A few days ago, a hate-mongering, anti-Biden flier landed in the mail slot of my home. The page was full of headlines and testimonials about how whites and Asians now face discrimination when they apply for jobs, and that the notion of “equity” excludes people like them. The audience (everyone in my household is Asian American) and timing (smack in between the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearings on affirmative action and Election Day) were hardly coincidental.
Among the falsehoods, the last on the list stopped me in my tracks for its authenticity: “I was chatting with one of my bosses the other day about a potential new hire. He let slip that the executive team ultimately did not extend an offer because ‘we didn’t need another white guy.’ He literally said this out loud.”
I actually hear versions of this statement quite often. “They told me I would have gotten the job … but they have to hire a minority.” Or: “I just don’t know the chances of a white guy like me landing this role.” If someone like me, who considers herself a product of affirmative action and wears support for the practice quite loudly and proudly, is hearing this, then I can only imagine what is being said in the company of those who are less vocal.
Now here we are on Election Day, and there’s no hiding from the fact that diversity is being wielded as a weapon. This is what I foreshadowed exactly one year ago, after critical race theory ended up on ballots across the country in 2021. In this election, it feels like all those parents mad about multicultural books and curricula are now focused on the workplace trainings they have had to endure since the murder of George Floyd two years ago, as employers have focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion with an energy not seen since the civil rights movement. White and (some) Asian voters are suddenly saying the quiet part out loud, and the results will be dangerous.
Regardless of what happens in today’s election, my hope is that workplaces arm employees with the facts and information needed to combat this racism and regression: namely, white people are still doing quite well, and that Asian Americans are a complicated identity group.
How white people are doing
A recent report from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Center for Employment Equity concluded that white men really do have it better when it comes to professional jobs, and are actually helped by diversity. “What we find is that White men’s advantaged access to middle and upper class jobs is largest in states with large minority populations,” the report’s authors wrote. “There is not a single state where Black men are overrepresented in professional jobs. Black men and women tend to have the least access to professional occupations in the southern states. Hispanic men and women are underrepresented in professional jobs in all states.”
Working-class white men do face competition from other race and ethnic groups—but even there, separate research and anecdotal evidence have shown that people of color struggle to get in the door. Study after study has shown that candidates with “Black-sounding” names, for instance, have a much tougher time advancing through the hiring process. Just recently, Insider told the story of a woman who changed her name from Naturi to “Tori” in order to land a job at Target.
Why do white workers think they face discrimination, then? Sure, there are a lot more efforts to diversify the pool of applicants. Also, employers may find it easier to blame race for a candidate’s shortcoming rather than being honest with him about why. If employers were to institute feedback as a part of their candidate rejection process, it would be a welcome replacement of the whisper campaigns currently filling that void.
Where Asians are an underrepresented minority
In many of my conversations with diversity officers, I often ask where they see Asians among other minority groups. A recent McKinsey report cautioned against seeing Asians as a monolith, and found uneven mobility depending on country of origin: “For South Asian foreign-born noncitizens, nearly 80% of them achieve their bachelor’s degree or higher,” the report noted. “However, for Southeast Asian foreign-born noncitizens, only 34% of them did.” In New York, Asian Americans are the city’s poorest minority group.
My fear is that Asian Americans will fall for the simplistic lines of campaign fliers versus the reality and complexity of their ascension. Genentech’s Chief Diversity Officer Quita Highsmith told me that while Asian talent is well represented in her company, “representation drops in senior leadership. In an equitable environment, one would expect to see similar representation of our leadership to the rest of our workforce.” She also said the company is “increasing Asian representation in senior leadership as part of our 2025 Commitments.”
During last week’s Supreme Court hearing of oral arguments in two affirmative action cases, new Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cautioned against cutting off affirmative action in higher education, noting that schools are “pipelines” to professional leadership. If they are not diverse, then the institutions they supply with talent also will not be diverse.
The companies that most benefit from diversity can no longer remain quiet. The language and energy employed in the press releases of 2020, championing equity and vowing to correct past wrongs, are needed more than ever. Already, their silence is being replaced with unsubstantiated hearsay and political rhetoric moving us, all of us, ever backward.