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My Merit—Your Racism
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My Merit—Your Racism

Merit is weaponized ‘whiteness’ when it’s a barrier to entry, an indisputable fact when certain groups get the spoils of status.

People walk through the gate on Harvard Yard at the Harvard University campus on June 29, 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (Though perhaps not John Schneider, who probably needs to sit out a few plays),

A lot of folks are very angry at the suggestion (first injected into the news cycle by billionaire investor Bill Ackman) that Claudine Gay, Harvard’s embattled president, was a “diversity hire.” Michael Harriot penned this piece for The Grio:

Claudine Gay, white outrage and the myth of the ‘diversity hire’

Whenever a successful Black person does something that offends the sensibilities of whiteness, the “diversity hire” narrative rears its ugly head.

Derrick Johnson, the head of the NAACP, says that criticizing Gay amounts to “nothing more than political theatrics advancing a white supremacist agenda.” Over at The Daily Beast, Ameisha Cross is also outraged. Cross—rightly in my opinion—notes that this term is often used as an insult for successful black people. “The attack is not new,” she writes:

The further a successful person is from whiteness, the more likely they are going to face this kind of patronizing skepticism.

Vice President Kamala Harris has been attacked as a “DEI hire.” Right-wing culture warrior podcaster Jordan Peterson called Biden White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “some random diversity hire chick.” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) opposed DEI efforts in the military, saying the loud part loud when he insisted, “the military is not an equal opportunity employer. It shouldn’t be. It never should be.”

Now, a few things. First, I think the phrase “the further a successful person is from whiteness” is hilariously ridiculous and analytically amazeballs. But we’ll come back to that. I should also say that I don’t like Jordan’s characterization of Jean-Pierre. I don’t think she’s fantastic at the job, but she’s eminently qualified for it. She also is a pretty thoughtful and serious person, from what I know, who has the misfortune of having a very difficult job. You try to make the case that Joe Biden is so energetic that age isn’t an issue and see how smart you look. Also, I think Tommy Tuberville is pretty dumb. Or maybe he’s a very smart football coach but those skills don’t translate well to the Senate. 

Either way, just in case you didn’t know, the military isas a matter of policy and plain meaning—an equal opportunity employer. It should be. It should always be. Tuberville may be using the phrase as a dog whistle, but he’s being an idiot.

Kamala’s merit.

But Kamala Harris? How is she not a “diversity hire”? During a CNN debate Joe Biden promised, “If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a, pick a woman to be vice president.” Later, he signaled that he would pick a black woman and narrowed it down to, well, four black women. This was in response to a massive pressure campaign from prominent elected Democrats and leading African American activists. “There is a feeling of urgency and history—and Black women are tired of being considered the help,” Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, told the Washington Post in August 2020. “In politics, we have carried so many on our backs across the finish line, and in this moment in our history, we believe that it is time for a Black woman.”

Sounds to me that diversity was a really important consideration. People celebrated his choice as “the first woman, the first Asian American and the first Black vice president.”

All of this was very hard to miss. 

I dwell on this because it helps illustrate the heads-we-win-tails-you-lose nature of this whole topic. The country spends billions on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies for hiring. Corporations, universities, unions, and major media organizations all have well-funded DEI departments. There’s colossal social pressure to hire for diversity, but for some reason if you call someone a “diversity hire” that’s an outrageously racist charge. You can’t have it both ways. Either diversity was a really important factor in picking Kamala Harris, or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, then you can’t celebrate Biden’s pick as diversity hire while simultaneously getting outraged when other people say the same thing. And if no one is a diversity hire, why are we spending so much time and energy promoting diversity hiring?

By the way, I have no first-order problem with diversity hiring, especially in politics. Politics has always been about coalition-building, going back to Aristotle. Nearly every VP pick is about adding voters to the top of the ticket’s column. Mike Pence was qualified to be vice president, but there’s really no arguing he wasn’t a diversity pick, given that Donald Trump needed to reassure white evangelicals. This is not exactly edgy punditry, it’s a statement of the obvious. 

Well, black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and it made perfectly defensible political sense for Biden to pick a black woman as his running mate. Even outside of politics, there’s nothing inherently wrong about taking notice of factors other than conventional qualifications.

Personally, I think Kamala Harris was a bad pick, not because she’s a black-Asian-woman, but because she’s not a very good politician. 

Merit for me, racism for thee.

