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Drawing the Line on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Drawing the Line on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

DEI initiatives are everywhere, and everywhere ambiguous. To make them impactful in real life, we need to add "L"—Line-drawing.

Peter H. Schuck

In the last decade, three concepts—diversity, equity, and inclusiveness—have become so politically and organizationally compelling that their initials—D, E, and I—are now a familiar shorthand for institutional self-righteousness.  D, E, and I (sometimes joined by A for accessibility) constitute the latest form of virtue signaling; they represent the normative commitments that organizations evidently think the public expects them to practice in their internal and external activities.  Groups in a remarkable variety of fields now even designate DEI officials or committees, units that are deputized to implement these three norms throughout the organization’s outreach, governance, programming, staffing, and other activities.*

Given the “DEIfication” of organizational life, one might expect these three norms to be clear-cut and widely understood by those within the organizations who must apply and enforce them, and by the larger social audience to which these signals are being transmitted.  But if, as I suspect, D, E, and I are essentially undefined and deeply ambiguous, someone seeking to understand how these values would apply to particular situations will likely be disappointed.

In a recent superficial test of my suspicion, I found earnest expressions of commitment to those values but no explanation of their meanings, criteria, or boundaries, when I visited the websites of three units at Yale University that claim to have D, E, and I programs: its Office of Diversity and Inclusion, its Office of Institutional Equity and Accessibility, and the Medical School’s own Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. My guess—and it is only a guess—is that many other institutions exercise a similar calculated ambiguity, perhaps because the more explicit they are about what the terms mean, the more likely it is that they will attract criticism, backlash, and even legal challenges.

The deep ambiguities of D, E, and I are neither accidental nor surprising.  Much of their attractiveness to an organization lies precisely in how they can elicit widespread public approval without the organization having to commit itself in advance to any meaningful constraints on its actions.  This may help explain the baleful finding of a recent Economist survey of research on D, E, and I programs’ effects: They often backfired; and mainly, they benefited white males.

Once one begins to specify the content of D, E, and I, deep disagreements almost inevitably surface.  After all, the meaning or application of each of these terms is genuinely controversial—certainly as applied to specific cases, but even in general.  This controversiality is why entities which claim D, E, and I as precious organizational values should add a fourth concept: line-drawing, or L.  Indeed, L is essential to the intellectual coherence of D, E, and I.  Absent L, the terms D, E, and I are essentially empty, lacking substantive moral content.  In contrast, L by its very nature requires the decisionmaker to exercise discrete judgments and commitments, imposing on the organization a standard with moral content as an essential clarifying feature of its self-description.

We can see this by examining the line-drawing necessary to render D, E, and I meaningful and coherent.  But before making the case for line-drawing, we must recognize that when D, E, and I policy architects do explicitly draw their lines, such efforts may be more than clarifying; they may be oppressive, perverse, and even unconstitutional. In a recent example recounted in City Journal, the California Community College system has published a DEIA policy that defines which values the system’s employees must teach, think, and exemplify in order to demonstrate their “cultural competency” for purposes of job evaluation and tenure. This system’s line-drawings, which demand adherence to highly dubious and illiberal principles, are drawn directly from the far Left’s ideological playbook, including intersectionality, anti-racism, and radical egalitarianism. They almost certainly violate academic freedom and probably the First Amendment rights of faculty and staff as well.

(There is another problem with much DEI line-drawing, one that Harvard economist Roland Fryer—who happens to be Black—has recently criticized. Citing examples from DEI claims of wage and other forms of discrimination, he shows how such claims are often analytically and empirically weak, relying on often misleading data and methodologies.)


When an organization claims to be diverse or committed to diversity, what is it claiming?  This turns out to be a complicated, question-begging issue.  Diverse with respect to which features?  And compared with what?  How is diversity measured?  And most important for this purpose: What values does this diversity confer on the organization?  This question of values is where line-drawing comes in.  Until the organization breaks down the undifferentiated notion of diversity into discrete elements of its application, the observer remains utterly in the dark about what the diversity means for this organization, why the organization values it, and the tradeoffs with other values that it might entail.

