Q&A: Heather Mac Donald and the diversity delusion

The fearless observer of American society tells American Experiment President John Hinderaker why she looks at our universities with ‘sorrow and rage.’

John Hinderaker: The title of your book is The Diversity Delusion. What is the delusion?

Heather Mac Donald: It involves three principles. The first is that race and gender are the most important things about an individual; second, that discrimination based on race and gender is the defining characteristics of American society; and third, that any disparity in race and gender proportionality in any American institution is by definition the result of race and gender discrimination. Difference in academic skills, in behavior, in culture, or in career preference are not allowed to be noticed, though they in fact drive such disparities today.

You have described yourself as a pessimist. How do you see things going, first of all, in America’s universities?

I wish I could be optimistic because I know people want hope. Having observed universities for the last 40 years, however, I am left only with sorrow and rage. The spinelessness of college administers in the face of phony claims of racism gets worse by the year, as does the determination of those same administrators to teach students to think of themselves as victims. The curriculum has beed decimate. Ideally, curriculum should provide students with the greatest privilege in the world: the opportunity to immerse oneself in the pinnacles of Western civilization, to absorb works of unparalleled insight, sublimity, wit, and irony.

Instead, students are being taught to read everything through the lens of race and gender oppression, to reject authors based on the triviality of gonads and melanin. These are students who know nothing about Periclean Athens, the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment. Yet they are being given license by their professors to reduce such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant to the know-nothing caricature of being oppressive “dead white males.”

This divisive focus on race and gender would be bad enough if it were only despoiling our institutions of higher education, but unfortunately, those institutions are turning out cadres of indoctrinated young people who are starting to take over our other institutions.

They certainly are. Meritocracy is on life support in the United States. I don’t know of a single mainstream institution, whether it’s a corporation, a bank, a law firm, government, or a nonprofit institution, that is not obsessed with diversity hiring. To be a white male in those institutions is to labor under an enormous handicap. This is most worrisome in the science fields. The optimists long thought that the STEM fields— science, technology, engineering, and math—would indefinitely maintain color- and gender-blind hiring because, as we thought we all knew, there’s no such thing as “female math” or “black math.”

Of course, that is precisely the claim being made in education schools and now college faculties. Some mathematics professors claim that math is a heteronormatively, white-privileged space designed to keep females and minorities in their place. Big tech companies in Silicon Valley—Google, Microsoft, Apple, you name it—are discriminating against the best talent if it comes in the wrong race and gender.

Unfortunately, some of our international rivals don’t have this same obsession with diversity, at least when it comes to science. They are meritocracies.

We’re putting our competitive edge at risk. The United States still dominates in scientific research and in its entrepreneurial applications, but that may not last. China does not give a damn about gender and race. It cares only about one thing when it comes to the sciences and that is whether you are the best engineer out there who will help bury the United States with Chinese technological advances, whether it’s weapons systems or communication systems. They are ruthlessly and properly meritocratic.

The Asian students who come to the United States are stunned by our identity politics. They’re scratching their heads and saying, “What is going on here?” They must be laughing all the way back to China. They’re taking their PhDs and going to an environment hellbent on giving China the lead. If the best Alzheimer’s or AI research lab is all-female, so be it. But if it’s all-male, that, too, does not matter to the Chinese authorities.

It’s your view, I think, that the whole concept of meritocracy in the United States is under serious threat. We old-timers might say that the idea of succeeding on merit—hard work, initiative, skills—is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it’s hard to imagine it being supplanted.

It’s already happening. Here is a sense of how pervasive this is: Classics—i.e., the study of Latin and Greek literature and culture—was a field that people also thought would be immune to identity politics. Were they wrong! Classics is now considered a white supremacist redoubt— by its own participants! A major Classic conference in January focused on the alleged racism of the field, particularly during the 19th century.

When a black Classics professor at Princeton complained about his alleged victim status, an independent researcher suggested that he may have been helped, not hindered, by his race in getting his academic position. She is now banned from ever publishing in the field and from showing up at any Classics conference.

Yet, that same Princeton professor went on to write an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “My Blackness is my Merit.” In other words, I should be hired because I’m black, not necessarily because of any superior knowledge I may possess of, say, Euripides or the Roman Empire.

YouTube and Google have been sued over their anti-meritocratic diversity policies. An employee in YouTube’s human resources department was ordered by his managers to hire only females and so-called underrepresented minorities for entry-level engineering jobs. It didn’t matter whether a white or Asian male was the most qualified engineer. YouTube would rather hire on the basis of gender and race than get the most accomplished scientists.

Schools across the country are seeing students vote with their feet. They don’t want to sit in class and listen to crazed diatribes about race, class and gender. We are seeing humanities majors and social science majors, with the exception of economics, dwindling. I can only think that’s a good thing.

Short term, it’s a good thing. In the long term, of course, it’s heartbreaking because the universities are the natural place to carry on the humanistic tradition. If we stop reading Milton, Trollope and George Eliot (Eliot maybe gets grandfathered in because of her gender), their books will die. It is on our shoulders to keep them alive.

A society needs to honor its accomplishments. The only precedent I can think of for what we’re going through now is the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which a society declared everything in its past to be a source of injustice. That didn’t come out so well. We’re in a similar moment now. Students are being taught to think of their own extraordinary inheritance only through the lens of grievance. How a society goes on without any sense of deserved pride, without respect for its traditions, I don’t know. We’re in a very weird place right now.

After your talk at our Center of the American Experiment lunch forum we drove to St. Olaf for another presentation in the evening. It struck me when a couple of foreign students got up and started talking about oppression. There’s something very strange about that, isn’t there?