Now, I honestly don’t know if Claudine Gay was a diversity hire in the sense that she wouldn’t have been picked to be president of Harvard if she had been a white male (though Jason Riley makes a strong case). But common sense suggests that being a black woman helped. I mean, Harvard explicitly thinks in those terms.  Here’s Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences manual on “Recruiting for Diversity.” It’s all about the moral, educational, and legal necessity of hiring for diversity. From its helpful list of “talking points”: 

Our commitment to and progress in hiring for diversity. For example, “Since 2007, the percentage of FAS minority staff has been increasing at a faster rate than ever before, from about 16% in 2007 to about 19% in 2010. (Your HR Consultant can provide up-to-date statistics). We know we need to do more, and are committed to continuing our efforts to hire, support, and engage minority staff.”

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, in La Rochefoucauld’s famous quip. What’s amusing and enraging to me is how charges of racism are the tribute DEI mongers pay to merit. Just as diversity is, often unjustly, a dirty word for many on the right, merit is, even more often unjustly, a dirty word for many on the left. Harvard’s Michael Sandel wrote a whole book on The Tyranny of Merit and teaches a course based on it. Robert Frank wrote Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Jo Littler wrote Against Meritocracy. There are countless symposia, academic papers, and even college courses that demonize “merit” as a tool of social control by the forces of “whiteness.” Here’s California Community College’s entry on “merit” from its DEI glossary of terms

A concept that at face value appears to be a neutral measure of academic achievement and qualifications; however, merit is embedded in the ideology of Whiteness and upholds race-based structural inequality. Merit protects White privilege under the guise of standards (i.e., the use of standardized tests that are biased against racial minorities) and as highlighted by anti-affirmative action forces. Merit implies that White people are deemed better qualified and more worthy but are denied opportunities due to race-conscious policies. However, this understanding of merit and worthiness fails to recognize systemic oppression, racism, and generational privilege afforded to Whites.

No one should be surprised that I think this is hot garbage. But that’s not my point for right now. If you believe this bowel-stewing nonsense, the last thing you should do when someone says so-and-so was hired for reasons other than pure merit is shriek “How dare you!?” Logically, you should say, “You’re damned right!”

But that’s exactly what champions of diversity hiring do when anyone suggests that diversity hires got their jobs, even in part, because of, well, diversity. I think this is psychologically revealing. Merit is a deeply ingrained value in human nature. We’re wired to be annoyed by people who get an unfair slice of the pie (or mastodon). It applies to the elites who don’t share enough as well as to the plebes who take more than they deserve. This explains the universal human tendency for people to feel animosity for the super rich and freeloaders. People at the top who take too much for themselves and “shirkers” at the bottom are archetypes. Of course, in advanced societies, these natural instincts can be channeled or restrained. Like notions of justice, punishment, and fairness, merit is one of these basic human values that the law and culture have to work with and cultivate toward productive ends. Hence “merit”—as defined by the DEI crowd—is bad when it stands in the way of diversity, but something to be celebrated and defended when the DEI crowd wins. Merit is weaponized “whiteness” when it’s a barrier to entry, an indisputable fact when certain groups get the spoils of status.  

As I’ve argued before, I think this is one of the reasons why Jews—and increasingly Asians—are “problematic” for the DEI crowd. Their record of success within the more traditional understanding of merit undermines the claim that merit is inherently unjust. It also explains why Gay and her fellow university presidents couldn’t summon the usual cliches and bromides normally deployed for other victimized groups. No one really doubts that if black or trans kids were being harassed on campus the way Jewish kids have these past few months, the presidents wouldn’t need long sessions with lawyers to figure out how to explain their policies. 

But we’ve talked about that enough. Let’s move on to plagiarism. It’s now obvious that Gay is guilty of plagiarism. But because the “wrong” kind of people pointed it out about the “right” kind of person, the rules get changed (at least it looks like her defenders will try, perhaps unsuccessfully). It’s a huge problem, because the argument for Gay’s objective merit hinges in no small part on her scholarship. But now, by Harvard’s own standards, her scholarship isn’t nearly as scholarly as once claimed. Hoping to wiggle out of this dilemma, her plagiarism is now called “duplicative language.” It will be interesting to see how far they’ll go with this. It’s not unimaginable to me that we’ll start hearing that the rules against plagiarism are just mechanisms of the old racist, patriarchal, system of “merit” and hegemonic whiteness, and that Gay’s plagiarism constitutes a defensible alternative approach to scholarship.

How to slice a pie.

