Opinion

Neo-Nazis Aren’t America’s Race Problem, Corporate America Is

It’s comforting to rail against the white supremacists at Charlottesville: That way you don’t have to ask hard questions about race and gender at America’s icons

Meanwhile, at Google and other major American companies, diversity is not a thing of wonder: Photo shows mirror image of Google logo reflected on an adjacent office building in Irvine, California, U.S. August 7, 2017.
Meanwhile, at Google and other major American companies, appearances may be one thing, diversity another. Mike Blake, Reuters

Unless you are president of the United States, it was easy to figure out who the villains and the good guys were in Charlottesville this past weekend. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, fans of the old Confederacy, a rainbow of white, and testosterone -- you couldn’t come up with a more perfect rogues’ gallery.

But there had been another battle in America’s identity wars the week before, that made for less easy moralizing, but says a lot more. Google engineer James Damore wrote a 10-page memo basically defending the paucity of women at the company, on the grounds that they are inherently not as good as men at engineering.

Google did the politically correct thing. CEO Pichai Sundararajan, who is Indian by birth, flew back from his African vacation, announced there was no room for those kinds of attitudes at the company and promptly fired Damore. "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects 'each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination,'" Pichai wrote.

It wasn’t just the incident itself but the subtext -- a privileged white male being taken down by his Indian boss who is so multicultural that he was on holiday in Africa. It was a victory for diversity.  

Except, that is, if look at Google’s payroll. In the company's tech position, women make up just a fifth of the workforce. Latinos are just 3% and blacks 1%. In Google's non-tech jobs, women are fairly represented at 48% but blacks and Latinos each account for just 5%. Vis a vis African-Americans, Google doesn’t register much higher than the Ku Klux Klan on the diversity needle.

Of course, the problem isn't just at Google. At Facebook, women make up just 17% of its tech staff, blacks 1% and Latinos 3%. At Uber the numbers are slightly better despite its well-publicized brushes with sexism – women made up 15% of its payroll, blacks 8.8% and Latinos 5.6%, respectively. But that doesn’t come close to mirroring the U.S. population.

Outside of tech, only 6.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, 2% are black and 3% Latino.

Moving nowhere fast

The media make much hay of Silicon Valley and corporate America’s abject failure at diversity. But two pillars of the American media have records that are little better. The New York Times newsroom is 78% white, 7.1% black and 4.5% Latino while at National Public Radio, whites comprise 75% of the staff (although women make up 55% of the total).

At American universities, it’s pretty much the same story: 56% of faculty is white male, another 27% is white female; blacks and Latinos of both sexes add up to just 7%.

At Harvard, women are 30% of the tenured/tenure track faculty and minorities are 22% (obviously, there is a lot of overlap. But two thirds of the minorities are Asians, who in fact do better than whites by most measures and are overrepresented in academia and business.)

You start to see a pattern: Business, the media, the universities and the other pillars of the American establishment are playing a double game. For the record, they are committed to diversity. They fund scholarships, run recruitment programs, issue reports that laud another percentage point gain in diversity and say the right things when called upon. Thus, when Trump failed this week to roundly condemn the rightist protestors in Charlottesville, CEOs representing the elite of the elite of corporate American and Wall Street staged a mass exodus from two White House advisory councils.

Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right free speech rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA on August 12, 2017.
Emily Molli / NurPhoto

But when it comes to hiring and promotion, it’s a different story and one that is hard to explain. Google conquered the digital universe in 20 years, Harvard is the world’s premier educational institution and The New York Times sets the global news agenda. These are all rich and powerful organizations that can choose who they want to hire and promote.

It’s not that there’s no difference between Google and, say, the neo-Nazi Vanguard America crowd, but it does show that the debate over race, gender and other identities in America isn’t a simple war between good guys and bad guys, and that isn’t the narrative people want to hear. The outrage over Charlottesville is a way for the vast majority of ordinary and good Americans, from CEOs to college students, to sublimate their guilt about their own failure to grapple with the issue of race and gender.

It’s easy to rail against neo-Nazis. They are easy targets – white, male and barely articulate -- as you order a second latte and check your CNN newsfeed. It’s another thing to say that the elite university you’re attending, or that cool company you hope to work for, or the news sources you trust doesn’t meet the diversity standard you yourself have proclaimed.

And that’s the real issue. At Charlottesville there were maybe 500 white supremacists -- an ugly bunch, but a small one, especially considering the efforts made to rally them. They are a marginal group at the fringe of American politics who won more attention than they deserve. America’s diversity problem isn’t at the bottom of society but at the top.