I’m sorry if this sounds blunt, but if they feel so oppressed, why did they come here? Why didn’t they stay where they were? One student was obviously from Africa. He stood up with his carefully selected factoids (several incorrect) that allegedly showed America is still racist and, by extension, that he is oppressed to be in this country.

Meanwhile, the defining characteristic of the 21st century so far is the international migration from the Third World to the First World. Boatloads of people from North and Sub-Saharan Africa are doing everything they can to get into Europe and the U.S., regardless of border law. If the West is so oppressive you would think that the Left—the ACLU, the immigration rights groups—would be telling these Third-World people of color, “Stay in your home countries. Avoid this tsunami of hatred.”

Instead, those same left-wing groups whose morning message is about American racism turn around in the afternoon and say, “There shall be no immigration control. We need open borders. Anybody who wants to come into this country should be allowed to come, whatever the American people think.” If they really believe that to come here is to subject yourself to life-threatening bigotry, those are completely contradictory messages.

You made the point at St. Olaf that around the world there are thousands of young people who are studying night and day in hopes of being admitted to an American college or university. Yet, if they’re talented and fortunate enough to find their way to an American university, the first thing that their professors will tell them is that they are being oppressed.

Yes. It’s insane. It’s absolutely counterfactual. The racism narrative has become our national religion. Institution after institution is engaged in this frenzied self-flagellation, saying, “We are racist. The only thing that explains the lack of racial proportionality in this law firm or in this university is the bigotry of our own white employees.”

Nobody’s willing to entertain the actual answer, which is a huge academic skills gap. The average black 12th grader reads at the level of the average white eighth grader, and the gap between blacks and Asians is even larger. Until that gap is closed and others like it—the rate of single parenting, for example, or crime, gang, and drug involvement—it is blinkered to insist that any absence of racial proportionality is by definition the result of racism. Peter Salovey, the president of Yale, regularly rants about Yale’s discrimination and bigotry. The truth is this: Every faculty search at Yale is one desperate effort to hire from the paltry supply of remotely-qualified, underrepresented minorities or female candidates who have not already been snapped up by colleges that are willing to pay an even higher premium to get them. Every other college is involved in the same diversity chase, yet those college presidents, like Salovey, flagellate their own institutions for not caring enough about minorities.

Many conservatives couch the issue on college campuses in First Amendment terms. They believe the major issue on campuses is that conservative speakers are not being allowed to speak.

Yes. I was targeted by one of those mobs, and it is absolutely sobering to face such irrationality head-on. Self-righteous students believe they have the right to shut down anything they disagree with, simply by defining it as hate speech. The Left’s biggest reflex these days is to label any political opposition as arising from hate, rather than from a good-faith disagreement about how to interpret the facts of our world.

That having been said, though, I would argue that the free speech problem is a mere epiphenomenon of victim ideology, and that the latter is more consequential. The demand to shut down what is called hate speech will be unrelenting until we have the courage to stand up and say that American institutions are not places of endemic, life-threatening bigotry.

Conservatives have responded to the free speech crisis by arguing that the point of education is to debate opinion. I think that’s wrong. The essence of education is cramming as much knowledge as possible into the empty noggins of undergraduates within a fleeting four years. There are huge domains of knowledge for which debate is simply irrelevant. Nobody is going to debate the periodic table or the laws of thermodynamics, and no undergraduate knows enough to debate the causes of the spread of civilization across the early Mediterranean. Those are facts students should absorb and memorize.

The other problem with the dialogic model of education is that it tends toward things of the moment: Is it transphobic to insist on male and female bathrooms? Is Trump a fascist?Should we abolish ICE? The fact that there is only one answer to such questions allowed on a college campus is itself problem, of course. But those are not the questions that should occupy students’ minds. Whence the strangeness and the terror of Aeschylus’ great dramatic trilogy, The Oresteia? What is the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy? How do I unpack the syntax of Paradise Lost? Those are the matters with which students should grapple, not with whether Bernie Sanders should win the Democratic primary.

At St. Olaf you were saying it’s ridiculous to call St. Olaf a racist institution or say its minority students are subject to some kind of racial oppression or abuse because its professors are some of the most humane people you’ll find anywhere. They want all their students to succeed, and, in fact, they especially want their minority students to succeed. Here you are defending and sticking up for St. Olaf, while at the same time, there was an alternative event being held sponsored by the St. Olaf Student Government, which saw your views as being anathema.

There is nothing more insulting you can say to a college today than you are not a place of bigotry. You will infuriate people. I was at the University of Colorado-Boulder and made a similar point: “I can assure you, students, that you are surrounded by the most tolerant people in human history. Every trait that may still lead to death in many Third-World countries is actively celebrated here. You can still be stoned in Brunei for being homosexual. Here, it is a badge of honor.”

A diversity bureaucrat in the back of the room got up at the end of my speech and retorted angrily, “How dare you say that there is no bigotry at the University of Colorado-Boulder. I’ve been discriminated against myself.”

The fact is this: The race and gender of that diversity bureaucrat were pluses at every point of her career.

It seems to me that you are engaged in a battle to preserve Western civilization. I know that sounds grandiose, but that really is your mission, isn’t it? I hope it’s not a lonely battle but I’m afraid it may feel that way sometimes.

I feel privileged that in college I still got to read some of the greatest works (though not anywhere near as many as I should have) without a chip on my shoulder, because I was in school before identity politics crashed in. But if we do not pass on this inheritance, not only are our own lives impoverished, but we have fallen down on a responsibility to keep these ideas alive. It is very unusual for a civilization to be so filled with self-hatred. I think this will lead to some very dangerous, destructive instincts in the future. One of the greatest human virtues is gratitude. The purpose of a college education—the main responsibility of the faculty—is to help students understand why they should be down on their knees in gratitude for the beauty and sublimity of the Western tradition. And also for its patent accomplishments. No other civilization compares.