The example of affirmative action policy in higher education admissions helps to clarify this basic point about line-drawing.  Twenty years ago, I systematically analyzed this very question, asking what “diversity value” ethno-racial preferences conferred on colleges and universities that administer them.  Today, the programs’ basic elements remain essentially the same except in the rare cases where the courts have rejected them, as with the University of Michigan undergraduate admissions program.

To answer this question, we need to know which particular aspects of individuals or communities the program designers think confer the relevant, desired diversity value, and which aspects do not.  In drawing these lines, the programs clearly deem certain personal characteristics to confer high diversity value—especially race (and within race, especially Blackness) and ethnicity (and within ethnicity, Latinoness). Whether Asians in general, or individual Asian subgroups in particular, are thought to confer diversity value for purposes of these programs is uncertain; it is a central issue in a case now pending before the Supreme Court.  Equally clear is that Whites and other ethnic groups or sub-groups do not receive any special consideration under these programs, nor do candidates’ religious and political affiliations—an especially striking omission given how salient such affiliations are to one’s viewpoints on a broad range of issues.  The standard justification for diversity-oriented affirmative action, after all, is to foster viewpoint differences for the intellectual benefits that thinking about such differences may generate.  A priori (which is how programs select the groups to be preferred), doesn’t the perspective of a Muslim or fundamentalist Christian or Orthodox Jewish applicant have at least as much diversity value as that of a middle-class Black or Latino?

The need for line-drawing to verify, measure, or optimize diversity-value in any community, moreover, goes far beyond deciding who shall be admitted to it.  In the collegiate context, for example, diversity-value may vary substantially depending on whether one measures it in a venue-specific way—that is, according to the number of the so-called diverse students who are present in a particular classroom, course, dormitory, or major.

An altogether different kind of line-drawing is required to determine how much viewpoint diversity exists in any particular academic setting.  After all, nominal diversity seems rather meaningless unless it produces actual disagreement and debate.  In my own pedagogical experience (shared by colleagues whom I have consulted on this point), ethno-racially diverse students in a classroom are no more or less likely to call attention to the racial implications or resonances of an issue than are other, non-diverse (ethno-racially speaking) students.  Of course, student (and faculty) diversity may be desirable for other reasons—say, to encourage minority-group enjoyment of the socioeconomic status benefits that affirmative action is supposed to confer after graduation.

My point, however, is that such benefit is not generated because of what goes on in classrooms and other campus venues.  Indeed, sociologist Orlando Patterson (an affirmative action supporter) ruefully conceded years ago that “no group of people now seems more committed to segregation than Afro-American students and young professionals.”  Again, the general rubric of diversity serves to conceal or confuse the different kinds and distribution of benefits and costs that the policy entails.

Accordingly, both the notion of diversity and the value that institutions do and should ascribe to it depend on many contextual factors—that is, on line-drawing.


Equity (or fairness) in the abstract is a universally embraced value; hence the sweep of its normativity.  We all favor it, though we often disagree with one another about whether a process or condition is in fact inequitable.  Perhaps the most important question that faces us—once we have satisfied our most basic needs for the requisites of life (food, clothing, shelter, respect, concern, and so forth)—is whether we are being treated fairly.  Most of the conflict in our daily lives, it seems, is over this very question.

That said, what constitutes fair treatment is notoriously and inevitably debatable.  Consider some frequent contenders for the fair treatment condition.  Perhaps the most common one follows from the norm of equality—that is, the value of equal treatment.  Yet the meaning of this ubiquitous norm turns on whether the equal treatment standard is reward based on mere existence, on effort, on productivity, or instead on outcome.  The fact that this distinction among these four possibilities (and there could be more) is salient to our moral discourse shows the fundamental importance of line-drawing to our moral judgments.  Are workers who are paid different wages being treated unequally?  In a descriptive sense, the obvious answer is yes.  But in a normative sense, the answer must be: It depends.

