Friday, May 1, 2015

Definitions, Race and Advocacy Effectiveness

Thinking about definitions the other day and considering how we accept clearly bad definitions and then talk about an issue as if the bad definition was real. Two examples.

We have long wrestled with the consequences that for some 30 or 40 years we have conflated race and ethnicity in our national census records. Whether one agrees with the appropriateness of focusing on race or not, there is still a legitimate issue regarding definitions.

White, Black, Native American and Asian are reasonably settled (with some loose ends) but what about the hybrid category of Hispanic which is a linguistic/national origin category, not a race. Hispanics can be of any one of the races.

By mixing race and ethnicity, we are clouding the picture significantly. Why would anyone want to do that?

It is often claimed that America is becoming more diverse and it is often implied that is becoming more racially diverse with the prospect of whites becoming a minority within a couple of decades (a forecast going back at least three decades) when in fact the US is becoming more diverse by country or origin. In other words, what is the racial mix of the US today compared to, say 1970, stripping out the non-racial category Hispanic (i.e. getting Hispanics to self-identify their race)?

In 1970, as best I can tell, the US was approximately 85% white, 11% black 3% Asian and 1% Native American. In 2015, as best I can tell from various surveys that ask Hispanics to self-identify their race, the US is about 80% white, 13% black, 6% Asian and 1% Native American. Those aren't huge changes. Certainly, a doubling of Asians is significant, but otherwise, all this talk about increasing racial diversity seems much ado about nothing. However, diversity has increased, just not racial diversity. In 1970, about 6% of the population was foreign born and now it is about 15%, almost a tripling in diversity by country of origin.

Why does this matter? Well, in part, it would be nice to tamp down the racial alarmists out there who keep trying to stir up concern about the changing make-up of the US. Yes, native born whites are declining as a percentage of the total population but that is in part because of the influx of, to use the New York Times' infelicitous terminology, white Hispanics.

Part of this matters just in terms of fostering honest conversations. In the past year some advocacy group or another tried to stir up a hoorah about the lack of diversity in the tech industry by pointing out that Google, Amazon, Apple et al had numbers (recalling from memory) along the lines of only 5% black and 6% Hispanic. But that doesn't mean the tech industry isn't diverse when you consider that whites are also significantly underrepresented. What can be accurately said is that Asians are dramatically overrepresented in the tech industry (but not if you are baselining against the population that has STEM degrees). The narrative being spun was that the tech industry is an example of white privilege not extending an equal opportunity to blacks and Hispanics. That is completely contrary to the truth which is that the tech industry is dramatically diverse with openings and opportunities for anyone of any background as evidenced by the fact that whites are materially underrepresented. We don't need to do anything to foster diversity in the tech industry because it is already diverse.

Unless of course we are also abusing the word diversity, which I would argue we are. These advocates were clearly arguing that diversity only meant African-Americans (and maybe Hispanic). They did not mean diversity as we usually mean it, i.e. degree of mix from all sources. I have come across this phenomenon, the airbrushing out of Asians from the figures, in several conversations covering different industries (especially in regard to universities).

What is going on here? Why are we using diversity just to mean African-American representation and not including other minorities?

Well partly, given the advocates and their goals, it just doesn't support the preferred narrative. It is hard to make the claim that tech industry executives are racist bigots if half their employee base and executives are minorities or foreign born.

Which made me wonder about related words such as multicultural, people of color and affirmative action. Here was my hypothesis. From 1965 onwards we had a federal policy of affirmative action in many fields which was originally intended to assist primarily African-Americans, in part as redress against past crimes. But as America became more ethnically diverse and in part because affirmative action has always been at its core a race-based program of benefit for one group of citizens at the expense of another, affirmative action had relatively little electoral support and was increasingly challenged in the courts and at the ballot box from the late 1980s through the 1990s. As affirmative action, now a tainted and rejected policy, lost favor and cache, my hypothesis is that the advocates for affirmative action began a switch to ostensibly more neutral terminology such as "people of color", "multicultural," and "diversity." Instead of the old affirmative action/quota advocacy for more African-American (police, candidates, employees, etc.), now the advocacy is for the fuzzier and somewhat more neutral "diversity."

To test this, I looked at the trends for all these phrases on both Google NGram Viewer (1900-2008) and Google Trends (2005 to present). Based on the hypothesis above, one would expect to see alternate terms for affirmative action to come into play prior to the peak of affirmative action, i.e. in the time frame where affirmative action was being challenged and picking up negative connotations.

And that is basically what you see. The tainted term affirmative action gains ground from 1970 onwards reaching a steady plateau circa 1980, popping up circa 1994 when many legal cases were being brought, and then peaking and declining from 1996 onwards. In 2008 it was used about third as often as it was in 1996. That's a pretty steep fall. "Multicultural" follows pretty much the same trend line. "People of color" emerged after 1990. None of these three ever gained significant traction. "Diversity" rocks along pretty steady state through to 1990 and then pops up, increasing in usage by 40% through 1994 and plateauing from then onwards.

So this data seems to sustain the hypothesis. Affirmative Action was the preferred term for racial quotas and preferences before accumulating sufficient negative connotations and falling away from usage after 1996. People of Color, Multicultural, and Diversity all came into increasing usage between 1990 and 1995 but only Diversity has had significant penetration.

Pending other evidence then, my working supposition is that Diversity replaced Affirmative Action as a term denoting racial preferences and quotas for African-Americans without the negative connotations of Affirmative Action. It is this specific genealogy of the word that explains why people are describing the tech industry as not diverse when it demonstrably is exceedingly diverse. It is not diverse in the old sense of having sufficient African-Americans. It also explains why the tech industry has responded as it has. It hasn't promised to hire more non-whites as it already has too few whites (per the proportional representation argument). It has responded by making a number of policy changes to favor African-Americans (and to a much lesser extent, Hispanics). In that regard, the race advocates have been very effective at hijacking the term Diversity to mean something quite different from its dictionary meaning.

Whether any of this is good or bad depends on the extent to which you favor using racial quotas and racial preference policies instead of race blind policies. However, it is interesting to see and measure the evolution of terminological meaning independent of dictionary meaning.

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