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The Dubious Celebration of Corporate Diversity

I frequently criticize the use of racial and ethnic preferences by universities and the government, but I should make clear that many corporations are just as bad. I’ve testified before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that such discrimination is widespread yet cannot be justified legally, empirically, or morally. You can read that testimony here , and an updated legal discussion here .

I also made the point that such discrimination is completely illogical, and that’s what I’d like to focus on in my email here this week.

Companies that use racial and ethnic preferences to achieve some predetermined, politically correct demographic mix will typically argue that “cross-cultural competence” or something like that is very important for their employees. To sell a Pepsi to a black person, you see, you have to be a black person, or at least to have learned how to think like one. Put like that, of course, this rationale is offensive as well as unpersuasive: The Phoenicians never could figure out how to trade with non-Phoenicians, nor the folks in Hong Kong with Westerners, right? That’s obviously silly, but let’s unpack the companies’ argument anyway.

The companies argue as follows: (1) that people tend to be quite different from one another depending on their melanin content and national origin, and that therefore the way one sells a product to, say, a black person is very different from the way one sells a product to a white person; (2) that these differences cannot be learned or taught on the job; and so (3) it is essential that companies that have a diverse consumer base also have a diverse workforce.

This argument has so many holes in it that one hardly knows where to begin. For starters, of course, it would justify preferences only in some parts of only some companies, namely those that do significant retailing with a broad consumer base. It would not justify special efforts to achieve diversity among truck drivers, for instance, or clerical staff, or R&D people, or the in-house accountants or lawyers, or any other employee who wasn’t involved in marketing the product. It would also not work if the different “perspectives” had nothing to do with customers, but assumed instead that some racial and ethnic groups have a different approach to, say, accounting or legal research or management or whatever (a position that relies, of course, on the crudest of stereotypes rather than treating people as individuals).

But let’s be charitable and take the most plausible scenario for the diversity argument. Let’s suppose that a company was going to be launching a big push to improve sales of its product to Mexican Americans in the Southwest and elsewhere in the United States, and that therefore it was going to use preferences to try to increase the number of Latinos in its marketing department. I stress that this is the most plausible kind of scenario for diversity-based hiring.

But wait, not all Latinos are Mexican Americans. A Cuban American or Puerto Rican might have no particular knowledge of how to market to Mexican Americans or any particular knowledge of Mexican American culture. He might speak Spanish—but he might not, and the Mexican American customer might or might not speak Spanish, and if speaking Spanish is important, that can be hired for directly, and there would be no reason not to consider an Anglo or Asian or African American who spoke Spanish.

Even among Mexican Americans, the prospective employee might or might not know something about Mexican American culture. There are plenty of Mexican Americans whose parents, and they, are fully assimilated. And what is it about Mexican American culture that is so mysterious that it cannot be fathomed by someone who happens not to have a Spanish surname? Again, traders have been trading with people different from themselves for thousands of years.

Of course, the typical scenario is not even this plausible. We frequently hear the breathtaking non sequitur that, because we live in an era of globalization, therefore American companies must hire more African Americans. So, in order to understand how to market to foreigners, companies must hire more African Americans, the quintessential Americans. And would we allow companies that do little business in, say, Asia to limit the number of Asians they hire?

No: For reasons of logic—and law—companies should forget about skin color and national origin and simply hire the individual best qualified for the job.