An example of both this principle and its exceptions is the Equal Pay Act of 1963.  This law requires employers to pay the same wage for the same work regardless of the worker’s gender.  But this principle applies only when workers labor under the same conditions and when they have the same level of experience, and when their jobs require the same level of skill, effort, and responsibility.  The relevance of these discriminating factors (skill, effort, responsibility) should remind us that the notions of equality and fairness are inadequate, indeed hollow ideas unless and until we incorporate into the equality assessment certain other values.  In the same way, the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “all men are created equal” means that—although centuries of blood and toil are far from having fully established it—all humans are entitled at a minimum to equal dignity, respect, and opportunity to lead decent lives.

Important as this equity principle is, however, it leaves most questions about what constitutes equitable treatment—including some of life’s most important ones—to be resolved by the development of legal and social norms.  And those norms, in turn, instantiate further line-drawing, which can be increasingly fine-tuned.  For example, male and female athletes have traditionally competed in separate gender-specific contests, but transgender women athletes are now seeking to compete with cisgender female ones in nominally “women’s races” over the protests of the latter.  Does equity require the sponsor of such a race to permit transgender women to compete in it?  Personally, my answer is no, if the disparity in hormone levels is too large to allow a “level playing field” among the competitors. But this of course raises several questions including what “too large” means.  Others may define equity to emphasize that all of the competitors self-identify as women and that this self-identification factor should be the key to drawing an equitable line.  No objectively true conception of equity exists here; the definition depends on an extrinsic act of line-drawing that from some perspective can be seen as arbitrary.  Invoking the concept of equity cannot resolve such conflicts without resort to some extrinsic value.


The third concept that proponents of D, E, and I invoke is inclusiveness.  Here, the animating idea is that the organization is open and welcoming to a very wide range of different people.  But the attractiveness and character of a group largely depend not only on whom it includes but also on whom it excludes—an insight nicely captured by Groucho Marx’s famous drollery that he wouldn’t want to join any club that would admit him.  This fact is especially true of many of the organizations that proudly proclaim their inclusiveness, particularly universities and those other entities whose prestige (or, as with museums and hospitals, the prestige of their governing boards) consists precisely in their high barriers to entry.  These barriers may take a variety of forms, but their essential purpose is to define and preserve the organization’s essence through exclusion.

This fact of exclusivity is a source of both self-esteem and enhanced reputation on the part of those on the inside of such organizations.  The flip side of this insider pride, however, is often resentment on the part of envious outsiders, particularly if they were previously insiders.  A recent example was the decision by the Art Institute of Chicago to fire more than 100 of its volunteer docents—almost all of them relatively wealthy White women knowledgeable about art—for the avowed purpose of enhancing its internal D, E, and I.  This was an unusual instance of internal line-drawing becoming public and controversial.

The salient point here is not that many organizations that trumpet their inclusiveness are hypocritical, disingenuous, or as in this case clumsily “woke.”  Rather, the larger point is that organizations define themselves to a great extent on the basis of their particularism and narrowing exclusivity, and that this carefully cultivated self-definition—indeed their very coherence as organizations—can only be maintained by drawing lines to exclude most of those who might ardently wish to be insiders.

The Morality of Line-Drawing

What does this excursus into the dynamics and interactions of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness in organizational life reveal?

First, it shows how powerful virtue signaling has become as a marker of organizational legitimacy.  The spread of virtue signaling in American life is an important development, but whose complex causes are outside the scope of this essay.

Second, it reminds us that the much-vaunted D, E, and I are not so much moral values in and of themselves as they are placeholders for the far more important and discriminating moral work that occurs when organizations give these three values substantive content through their morally-inflected line-drawing.

Third, most of an organization’s ethical work is now done in the course of implementing D, E, and I. Thus, the sloganeering that surrounds these values raises key questions about what the organization stands for and the terms of its ethical tradeoffs.  Its line-drawing is a far more important and revealing measure of its true organizational values than are its abstract professions of D, E, and I.

*I do not discuss here another form of organizational virtue signaling known as ESG, for environmental, social, and governance. ESG mainly targets investors and other public and private monitors of corporate activity, often via glossy publications. A recent analysis finds that all of the Fortune 500 companies claim to practice ESG.

Peter H. Schuck, Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale Law School, is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at NYU Law School and author of many articles and books on law, public policy, diversity, immigration, and other subjects.

Image: Upsplash: Malcolm Lightbody, 2018