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Why progressive organizations have become so vulnerable to staff meltdowns
We need to accept that the pipeline problem is real
Ryan Grim published an excellent and very long feature recently about the staff-led meltdowns at progressive advocacy organizations that have paralyzed a lot of institutions.
What he doesn’t talk about, but which is certainly related, is that a desire to avoid this kind of paralyzing meltdowns is a factor in some organizations’ tactical and strategic missteps. A lot of this behavior manifests in communication strategies, as with the ACLU arguing that abortion bans disproportionately harm “the LGBT community,” even though unplanned pregnancy is a pretty classic heterosexual problem.
David Dayen, editor of the American Prospect, quipped in response to Grim that his whole piece is based on the false notion “that DC-based progressive organizations were at one point highly effective” before being undermined by internal strife. But political scientist Matt Grossman found in research published ten years ago that these groups really were effective and in fact “pulled away above their organizational weight in influencing policy” precisely because they had “strong single-issue reputations that differentiated them from the generic image of the left.”
So I think people who care about progressive issues should be doubly concerned by the meltdowns. Not only do they consume resources and paralyze organizations directly, but to the extent that leaders avert paralysis by adopting generic across-the-board left politics, they will fail.
That means it’s important to offer a diagnosis that goes beyond the basic points of tactical management failures (though those exist) and the peculiar dynamics of Zoom and Twitter (though those are real) to understand the basic ideological vulnerability that created this problem.
I think that far too many institutional leaders have, with the encouragement of their funders, accepted unrealistic diversity goals (whether implicit or explicit) along with the premise that failing to meet those goals is prima facie evidence of a racist internal culture. When organizations stand presumptively guilty according to criteria that they and their donors have accepted, it makes them extremely vulnerable to wreckers and opportunists and makes effective management impossible.
The truth is that diversity and representation do matter, but progressive leaders need to be clearer and more rigorous about how and when they matter and what realistic goal-setting looks like.
The rise and fall of the pipeline problem
Twenty years ago, an organization with progressive values and few Black or Hispanic employees would have said they were victims of a “pipeline problem.” Society as a whole simply wasn’t generating enough suitable candidates in order to obtain a diverse staff.
I think this was in important respects bullshit. I used to work with Ann Friedman who preached the virtues of quotas to achieve journalistic diversity, and I think her thoughts on this are persuasive. When I did Friday interview shows for The Weeds, for example, my rule was that at least half the guests had to be women. I kept track of the numbers, I hit the goals, and by hitting the goals I succeeded on a second-order level at crafting a show that elevated a somewhat different set of voices than the ones people normally heard from.
Earlier in my career, I sometimes had to recruit crews of guest bloggers to fill in for me at The Atlantic. At this time, political journalism was a super white field in a way that reflected not just a pipeline issue but the constrained horizons of editors who I think were deeply reluctant to publish Black writers who held normal Black person views like “anti-Black racism is a big deal in America society.” There was a lot of exposure for heterodox people like John McWhorter, but the actual orthodox opinion was deemed uninteresting. As a result, it was possible for me to get someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates to fill in as an unpaid guest blogger — amazing journalistic talent was just lying around as editors made dumb excuses for themselves.
But eventually a much-needed backlash to excuse making became a rigid dogma of its own:
It’s time to debunk the ‘pipeline problem’ once and for all [Fast Company]
Five reasons why the pipeline problem is just a myth [Forbes]
Think diversity is a “pipeline problem”? Look to your process instead [Gem]
Lots of people, of course, just don’t care about diversity. But today if you are a manager and you have stakeholders who do care about diversity and you tell them that there is a pipeline problem, members of the care-about-diversity community will get mad at you. And in fact experienced managers know that this is the wrong thing to say, so they won’t say it.
The problem, though, is twofold. One is that if every organization simultaneously stops making excuses and diversifies, organizations do run up against a pipeline problem after all. The other is that accepting failure to meet diversity goals as evidence of an internal culture of white supremacy sets organizations up for the kind of destabilization Grim details.
