What “Racial Equity” Does and Doesn’t Mean

I'm white

An article I wrote responding to UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s Washington Post editorial, “How the Asians Became White ” ended up creating a bit of a flap. There was a flood of angry comment, most of which was deleted.

Note to readers: comments that begin with “you f**king Nazi,” or that refer to me as a “genocidal maniac” don’t ever make the queue because, well, comparing racial equity in employment to the Holocaust is not something I support. Genocide, as well, is not something to be trivialized. If you want to do something to stop genocide, I suggest you begin by no longer making false equivalencies between Google’s entirely voluntary diversity hiring benchmarks (yes, they admit they have a problem) and genocide.

However, amidst the racial epithets, death threats, and fantasies of me being bullied as a child, there were some real points being made. Among them, that 30 percent of the Google workforce are Asian, while white men make up 61 percent, six points below the 67 percent they take up of the U.S. workforce in general. Meanwhile, Blacks are 2 percent of the Google workforce and Latinos, 3 percent.

Here’s the statement from professor Volokh that got them stirred up (and confused):

Google on Wednesday released statistics on the makeup of its work force, providing numbers that offer a stark glance at how Silicon Valley remains a white man’s world.

But wait — just a few paragraphs down, the post notes that non-Hispanic whites are 61 percent of the Google work force, slightly below the national average. (That average, according to 2006-2010 numbers is 67 percent.) Google is thus less white than the typical American company. White men are probably slightly over-represented; assuming that the 30 percent number it gives for women Google employees worldwide carries over to the U.S. (the article gives no separate number for U.S. women Google employees), white men are 42 percent of the Google work force, and 35 percent of the U.S. work force — not a vast disparity. Indeed, if the goal is “reflecting the demographics of the country” as to race –

Google’s disclosures come amid an escalating debate over the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Although tech is a key driver of the economy and makes products that many Americans use everyday, it does not come close to reflecting the demographics of the country — in terms of sex, age or race.

– Google can only accomplish that by firing well over three-quarters of its Asian employees, and replacing them with blacks and Hispanics (and a few whites, to bring white numbers up from 61 percent to 67 percent).

So, between the epithets, some suggest, there’s an equity issue here. In order for Google to increase the percentage of Latinos, Blacks, and whites among their workforce then Asians would have to be fired to make room for them. Then, some sort of parity with the current composition of the American workforce could be achieved.

And this, it seems to me, requires a response, because this logic permeates society and is at the foundation of the racist logic standing in the way of racial justice. Here goes.

First of all, non-Hispanic whites constitute 63 percent of the American public according to the Census. That means they may be over-represented in the workforce at 67 percent. And, whites are 95 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (Asians are 1.8%, blacks are 1.2%, and Latinos are 2.5%). So if we go around bean counting, we start to run into all sorts of logical inconsistencies in Volokh’s reasoning.

But, just bean counting fails to address a fundamental principle of equity. Racial equity in hiring requires that we first look at the qualified pool of applicants for any given job. If the qualified pool of applicants is, say, 10 percent black, then a good faith effort should be made to ensure that 10 percent of the actual applicant pool is black, perhaps by recruiting candidates from historically black colleges or hiring a firm that specializes in diversity recruitment. After constituting the pool of applicants, more specific qualities desired by employers are considered. If an affirmative action mandate is in place, the races of applicants is considered at the point of hire, but only after it is established that the applicants are qualified.

So, 62 percent of Google employees might be an under-representation of qualified whites in the tech sector seeking employment. But, if only 10 percent of the potential pool is white, then whites are actually wildly over-represented. The professor offered no evidence for us to evaluate in deciding whether any of the groups identified at Google are over or under-represented at all.

But, he did cite current workforce demographics, which we know is a corrupt way of evaluating fairness. Why? Because research conducted by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that black unemployment in the U.S. has been roughly twice that of whites since 1954 (before the passage of civil rights laws), and stood about at about 13.4 percent in 2013 (compared with whites at 6.7%). So, the workforce isn’t representative of the public in general, and appears to reflect discrimination where race is concerned.

