Loury and McWhorter on Diversity

April 24, 2023 • 8:30 am

Here’s a short segment from Glenn Loury’s Substack site showing him and John McWhorter discussing the claim that minorities are made uncomfortable by going to institutions, like colleges, where people “don’t look like them.” (This refers, of course, to superficial traits associated with race, though those traits are often taken to be tightly associated with ideological and political views.) If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to Loury’s site, which has a transcript, but you can also listen to the 13-minute video embedded below the title. The YouTube notes say this:

In this excerpt from a live event in New York sponsored by the University of Austin’s Mill Institute and moderated by Ilana Redstone, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter discuss why seeking out “people who look like you” undermines what college—and indeed the world—has to offer.

Redstone, as expected for someone who encourages this kind of discussion, does have heterodox credentials:

Ilana Redstone is a visiting fellow with the Mercatus Center’s Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange.Dr. Redstone is also an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and a co-founder of The Mill Center. She is the co-author of “Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education” and the creator of the “Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes” video series. She is also a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy

Voilà: the meat of the discussion. Here’s the question posed by Redstone:

One of the questions around affirmative action or one of the arguments has to do with this idea of, well, I guess two things. One is diversity being a good on its own and having a value on its own. And the other idea with representation is that there’s a benefit to people seeing other people in positions of power and authority that look like they do.

And so I’m wondering if you can speak to that idea that people need to see people who look like them in order to feel inspired or accepted or motivated or whatever. How do you think about that?

Loury first takes up the question of “what does ‘looks like me’ really mean?”  He suggests several answers: people of your ethnicity, privileged college students, Americans, and so on. But he gets what the question really means: it’s about race.  Both he and McWhorter are, frankly, baffled at the notion that to be comfortable you must be among people of your own race, or see people of your own race.  I’m baffled that they’re baffled, as this notion is so common, and later Loury tries to take it apart and explain it. But in the end both men agree that he notion is harmful to students and harmful even to racial progress.

A few excerpts:

Loury: And I think the reflexive answer [is], it’s a bean count. “I’ve seen enough black lesbian women that I know, as a black lesbian woman, that I’m in a place of belonging” trivializes the great questions of, who are we? Which is what you come to a university to learn how to explore.

McWhorter: I never understood that line. I never got it. That you need to see teachers who look like you, you need to have other students who look like you. I had to be taught that that was the way I was supposed to feel. I know what I look like. I can look in the mirror. I had parents. They were black, too. Had a family, had friends, mostly when I was a kid, black friends. I didn’t need to see black people in my books. You looked at TV and by the 70s there were enough black people. Probably not as many as now. Definitely not. But I didn’t miss it, because if I look somewhere, I don’t wanna see me. I wanna see the world. I wanna see something else. I don’t go on a walk in the woods in order to see blackness. I go in order to see a squirrel or a creek or something. I don’t look at TV thinking I want to see people doing things that I’ve seen my relatives do it. You want to see something else.

. . .Of course, it’s better to have the representation that we have now. But that idea that you’re being deprived by not seeing yourself in your education, in your popular culture.

I’m reading a book right now where there’s this wonderful chapter on Du Bois. He would’ve been horrified. He’s learning German, he’s talking about Kant, et cetera. Nobody told him that he wasn’t black enough. That didn’t come up. The only people who said that to him, frankly, were white people. And yet here in our post-1966 age, you have that line.

. . . Or if we’re that afraid of white people, we can’t be comfortable until we see one of our own? Again, nobody was told to think that way until 1966. Here, Glenn, I think it’s a pose that we’re encouraged to take. “White people make me nervous. I need to see black people.” No white people don’t make you that nervous. In 2023, you’re told that you’re supposed to say that they do, because it gives you a sense of identity. But it’s an act, and it’s a dangerous one because it stanches curiosity, and curiosity is what makes a human being human.

Loury gives one explanation for the “look like me” trope: if you’ve been a victim of mistreatment at the hands of other groups, then seeing people who belong to your group (he uses black lesbian as his example), makes you relax more, makes you more comfortable and able to enjoy college. That can’t, of course, be rejected out of hand.

McWhorter doesn’t pull any punches in his response: if you’re that freaked out by those “who don’t look like you,” , he says, you need “compassionate help”, i.e., therapy of the cognitive behavioral sort:

McWhorter: But if you really are balling up your fist, if you’re really that uncomfortable when you don’t see people like you around you—in our times, as opposed to a distant day—if you’re that uncomfortable, then there’s something dysfunctional going on, and you need to find some kind of compassionate help.

Now these days, we’re supposed to feel that when it comes to race and identity issues, I’m not supposed to say that. I’m not supposed to say that you need to be trained out of that reflexive crouch. But no, I see no exception at all in the twenty-first century, given the sorts of things that you are likely to face, or I should really say not face, I don’t see that you need to be that nervous about not seeing yourself in this setting. And given that you’re going to go out into the world and find that people like you are rare in many settings that you’re going to go into, I think you should be prepared. Life is not always comfortable, and that’s part of what college is for.

So with all compassion, I say, if you’re that nervous, then you need cognitive behavioral therapy that will make you happier. Because you’re not always gonna be surrounded by people like you.

