I’m just going to put that out there as a sort of a koan and see whether anybody responds. I find it a very upsetting and discouraging comparison, and I hope there’s nothing to it at all.
I think Conor Friedersdorf’s objections to “newsroom diversity as ideology” are, overall, wide of the mark. It would certainly be a pernicious mistake for communities to be covered only by people who came from those communities, or for journalists to be pigeonholed into reporting only on the communities they come from. But that’s not what the piece by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander to which Friedersdorf objects is talking about. Here’s the paragraph that Friedersdorf calls “nonsense”:
“You can’t cover your community unless you look like your community,” said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I [Andrew Alexander] sit on its board). “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them.”
Imagine diversity consultant Bobbi Bowman telling a black reporter, “I’m sorry, your work is good, and I’d like to grant your request to cover Georgetown for the Metro desk, but you can’t cover a community like Georgetown if you don’t look like the people there.”
But that’s not what Bowman said. She didn’t say you can’t cover basketball if you’re an opera lover. She said a newsroom full of opera lovers will find it difficult to cover a community of basketball players. Bowman is talking about the effect of diversity on communities, including the community of a newsroom. People in diverse communities soak up background knowledge from each other. They’re made aware of things they don’t know that they don’t know. They’ll walk in every morning and hear unfamiliar terms being bandied about, they’ll get an inkling of what’s going on out there and how much they have to learn.
In contrast, people in homogenous communities don’t know what they don’t know. They get trapped in echo chambers, and assume that the possibly ignorant opinions they and their demographically similar friends hold are accurate. The opera lovers at the Washington Post will likely do a solid job of covering a community of basketball players, but that’s in part because they’re surrounded by basketball fans. And the basketball players at the Washington Post will probably do a better job of covering opera if there are still a few opera fans left at the paper.
This is actually expressive of a pretty central tension in thinking about racial integration. Conservatism embraced the idea of an individualist anti-racism that permits no discrimination on any grounds by the late 1970s or so. But it did so in part by rejecting communitarian conservatism, which had been associated with support for segregation in the ’50s and ’60s. The orthodoxy on the conservative end of things became that expressed by John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Or, as Stephen Colbert would put it, “I don’t see black skin.”) Liberals, meanwhile, have not had an easy time of articulating the difference between barring consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to exclude people from institutions, but allowing or encouraging consideration of gender, religion or ethnicity to include people in institutions and promote in-house diversity. And it’s a genuine problem: any time you consider one person’s under-represented identity to include them, you may be considering someone else’s over-represented identity to exclude them.
Still, what Bowman is saying here is like what universities say when they explain why they value diversity in admissions: diversity is mission-related. In sectors like education and media, diverse institutions perform better. The reporter you put on a beat doesn’t need to come from that beat. But the newsroom that’s covering all those beats will do a much better job if it contains a mix of people who come from all those beats, too.
Filed under: race
Conor Friedersdorf is, as I’ve had occasion to experience, polite to a fault. But in this case I mean that literally: he’s being much too polite to this piece of garbage written by one of the National Review’s indistinguishable hackbots, this one apparently labeled “Jack Dunphy”. Dunphy generated the following bit of hatethink:
The real tragedy of [the Gates arrest] episode is that the genuine danger faced by blacks in America is not posed by racist police officers but rather by other blacks, particularly blacks armed with guns and lacking any moral constraints on using them….But such facts just aren’t “box office” for Mr. Gates, who feigns indignation at his arrest but must be inwardly gleeful that his victim ticket has now been punched, courtesy of the Cambridge Police Department.
Friedersdorf points out politely and accurately that there is no reason on earth why Skip Gates, angry at being, on his view, wrongfully arrested on his own property, should suddenly decide to decry the irrelevant issue of the relatively high rate of violence between black Americans. And to stay polite, Friedersdorf pretends not to understand why Dunphy raises the issue.
But obviously Friedersdorf knows why Dunphy raises the issue. French conservatives, criticized for their country’s colonialist record in Africa, will reliably raise the irrelevant issue of poor post-colonial governance by black African regimes; Russian conservatives, criticized for their country’s behavior in Georgia or Chechnya, will raise the irrelevant issues of Georgian mafias or Chechnyan religious fundamentalists; Serbians, criticized for oppressing Kosovar Albanians, will find all sorts of irrelevant things to say about how awful Kosovar Albanians are; Chinese will talk about the barbaric feudalism of pre-invasion Tibet or the ignorance and sexual rapaciousness of Uighurs; Israelis will point to Palestinian factional fighting; and so on. This is a rhetorical strategy for perpetuating ethnic in-group solidarity and dominance and for deflecting any accusations against one’s own group: “Those awful (blacks, Palestinians, Tibetans, Kosovars, Georgians etc.) have only themselves to blame.” It’s a disgusting form of ethnically divisive discourse, and people who engage in it deserve scorn and vilification. In fact, Friedersdorf’s modest and polite bafflement is probably a more effective response, but I’m choosing not to restrain myself.