Not convinced? Black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 in 2013 suffered a 12.4 percent unemployment rate compared with 5.6 percent for all graduates. And the gap narrows but doesn’t go away over time. Overall, black college grads suffer a 6 percent unemployment rate compared with 3.5 percent for white college grads. And those who majored in high demand fields like engineering did little better than liberal arts majors.

In fact, the article cited in that last link refers to a study that found that whites with recent criminal histories are more likely to get calls back on job applications than blacks with no past criminal histories.

So when folks write about workforce diversity and invoke words like “representation” and “equity,” they should be aware that there’s a back story here. Without that context, claims like Volokh’s don’t mean much. But, even as we talk about “equity” in representation at U.S. companies, we ought not forget that equity isn’t the same thing as justice. Injustice is what is represented by that black college graduate unemployment rate, not to mention employers apparent preferences for whites with past criminal histories over blacks with no criminal history.

Justice begs questions like, why are so many people of color unemployed? Why are black college graduates denied the opportunities they worked so hard for? And what constitutes “qualified” and why is the pool of qualified applicants for the most lucrative jobs so white? Asians are actually underrepresented in those same kinds of jobs if you use educational attainment as a yardstick.

And, while we’re at it, why did CEO pay increase over 127 times faster than worker pay over the last 30 or so years? Why is our political system so strongly influenced by the political contributions of the richest (white) Americans in what is supposed to be a democratic society? And, what is the relationship of that influence to the erosion of workers’ rights and our voting rights?

We live in a trickle-up economy folks. The next time you find yourself arguing over important but relatively marginal issues like how many of one or another group are employed at an elite company like Google, look up. That’s where all the wealth Google workers and the rest of us are creating is concentrated. And then look down, because where people of color are over-represented is in the jobs that most of us don’t want because they pay too little.

But, I started by saying I wanted to address the racist logic standing in the way of racial justice. Toward that end, there’s one more point that needs to be made. In all of the statistics and studies I cited, it appears that a few groups of non-whites are consistently missing: American Indians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. For the most part, Pacific Islanders are lumped in with “Asians,” and often to their detriment. American Indians and Native Hawaiians, on the other hand, are rarely included at all. The racist logic all of these groups suffer from is the logic of colonialism and genocide; it begins with dehumanization (R*dskins, anyone?), moves on to warfare and conquest, and ends with simply making the survivors of these conquests disappear.

The last act of genocide is to make the survivors disappear, and the horrors of our supposedly brilliant American history along with them. Just saying.


Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

2 replies on “What “Racial Equity” Does and Doesn’t Mean”

You totally missed the point and you just beat around the bush.

Instead of addressing racial demographics at Google, as you began your argument, you chose to talk about how most CEOs are White.

You should have been addressing the fact that Asians are over-represented at Google and that they’re basically taking jobs away from other minority workers. If companies would have a quota system that takes into account the actual demographics, then over 20% of Asians should be fired and only around ~3% of Whites (although many Latinos do identify as White) to make room for more Hispanics and Blacks.

However, you don’t like that being Asian and instead chose to shift the blame to Whites.

It is interesting really.
I found this site and surfed though it a bit partly because the parallel with conservative white people on topics of “white privilege” and Asian activists on the topic of Asians having it is so identical. They’ll often use many of the same arguments, but with certain twists, while applying different reasoning for different reasons.

Either way, the most noticeable thing is how Asians (a term I dont really like that much, since we mean of some North East Asian ancestry) get very defensive on the subject of privilege in much the same way a Jewish guy gets when he’s being lectured on the topic.

Part of the irony is that in the context of Asian Americans it’s mostly the more activist type who gets the most defensive, despite them being more proponents of the concept.

Comments are closed.