Diversity and inclusion are important and beneficial, but should be pursued in an inclusive way.
I get a queasy feeling when I read quotes like this, on why the interviewee prefers Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee:
“If I have a chance of voting for an old white man or a less old white woman, I’m going to vote for a less old white woman.”
To be precise, this quote expresses a preference for female over male, for young over old, and implicitly, for minority over “white”.
Imagine your reaction to a quote that instead expressed the opposite preferences.
Both strike me as dangerous, because they express race/age/gender biases without any reason or justification.
On the other hand, in a system that has already been shaped by bias, taking a truly demographically-blind approach has the tendency to follow and reinforce the existing bias.
If you support a pure meritocracy within a biased system, you’re inherently supporting the biases of that system.
The ideal we should strive for is true representation, where important roles and bodies reflect the population. We can best understand this ideal by considering how repugnant we find the opposite, such as South Africa under apartheid.
Yet the pursuit of this ideal remains a challenge, for two main reasons.
One, inasmuch as current representation is demographically biased, correcting that bias necessarily means reducing the representation of the over-represented. And thanks to the endowment effect and loss aversion, not to mention simple self-interest, it would be bizarre to expect a warm embrace of this reduction on the part of the incumbent. Sadly, it is human nature to focus on relative status, and a reduction in status, even if done for the reason of correcting historical biases, rarely feels good.
Second, our lives abound with evidence that perfect representation is nearly impossible, and that we are willing to live with imperfect representation in many areas. For example, Asian Americans represent 5.6% of the population of the US, but account for 21% of medical school graduates (a fact not lost on anyone who has seen a doctor in California recently). Very few view this as a major problem. I could see an argument for representation of elected government representatives being uniquely important, but I would still recoil from instituting quotas on Congress.
In the end, here in the United States, we live in a pluralistic, multicultural republic, where the power of the ballot is both the ultimate source of political power, and our ultimate defense against tyranny and oppression (along with the volunteers who serve in the armed forces). Bearing this fact in mind, the best principles I can offer are these:
1) Our ideal should be for every person with the right to vote to have the chance to exercise that right. Policies designed to keep people with that right from exercising it are wrong. Note that this principle doesn’t speak to things like the voting rights of felons; that is a question of law that should be resolved by legislation.
2) Our ideal should be perfect representation in the governing bodies of our representative government, but this is an ideal to be pursued, not a hard quota system to be enforced.
3) As we enact policies that move our government bodies from less to more perfectly representative, we should do so acknowledging, rather than denying, the negative impact on the incumbent, even if that incumbency resulted from pre-existing biases. Losing something you’ve had for a long time doesn’t feel that much better even if you realize that your distant ancestor acquired it unfairly.
4) We should consider demographics as a marker for context, not some universal truth. If you want to express a preference for electing a woman to the presidency, don’t say, “Women are more responsible than men.” Instead, say, “Women make up 51% of the population of the United States, but have accounted for 0% of 45 presidents. It certainly seems like the leader of this great nation should represent the majority of its residents at least some of the time.” This is of course independent of the qualifications of the individual candidates; representation does not present a strong enough argument to overcome major differences in competence or ability.