Balancing Diversity and Meritocracy – Global Issues

Source: US Census Bureau.
  • Opinion by Joseph Chamie (Portland, USA)
  • Inter Press Service

In a growing number of areas, including politics, employment, careers, education, the armed forces, immigration, the judiciary, entertainment and sports, countries are making far-reaching decisions about when to pursue diversity and when to focus on meritocracy.

Some may view the goals of diversity and meritocracy as incompatible. However, in practice, it is often difficult to reconcile these two goals, especially due to imprecise definitions, different definitions, and the lack of reliable measures.

Promoting diversity certainly poses a variety of challenges for societies. However, the pursuit of meritocracy also faces unrecognized risks and biases, as well as discrimination, behind efforts to reward merit.

Rewards attributed to meritocracy are often simply the result of privilege, inheritance, and entitlement. In addition, some have argued that the pursuit of meritocracy actually creates inequality, stifles social mobility, and increases unhappiness.

Admittedly, diversity and meritocracy among the country’s population are diverse and vary significantly globally. Nevertheless, useful insight can be gained from considering the experience of a country that exemplifies a nation struggling to find the right balance between diversity and meritocracy: the United States.

US law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. However, policies and practices such as affirmative action aim to combat discrimination against certain racial groups by increasing their chances for employment, promotion, higher education, and other opportunities.

Since the first US census in 1790, the US Census Bureau has been tasked with collecting data on the racial makeup of the American population. In the 1790 census, about 81 percent of the US population was white, 19 percent were black, and 92 percent of them were slaves.

The percentage of the US population that was white rose to 90 percent in 1920, where it remained until 1950, when it began to decline, reaching 80 percent in 1990. In the early 21st century, the proportion of whites declined even further, remaining at about 75 percent. . The proportion of whites is projected to continue to decline and reach 68 percent of the US population by 2060 (Figure 1).

The methods the Census Bureau uses to collect race data have evolved over the past 230 years, reflecting changes in American society. Based on the 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) race standards, the Census Bureau collects self-identifying responses to the race question, and respondents are allowed to select more than one race.

The OMB requires five minimum categories: White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. These categories reflect the social definition of race and do not define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.

The racial categories and their proportions of America’s population of 332 million in 2021 are: White 75.8 percent, Black or African American 13.6 percent, Asian 6.1 percent, American Indian or Alaska Native 1.3 percent, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders at 0.3 percent. percent, and two or more races 2.9 percent (Figure 2).

It is useful to consider a number of examples from different walks of life in the United States to illustrate different aspects of the country’s efforts to balance racial diversity and meritocracy.

In 1960, African Americans represented 20 percent of the league’s players in professional basketball. Today, African Americans make up about 75 percent of the basketball players in the National Basketball Association.

Among the nation’s orchestras, by contrast, African Americans make up less than 2 percent of players. About half a century ago, the selection of musicians for orchestras was changed to blind auditions, where candidates perform behind a curtain. Because blind auditions do not make orchestras more diverse, some have called for an end to blind auditions and to consider race so that orchestras reflect the communities they serve.

In professional football, African Americans make up 58 percent of the players. However, they account for 9 percent of head coaches, or five head coaches in the 32-team National Football League (NFL).

After accusations about the hiring of a discriminatory head coach nearly 20 years ago, NFL team owners agreed to policy changes to address the allegations. Among these changes was the Rooney Rule, which stated: “Any club wishing to hire a head coach shall interview one or more minority candidates for the position.”

In the armed services, African-Americans make up 23 percent of military draftees, nearly double their proportion of the U.S. population. Among the officers, the percentage of African Americans is much lower and is 11 percent.

The US military has implemented a number of initiatives to promote racial diversity in senior ranks. The Army, for example, removed officers’ photographs from personnel files, so promotion boards became less aware of race and more minority officers chose combat assignments, an important step for the top star officer ranks.

In higher education, the race-conscious admissions practices of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are being challenged in cases currently before the Supreme Court. The court is being asked to consider the constitutionality of the two universities’ racial preferences in college admissions.

Asian American enrollment at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina is 25 percent and 22 percent, respectively. These percentages are nearly four times higher than the proportion of Asian Americans in the US population.

Nevertheless, the race-conscious admissions practices of these two universities are under judicial review. After a preliminary hearing on October 31, the Supreme Court appears poised to rule that the admissions programs of Harvard and the University of North Carolina are illegal based on its own inquiry and comments.

These admissions practices, which discriminate against Asian Americans and effectively limit the number of Asian applicants, have drawn comparisons to past efforts by Harvard and other elite universities to limit enrollment of Jewish Americans. If only academics were considered, an internal study by Harvard University suggests that Asian Americans would make up 43 percent of the admitted class.

In four Gallup polls since 2003By 2016, at least two-thirds of Americans saidcollege admissions should be made on the basis of merit only. A more recent national poll by the Washington Post in October found that a majority of Americans, 63 percent, support banning race in college admissions. However, the majority of respondents, 64 percent, supported programs to increase racial diversity on campuses.

The imbalance in achieving racial diversity is also reflected in the composition of America’s professions. For example, Asian Americans make up 17 percent of active physicians, compared to 5 percent for African Americans.

Similarly, the rates for Asian Americans and African Americans in science and engineering occupations are 21 percent and 5 percent, respectively. Among US lawyers, the rates are relatively low for both Asian Americans and African Americans, at 2 and 5 percent, respectively.

Americans’ personal views on workplace diversity also reflect difficulties in balancing racial diversity and meritocracy. A 2019 national PEW survey found that a majority, 75 percent, value workplace diversity. However, a majority of respondents, 74 percent, also believe that only qualifications should be considered, not an applicant’s race, even if it leads to less diversity in hiring and promotions.

How best to balance diversity and meritocracy remains a central challenge for America, as well as for many other countries. In the United States, this problem has become even more difficult. with the confusing and biased use of less and less meaningful categories of race, ethnicity, language, ancestry and origin.

Overall, with a growing world population of eight billion, changing demographics of national populations, and the fundamental need to ensure human rights for all, the challenge of how to balance diversity and meritocracy can be expected to become even more critical and consequential. countries in the coming years.

Joseph Chamie consultant demographer, former director of the United Nations Population Division, and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Birth, death, migration and other important population issues.”

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