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Numbers Game

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“Diversity” and self-delusion

By William Deresiewicz


 

There was a piece last year on NPR on Portland, Oregon, my current place of residence. Or, I should say, another piece, the city having become a media darling in recent years. Most of the story had to do with why so many 20-somethings have continued to move to town despite what was, at the time, a relatively high unemployment rate. (The answer, in a word, is lifestyle.) The last part, though, addressed a different issue: diversity. Portland is about 80 percent white, a number that is changing only slowly. So what, I wondered, did the two topics have to do with each other? Then it hit me. The syntax of the full report went something like this: Portland, you think you’re so cool, but where are all the black people?

I had run across this sort of thing before. The New York Times, which is as responsible as anyone for igniting the Portland frenzy, had done a takedown piece on gentrification in the city’s Alberta Street neighborhood. This is a paper that is put together in a place where gentrification is practically the state religion (and whose style sections constitute the hymnal). Writing in The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh had mentioned that she finds Portland “disconcertingly white.” Loh lives in Los Angeles, that paradise of racial harmony.

I’m not defending Portland here. Its whiteness is the outcome of some pretty ugly history. For 60 years after statehood, Oregon excluded blacks from settling within its borders. No, what I can’t stand is the way that “diversity” has become a badge of moral superiority. Somehow you’re a better person if you happen to live in a place that has a lot of blacks and Latinos—even if that circumstance is no thanks to you, even if you live there for entirely different reasons, even if you don’t actually know any of those people, even if the groups are segregated economically (and even though your presence, ipso facto, reduces the level of that diversity). “I can’t stand Vermont—it’s so white.” Vermont’s white? You’re white, you idiot.

Diversity isn’t equality. It isn’t even integration. It is merely demographics. It has nothing to do, in this context, with the well-being of people of color. It’s not a moral issue; it is, precisely, an issue of lifestyle. White people like it because it enables them to feel good about themselves. When they see a black person in their neighborhood, they give themselves a gold star.

I was reminded of this recently during the dustup about the television series Girls. The program, which follows a group of young women who are living the trust-fund life in Brooklyn, attracted a lot of negative comment because all the cast members are white. This is what I wanted to say to the critics: If they made a show about you and your closest friends, how many black and Latino characters would it have?

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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