I can imagine how well that will go down with the nervous people! “Upset by not seeing enough people of your ethnicity? You need therapy.”  But, you know, he might be right, at least in extreme cases where a person’s function is inhibited by feeling left out. This is the claim, which I most often reject, that people are “harmed” by not seeing enough people who look like them.

And Loury distills the issue to this:

In other words, bottom line, suppose your goal is to advance the wellbeing of the race of people who look like you. You inhibit yourself from realizing fully your potential to advance that goal by restricting your attention to the doings of people who look like you.

But they both agree that restricting yourself to associating with those of your race, or concentrating on reading or studying only works by those of your race, is a form of intellectual constriction. Yes, that activity might reduce your ability to “advance the wellbeing of the race of people who look like you,” but is that the main point? This kind of constriction prevents you from apprehending the whole of the human condition, reducing that experience only to the “condition” encountered by people who look like you. Even if advancing your race is your goal, don’t you want to know your enemy—your presumed enemy?

McWhorter give his distillation:

McWhorter: And so a modern black person is supposed to only read Alice Walker and Walter Mosley, even though they read Tolstoy. They were old fashioned.

That doesn’t cohere. That doesn’t make sense. The only way that would make sense is if racism is worse. Now, what is it that we know now that Ralph Ellison didn’t? I think only a serious partisan would deny racism is not as bad now as it was in 1950, so we can afford even more than them to read Joyce Carol Oates as well as Gayl Jones, et cetera, not less. And so if W.E.B. Du Bois read all over the place, we can even more. Lynching was legal in the prime of his life. We live in very different times. So we can’t reject those people because the photos are black and white. It’s better now. We have a widened opportunity.

There are those like Kendi who claim that racism now is worse than it’s ever been, but I don’t think you can find any metric showing that.

By all means we should ensure equal opportunity for all Americans, a hard task that will take decades—if it can be done at all—but in the meantime the claim that you’re “harmed” if there aren’t enough people who look like you in your environment doesn’t sit well with most, for it’s an unconvincing claim of victimhood. The harm is not palpable, and is said to be psychological—which is why McWhorter recommends therapy for those crippled by this syndrome.

And of course, the statement can also be taken to mean that you want to be around people who think like you, for people of a given group are supposed to share a homogeneous set of ideas. (McWhorter and Loury are often criticized for not thinking is the way black people are supposed to think.) But how can you learn, or grow as a person, if you surround yourself or seek out only those people who think like you?

One issue that neither man addresses, but I’d love to see addressed, is that of historically black universities (HBUs) like Howard or Spelman College.  Back in the old days, they existed because black students simply couldn’t get into white colleges. Now, however, there’s a land rush in nearly all colleges to snap up qualified minorities, and the rationale for HBUs must now be that these entities are self-segregating because they increase the comfort level of students, as nearly everyone “looks like them,” (I’m just guessing here.) But isn’t that exactly the attitude that McWhorter and Loury find harmful?

20 thoughts on “Loury and McWhorter on Diversity

  1. I hate how all these diversity and equity nuts have to assume that black people are such massive racists that they can’t stand to be near a white person.

    1. As much as I disagree with them on most everything, that isn’t what they are assuming. It has always been my opinion that throwing rhetorical bombs isn’t, in any way, helpful.

      1. It absolutely is what they’re assuming. If the roles were reversed (i.e. white students complaining that they want their teachers to “look like them”) nobody would have any trouble calling that out for the racist dog whistle that it is.

        1. Read Rick Martinez’s and Robie’s responses below. They, like McWhorter and Loury above, understand the motives many have for wanting to see others like oneself in places of power or otherwise. One doesn’t need to be a “diversity and equity nut” to understand the value of seeing yourself in another role, as Rick and Robie make clear. McWhorter and Loury are suggesting that overall, it isn’t worth wanting it, not that the people who feel that way are racist for feeling so. I am not sure I agree with them about it being not worth it (though they do make good pints), but one thing is for sure, neither they nor anyone with a sense of decency would assume that people like Rick or Robie are racist or misandrist.

          1. I did. The point remains: flip the roles and it’ll be very easy to recognize the whole thing as abjectly racist.

          2. I mean hell, the very premise of the question is racist. Why do you need someone in power to “look like you” in order to feel it might be achievable? Simple: because if whoever is in power doesn’t “look like you”, they’re foreign, _other._ How is that not a clear example of racism?

            1. Why don’t you pose this question to Rick Martinez, below? I suggest you first explain that, despite your claims here, that you don’t think he is actually racist. Good luck!

          3. I’m so sorry I’m not as racist as Rick or robie.
            Funny how it’s always skin colour, and never eye colour or hair colour.

  2. Marxism constitutes tribes as it moves along.

    Woke/SocialJusticeWarrior is Marxist in essence.

    Protected classes, “minorities,” intersectional grievance, “ThePoor,” “TheRich.” Ad infinitum. Marx cannot abide individualism in any form, especially judging by an individual’s character. That would lead to justification of private property and capitalism.

