Diversity as a correctional tool

When 29-year-old terror suspect Sayfullo Saipov drove his rental truck along a bike path in the lower Manhattan area of New York, leaving a swath of terror, carnage and nine deaths in his wake, the word “diversity” made headlines once again.

Saipov had arrived in the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010 on a visa that was unfortunately titled “diversity visa.” This program was implemented as a lottery to issue 50,000 permanent resident or green card visas annually to applicants from countries that are considered not adequately represented by our immigration laws and quotas.

Liberia, Cameroon, Iran, Nepal, Egypt and Ethiopia lead the way with the most number of diversity visas issued, according to the latest 2015 U.S. Department of State diversity visa numbers. Uzbekistan, the country where Saipov came from, had 1,387,420 diversity visa applications, out of which there were 4,368 lucky winners who are presumably U.S. residents today.

As immigration policies go, creating false-normal distributions of races and ethnicities in the name of diversity has been disastrous. The diversity visa was applied in ways that had nothing to do with diversity. In fact, quite often, it promoted privilege.

The diversity visa program was created to change, manage or control the flow of people from countries that Congress regarded either with preference or disfavor. In 1989, for example, after it became a lottery system, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt saw their visa numbers bloom; but from 1991 to 1994, this trend reversed with special preference given to European countries, in particular, Ireland. And in 1997, the visa was redirected to benefit those from Ireland, Canada and Great Britain.

Diversity is a buzzword that’s as alienating as it is including. Diversity techniques, when implemented, have resulted in unexpected consequences, generating significant biases. Conversely, entrenched biases have affected perceptions of diversity.

Whether consequence or cause, bromides have not helped. There is a Hallmark-ish tendency to reduce diversity to breathtaking triteness. Take the following: “In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find the true way to human happiness;” “Start to truly accept diversity by reaching out to people;” “An organization’s success and competitiveness depends upon its ability to embrace diversity and realize the benefits.” And so it goes …

It’s no wonder people are railing against the groupthink mentality, most notably fired Google engineer James Damore, who titled his self-aggrandizing screed, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” and claimed that Google’s diversity focus was inherently and virulently biased and propagating exclusivity of thought and, thus, lacking diversity. Circular logic some?

Diversity should be thought of as a correctional tool. Of the 525 members in the 2017 U.S. Congress, there are 105 women (19.6 percent). That needs improvement. In contrast, there are six members out of a total of 11 that make up the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. That seems about the way it should be.

These diversity percentages don’t float independently, however. There’s a complex interconnection of representation, opportunity, growth and perception. Even while acknowledging disparity and correcting for it by increasing opportunities for some, it is perceived as being discriminatory toward others.

“Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50%  [sic] representation of women in tech and leadership,” Damore claimed in his memo. “Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

With every gross exaggeration, there is a small nugget of truth embedded, and habitual exaggerators go about manipulating that truth (a la Trump). And so it is with Damore. Two points to mention here: First, too much diversity correction can increase perceptions of unfairness; second, most of the time, diversity goals are extremely modest, and it’s not equal representation that’s the focus.

At the annual breakfast event of the 2020 Women on Boards campaign held in The City in November, it was revealed that in 2013, 38 percent of Silicon Valley 150 companies had zero — let me repeat that — zero female directors. The good news is that in 2017, this number has risen to 18.3 percent. The gender diversity goal of the campaign was to reach 20 percent female representation on boards by 2017. The campaign announced a resounding success with 20.8 percent of women holding board positions in Fortune 1000 companies this year.

No matter where it is applied, whether it be across gender, race, country of origin, sexual orientation or age, there will always be some people who cry foul, and these people tend to be from the most privileged categories, like Damore.

The diversity visa does not impose any requirements of merit or skill or even a compelling humanitarian crisis experience. It is simply a lottery to include people from countries who don’t have much representation. It is subject to the same level of vetting as other visas, and it allows terrorists to enter the country as much as any visa allows terrorists access to America. And when it comes to success rates, diversity immigrants had a 3 percent unemployment rate, compared to 8 percent of all green card holders in 2009. But it is a program vulnerable to criticism.

Diversity is so overused and subject to generalizations that its oomph has worn off. Though, now that the Trump administration has included the word in a list of terms the Centers for Disease Control was allegedly banned from using in next year’s budget documents, perhaps all is not lost. There’s nothing like banning a word to making it more attractive and provocative to use.

Wishing all you readers a diversity-rich New Year!

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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