Let’s broaden out. You probably don’t know much about the 17th-century political theorist James Harrington. I’m not judging. I knew almost nothing about him until I went down some deep rabbit holes while working on Suicide of the West and yet, to my surprise, he didn’t even end up getting mentioned in the final version of my book. Damn Late Capitalism and its expectations that books come in under 1,000 pages.

Anyway, Harrington was one of the great proponents of classical republicanism. He was a significant, though hardly top-tier, influence on the founders. Political scientist Donald Lutz found that he was the 35th-most cited thinker among writers of the founding era.  

Harrington had two ideas that I find really valuable. The first is about pies. Harrington writes of the pie game: Say you have two self-interested people and one pie. One way to guarantee that each gets a fair piece is to have one person slice the pie, but the other person gets first pick of which slice he wants. These kinds of rules ensure that the person in “power”—i.e. the guy with the knife—cannot rig the system for his own benefit. 

Harrington introduced the idea in his discussion of separation of powers, but I think it’s more widely applicable. This is how liberal rules are supposed to work in a liberal society. It’s a small example of how fairness can be baked into the system, not just into the pie. If you don’t want people—presidents, Congress, university administrators, et al.—to treat your group unfairly, you need rules that would prevent you from treating them unfairly if your group was in power. (Needless to say, a lot of people in Washington on the left and right don’t understand or appreciate this insight.) This is how free speech is supposed to work. Some people love free speech principles entirely on the merits. That’s fine, and I’m largely with them. 

But there are also times when it’s merely a necessary compromise that ensures one side doesn’t rig the game against the other. I would have no principled problem with a private institution like Harvard being honest that they don’t really value free speech. They do claim to value it, though—but only when it suits their purposes, selectively enforcing or ignoring the principle when convenient. They do this by using concepts like DEI and social justice like gnostic incantations. 

And that brings me to Harrington’s second idea: priestcraft. Now this is a complicated issue in the context of Harrington’s time, involving all sorts of anti-religious arguments and context we’ve got no room for. But the basic idea is familiar. Priests, particularly in societies where the line between religious and secular authority was murky or non-existent, used their positions as arbiters of divine will and God’s morality to serve their own interests. This practice is why Dante sent a number of priests and popes to hell. Abuse of power is a huge problem for any institution, but it has unique challenges when that institution is supposed to be the final word on right and wrong or righteousness or sin. The Catholic Church has battled with this from its earliest days. We have the word “nepotism” thanks to the effort of the church to cleanse itself of the practice of “nephew-ism”—bequeathing church property and wealth to the “nephews” of philandering bishops and cardinals. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had similar issues. The  Book of Mormon (not the play), discusses priestcraft and “Priestcrafts”—priests who behave in priestcrafty ways—numerous times. “He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.”

Modern priestcraft uses secular concepts of righteousness in similar ways. Social justice is good. Therefore, self-declared priests of social justice must be right about whatever they’re talking about. Diversity is good. So people hawking specific policies in the name of diversity claim to have sole ownership of how the term should be applied in the real world. If you disagree, it’s either “proof” you’re not versed in the extremely complicated and sophisticated project or you’re a bigot. But this language serves as a kind of force field protecting them from skepticism and scrutiny. The more convoluted and ambiguous the rules, the more power those in charge of enforcing them get. 

This doesn’t mean everyone who speaks in this language is wrong or sinister. Lots of people who talked the language of “Black Lives Matter” were sincere and decent with valuable points on their side. But some of the people running the Black Lives Matter Foundation, at least for a while, enriched themselves under the cover of their supposed irreproachable righteousness. And the group itself is sometimes hard to distinguish from a trojan horse for all manner of radicals, zealots, and bigots. 

The DEI industry is priestcrafty. It Jesuitically uses academic jargon and pseudo-scientific concepts to repeal the rules of the pie game. Some groups deserve a bigger slice, others deserve to have their slices taken away. Again, I could tolerate that—while still disagreeing—if they were at least honest about what they were doing. But like the original practitioners of priestcraft, when on defense they appeal to the authority of our highest ideals and pretend that if you object, you are sinfully or heretically opposed to tolerance, diversity, inclusion, or in favor of racism, white supremacy, and exclusion. And then go back to rigging the pie game. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Everyone is doing great. The animals were delighted to have The Fair Jessica and the human puppy back. There was much rejoicing and arooing (alas not captured on video). Everyone is getting extra scritches and pats and treats. Zoë and Pippa are drawing extra energy from the cold weather. Have a great Christmas!

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Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.