadvantages of diversity, one might query its fidelity to core liberal principles, such as meritocracy and free speech. In the pursuit of diversity, some are being denied the chance, despite having put in the requisite effort, to widen the number of opportunities available to them, merely for expressing their opinions. How can a modern liberal society allow its citizens to be attacked merely for exercising the right to free speech, something held so sacred? This challenge towards diversity, however, is unfounded. Criticism is an expression of free speech and diversity of thought – all parties freely expressed their opinions on the matter. Ironically, diversity is conducive of free speech – if members of a society think and act similarly, then one risks groupthink becoming prevalent; diversity expands the marketplace of ideas. It is neither diversity, nor “woke liberalism” that threatens free speech; it is those who believe that they are entitled to a platform, disregarding accountability and responsibility for their actions. As seen in this context, diversity of thought (a natural product of diversity) is required for free speech to flourish; diversity accords with modern liberalism, as well as equality.

Diversity is a principle which any society should promote; without it, society will continue to be unequal. Prejudicial social practices, while not the norm, still must be challenged to reap diversity’s benefits, such as through business and media. However, it is crucial that implementations of diversity aid those who deserve opportunities, not those looking to improve their image. Some criticize “woke” liberalism for being hypocritical concerning free speech – however, “cancel culture” itself demonstrates free speech – nobody is entitled to a platform, merely their opinion. Therefore, diversity is necessary to further equality, and consistent with core liberal values. However, modern liberal society knows this, so why is change so slow? We are too content with merely relatively low levels of prejudice, even though a decade after the 2010 Equality Act, hate crimes are still disconcertingly prevalent. Martin Luther King Jr. succinctly summarizes the issue, stating that:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Written by Lyndon Chen

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