    “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” — Ayn Rand

  3. Here’s my distillation…seeing people who look like you is important, but merit and competence are foundational. Here’s why.

    Regarding competence: I worked for a major city airport as a public spokesman in the 1980s and affirmative action was all the rage. The minorities (myself included) I worked with were among the best in the city in our respective professional fields. We brought points of view to the table that we’re not apparent to white senior executives. Those views were seriously considered because we were good at our jobs, not because our perspectives checked an ethnic box.

    Regarding visibility: During my time at this airport, I noticed the Hispanic server at the terminal cafeteria always made sure I got generous servings and the best cut of meats. I asked if her generosity was romantically based. Her emphatic no stung. Instead, she explained, the favoritism was because it was important to her that her daughter and grandchildren (who she was raising) saw a Mexican face in a position of prominence.

    1. Competence and visibility: As a white guy, I really appreciated some sensitizing from black colleagues on issues I was blind to…not many but a few that could make a difference. One was from one of the very few black supervisors at my Nasa field center around the mid-90’s. In a discussion of general structural cultural issues, someone pointed out that individuals on many occasions seemed to have two or more bosses and he referred to that as “one slave, two masters” or “one slave, many masters”. After some discussion, the phrase one slave two masters became the standard usage reference at which point the black engineer raised his hand and asked that we not use that expression because the slave master relationship was still fresh in his mind. His presence brought a perspective on this issue i have always remembered. Similarly on a school board we were giving an architect our early thoughts on design parameters for two new high schools in our Southern city. One of our two black members asked that it not have huge columns like plantation houses.

      These points may not affect all blacks, but they apparently affect enough that these two very successful middle class black men thought they needed to be addressed and spoke up. Now by being there on a racially mixed board, the five whites would be able to take this type of sensitivity forward into all future work and white colleagues if the opportunity were to arise.

  4. The “people who look like me” question is not just about feeling comfortable around your own kind, but about envisioning yourself in certain professions—in fact, I always thought that was the main point.

    When I was a girl (a while ago), if you’d asked me what I wanted to do later in life, it was hard to think past the mother-nurse-teacher options, even though I had well-educated, forward-thinking parents and two kick-ass older sisters. Wanting to be a doctor or scientist, or join the police force or fire department, would have seemed pretty radical because those I’d seen in real life or on TV were men. Those were boy ambitions back then. I didn’t consciously reject those options, but they didn’t seem realistic.

    1. Yes, I’ve said before that this language and concern makes more sense when dealing with impressionable young people, by which I meant preschool and the early grades. That college and graduate students are assumed to qualify seems part of the whole tendency to infantalize people.

  5. Thomas Sowell addresses this notion – as well as professors at the college level that “look like me” – in the following book in the section subtitled “THE ACADEMIC WORLD” (yes, it is all capitals because it’s a book ):

    Affirmative Action Around the World
    – An Empirical Study
    Thomas Sowell

    … pretty sure it’s chapter 6, starting p.115 – about the United States.

    I don’t have quotes handy but data was shown counter to The Shape of the River (Bowen & Bok 1998). I’m in haste, but both those books are very worthwhile to check out.

  6. Ethnoracial representation across fields is an admirable goal. But the stance in question, conflating ascriptive identities with ideas has a bad track record as an historical precursor. There seems to be a careless and unexamined baseline assumption from the social justice left that this can and must be done before progress can ensue. I believe the term in selective de-individuation….er something. Unclear is if they plan to ‘turn it off’ at some point. If so, when and how? This type of social lever pulling is not new to justice movements, but the degree of institutional capture is new.

    TBD, if this inchoate suite of movements fizzles back to former size under the light of discourse. The push back from center right/left and far left (Adloph Reed etc) is gaining momentum and speaks to a broader multicultural coalition of Americans. But they are working against a reality now in places like my state of WA where DEI and new anti-racism are institutional mandates. Local schools are slashing music and science programs but I imagine bloated DEI bureaucracy will remain fully funded and ensconced indefinitely.

  7. Much of the “looks like me” trope emanates from individuals who are just vexed by being in a minority. Utopia for these individuals would be 51% Black, 51% Latinx, 51% Native American, 51% Maori, etc.; and, of course, 51% lgbtqia2s+ , or, better yet, 51% of each of those letters. [But who is in the 51% “+” bin?]

  8. Academia has become a vastly more hospitable place for women thanks to the gender-based affirmative action of the past few decades (of which I was a beneficiary). Attitudes and behaviors that would have been commonplace 30 years ago, not only outright sexism but also just stereotypic guy-ish behavior (e.g. one of my grad school mentors often spent lab meeting time on competitive discussions of sports trivia), are much rarer now that women are so much more numerous. This has helped contribute to an environment in which a broader range of people can develop and express their talents. I can’t speak from personal experience about race-based affirmative action, but likely it brings similar benefits.

    1. But you don’t need affirmative action (I’m guessing that means companies/schools forced to hire women?).
      There’s plenty of other countries with loads of female professionals. Mostly thanks to legal equality. The only real reason women were discriminated against was for religious reasons. Just like homosexuals.
      Hell, Iran has a high rate of female students compared to males, and women are a second class citizen in that country.

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