How the Asians became white

The New York Times Bits blog reports:

Google on Wednesday released statistics on the makeup of its work force, providing numbers that offer a stark glance at how Silicon Valley remains a white man’s world.

But wait — just a few paragraphs down, the post notes that non-Hispanic whites are 61 percent of the Google work force, slightly below the national average. (That average, according to 2006-10 numbers, is 67 percent.) Google is thus less white than the typical American company. White men are probably slightly overrepresented; assuming that the 30 percent number it gives for women Google employees worldwide carries over to the U.S. (the article gives no separate number for U.S. women Google employees), white men are 42 percent of the Google work force, and 35 percent of the U.S. work force — not a vast disparity. Indeed, if the goal is “reflecting the demographics of the country” as to race –

Google’s disclosures come amid an escalating debate over the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Although tech is a key driver of the economy and makes products that many Americans use everyday, it does not come close to reflecting the demographics of the country — in terms of sex, age or race.

– Google can only accomplish that by firing well over three-quarters of its Asian employees, and replacing them with blacks and Hispanics (and a few whites, to bring white numbers up from 61 percent to 67 percent).

Of course, it would be appalling for Google to fire Asians in order to have some sort of demographic match-up with the country, or even stop hiring Asians or hire fewer Asians for that reason. I think it would be equally appalling for it to fire, stop hiring, or hire fewer whites as well. My point is simply that, if one thinks that the problem is lack of “reflecti[on of] the demographics of the country,” “white[s]” aren’t the problem.

This is part of a phenomenon I have long observed, under the label of “how the Asians became white.” It’s not just that Asians are being treated like whites for purposes of race preferences, with some institutions deliberately setting lower standards (or creating a “plus factor,” which is the same thing) for black and Hispanic applicants than for Asian and white applicants — instead, people sometimes actually call Asians white (mostly unconsciously, I suspect). For more examples, see this post and this op-ed, though I haven’t been systematically tracking such things. Here are the closing paragraphs of the op-ed:

To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away. Marriages between Asians and whites are increasingly common; while anti-Asian bigotry exists, it is (at least among whites) much rarer than it was only one or two generations ago. As with the experience of the American Irish, Italians, Jews, and many other groups, the Asian experience shows that racial divisions and hostilities can subside over time.

But there’s a sinister aspect to this as well. To begin with, calling Asians “non-minorities” or even “white” is an error, and is a denial of their heritage. Asians have succeeded even though they are a racial minority — this fact deserves to be acknowledged. It redounds to the credit of the many Asians who worked terribly hard against often overwhelming odds. And it’s evidence of the essential fairness of the American capitalist system, which has rewarded this hard work even though many people, including many government officials, tried to penalize it.

Calling Asians white also creates new lines, possibly very dangerous ones. “White” has stopped meaning Caucasian, imprecise as this term has always been, and has started to mean “those racial groups that have made it.” “Minority” has started to mean “those racial groups that have not yet made it.” (A recent San Francisco Chronicle story even excludes non-Mexican-American Latinos from the “minority” category.) This new division is as likely as the old to create nasty, corrosive, sometimes fatal battles over which racial groups get the spoils. So long as we think in terms of “white” and “minority,” we risk disaster, no matter which races are put in which box.

And, finally, calling Asians white is often a tool for misleading the public. Falsely calling a school “lily-white” gets a strong reaction from readers. Accurately saying “There are relatively few blacks and Hispanics at the school, but there are many Asians, perhaps more than there are whites” leads to a much more complex (as well as more well-informed) response. Falsely talking about plummeting “minority” admissions makes more political hay than accurately describing decreases among some racial groups and increases among others.

Note: The percentage the New York Times post gives for whites as a share of the workforce, 80 percent, likely includes Hispanic whites, and is thus an inapt comparison to 61 percent, which is what the post gives for the non-Hispanic white workforce at Google; that’s why I used the 67 percent number for comparison instead. Note also that I realize that, technically, many South Asian Indians are often categorized as Caucasians in anthropological analyses; but to call them “white” for American purposes would be a sharp departure from how this category is understood in America today, and is not how the statistics that the article quotes seem to operate.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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