How many minorities is too many?

15 Aug

When I moved to California in 1997, I remember a white acquaintance telling me that white people were in the minority in this state. According to the 2000 US Census three years later, whites comprised 79.75% of California’s population. So unless there was a sudden major boom in white births or migration to the golden state, it would appear that my acquaintance had his facts wrong.

Jump forward to 2009, when headlines read: “Whites Now A Minority In California” (can you hear the exclamation point?) CBS News reported that “Non-Hispanic whites slipped to 47 percent of the state’s population” ( Slipped. Like off a precipice.

Yet according to the 2010 US Census a year later, whites were still the largest group in CA, comprising 40.1% of the population, and followed by Latinos at 37.6%. So it would seem that the contemporary claim that whites are a minority in the state is based on lumping everyone who is not white together in one undifferentiated category. This makes no sense.


These assertions speak to perception regardless of fact: some sense that there were and are more of us people of color than there ought to be. That some balance is being upset. And this is wrong.

Which begs the question: just how many of us is enough–and how many is too many?

I ask this question often when I work with organizations, who inevitably have diversity “goals.” Most frequently, the answer is some reflection of the local demographics. While this is actually a stretch for many private and elite organizations (those requiring exceptional finances, prior education/training or have limited access), it’s still also settling for the status quo. It’s saying that whatever mix of diversity currently exists in the community is good enough. Or, more simply, enough. As if more would tip some preordained and right balance.

And so, many organizations that are ostensibly striving for greater diversity are, at the same time, content with containing that diversity. No wonder then, that so many efforts to increase (but tacitly cap) diversity reap mixed or mild results. Because you inevitably reap what you plant: in this case, not just fewer minorities but a climate and culture that’s designed to keep minorities in the minority.

So what if? What if we set the goals higher? What if a private school decided it wanted to enroll 80% African-American students? What if a workplace set its sights on hiring 90% people with physical disabilities?

I’m not saying those organizations would achieve those goals, but how would it impact the way they operate? How could these goals transform not just recruitment efforts, but daily practice, normative culture and institutional systems? How might these goals help us to create more inclusive environments, not just for African-American students or employees with physical disabilities, but for all folks, simply by requiring organizations to notice default assumptions and ways of being and doing that may seem to serve the traditional majority just fine, but actually hold them back too by settling for less when it comes to a diversity that enriches individual and collective critical thinking and creativity.

** For more on diversity as a means to excellence, check out Scott Page’s The Difference.

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