The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Workplaces need to fight bias, but ‘looking like America’ is too simple a standard

NPR's headquarters in Washington on Oct. 20, 2021. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP)
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Many institutions faced pressure to diversify after the great racial reckoning of June 2020, but industry sectors dominated by the left — academia, media and entertainment — have pushed harder than most to make their staffs “look like America.” So it was cause for consternation when three high-profile women of color left NPR between November and January.

NPR’s public editor weighed in with data suggesting that diversity remains a real problem at her organization. She noted that even though NPR has been setting aggressive diversity targets — almost 80 percent of new hires this past year were people of color — it remains much Whiter than the United States in many ways: a radio audience that is “78% white (compared with about 60% of the U.S. population),” a roster of “audience-facing journalists” that is still 68 percent White — which may, in turn, be making it harder for NPR to reach a broader audience.

At first glance, those numbers did seem to be a reason for concern. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that’s really surprising when you consider that journalists, and their audiences, tend to be older than average. The United States’ demographics are shifting, it’s true, but the shape of that change over generations matters a lot.

We talk a lot in my business about how younger, more diverse generations are changing politics and culture. But we often forget to think about the corollary: Older, Whiter generations disproportionately make up our workforce, and our customers. If we don’t account for those generational effects when designing diversity initiatives, we’re setting ourselves up for frustration, or worse.

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Think about the workforce in the left-leaning industries I mentioned above. Except for actors, the highest-profile workers — the ones we’re most avid to diversify — are mostly going to be college graduates, which means 22 or older. Actually, they’re generally older than that, because it usually takes time to work your way up to an elite outlet or school. And possibly much older, since knowledge workers don’t face the same retirement pressures as longshoremen. Last year, my colleague George F. Will celebrated his 80th birthday, and Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” turned 70.

In 1951, the year of Gross’s birth, more than 85 percent of the babies born in the United States were White. That may be slightly overstated, because only Black births were broken out separately, but keep in mind that in 1950, Hispanics were only about 1.5 percent of the population, and most of the other groups we now tally were even smaller.

Those numbers began changing after 1965, thanks to changes in immigration law, but that took a lot of time. As late as 1999, two-thirds of the children in the United States were non-Hispanic Whites.

The children born during those decades now make up most of the workforce in the United States, and, particularly, most of the workforce in jobs such as English-language journalism, because only about half of all immigrants speak English “very well.” And while immigrants are slightly more likely than natives to have advanced degrees, they are also disproportionately likely to have a high school education or less, an impassable barrier to entry to most professional-class jobs.

So if your output consists mostly of English-language content, produced by college graduates, your workforce is unlikely to “look like America” in the broadest sense. Too many non-White Americans are still minor children, who are too busy learning algebra to make podcasts or write television scripts.

Moreover, even if such organizations tried to hire workers in exact racial proportion to the overall population, rather than their proportions in the available hiring pool, established institutions such as NPR would still likely end up Whiter than the United States as a whole, because of course employers don’t replace all their workers every year. People they hired years or decades ago are still around, and those older employees will be Whiter than rising generations. Often, the only way for such a firm to “look like America” would be to fire those older workers or hire far fewer new White employees than their share of the population indicates.

To achieve one important kind of fairness, then, managers would have to violate other ideas of fairness that also matter. And because age and racial discrimination are both illegal, they might end up violating the law, as well.

That’s not to say that discrimination and structural disadvantage don’t also play a role in the lack of diversity at various organizations; of course the United States still has too much of both, unfortunately. To name just one obvious example, Black and Latino children are less likely to graduate college than their White counterparts, so firms that require college diplomas are apt to end up disproportionately White. We need to do the urgent work of eliminating those kinds of gaps.

But it does mean that it’s important to account for generational effects when you’re trying to fix those other diversity issues. Otherwise you risk setting goals that are hard to meet legally, and setting yourself up for a lot of anguish when you fall short.