There is a large population-level educational skew
In its most generic form, the “pipeline problem” in all kinds of white-collar occupations stems from the fact that educational attainment varies significantly by race. So whether it’s a tech company or a media outlet or a progressive nonprofit, white-collar workplaces typically have a larger percentage of Asian employees than the population at large but a smaller percentage of Black and Hispanic employees.
This even to an extent understates the issue, because most colleges are not selective and most students attend un-selective colleges.
But the kinds of high-profile institutions that become embroiled in these controversies don’t just employ college graduates, they employ graduates of selective colleges and universities — a handful of famous super-elite private schools plus the larger number of state flagship schools that are hard to get into.
Milan took the US News list of top 20 and top 50 schools and got their racial demographics from Data USA.
What you see (other than a lot of international students who are classified as “other”) is that the top schools have many fewer Black and Latin students than the population as a whole. And they are even more unrepresentative compared specifically to the cohort of student-aged people.
Something to note here is that the Top 50 have slightly fewer Black students than the Top 20. This is a manifestation of the affirmative action U-curve that Peter Arcidiacono and Michael Lovenheim have documented. They plotted the Black share of enrollment at a given school versus the average SAT score, and got a shape that sags in the middle.
The most elite schools in America improve their diversity by pulling up Black applicants who would otherwise attend moderately selective schools. But the moderately selective schools don’t want to let in students with weak SAT scores, so those students end up at the non-selective schools. The result is that moderately selective colleges are the least-diverse.
In other words, if you look at institutions that normally recruit from highly selective schools, then an incremental change in their recruiting or candidate selection approach isn’t going to generate a change in diversity outcomes.
Those institutions have basically three viable choices:
They can say the whole system of meritocratic sorting in American higher education is totally broken and completely throw out the playbook in terms of who gets hired.
They can say the pipeline problem is actually quite real and needs solutions that are beyond the scope of any individual organization.
They can sort of put their heads in the sand about the math and conclude that the organization has a problematic internal culture that needs fixing.
My guess is that (1) is false but of course that is hard to prove. If some donors and managers wanted to embark on trying to experiment with (1), I think they would probably fail but it would be a worthwhile experiment. But instead they have largely chosen (3), which is both directly generative of meltdowns and also encourages investments in often-counterproductive diversity trainings or the incorporation of material by grifters like Tema Okun into official doctrine.
By contrast, while (2) obviously can be a cop out, it can also be a way of taking concerns about the structural nature of racial inequality seriously.
Structural racism is structural
In a different context, the people who publish articles about how the pipeline problem is a myth would probably agree that it is harder to grow up in a poor household than in a middle-class household. They would note that Black families with middle-class incomes tend to have dramatically less wealth than similar-earning white families. They would say that residential segregation has negative impacts on children’s lives. They might note large racial disparities in exposure to air pollution, noise pollution, water contamination, and violence, all of which are associated with worse life outcomes.
The way a lot of public school systems operate exacerbates this.
If a school is full of poor kids with single parents who don’t have much education themselves, the teachers have a more difficult job. The teachers are also less likely to be supported by an active and well financed parent-teacher organization. So the teaching staff is more likely to have high turnover. And the vacancies are more likely to be filled by assignment from the central office with the teachers who the principals in the nice neighborhoods didn’t want to hire. So you have an objectively more difficult job being done by a mix of teachers, a significant number of whom are below average in experience or ability.
The thing about all these structural problems that progressives like to draw attention to is that they are real problems that are genuinely structural. They don’t just go away if managers at some organization chant the right incantations or if elite universities add enough staff to their diversity and inclusion offices.
And they’re also not going to go away if the issue advocacy groups who work on relevant problems are in a constant state of meltdown and infighting or if they compromise their efficacy by merging into a totalizing leftist borg that alienates everyone.
What is to be done?
One thing about this analysis is that a bit counterintuitively, the pipeline problem is least constraining when you’re looking at the highest levels. There are only nine Supreme Court justices and fifteen cabinet secretaries, but there are dozens and dozens and dozens of people who can conceivably do those jobs. So if you prioritize diversity in your appointments, as Joe Biden has, you can ensure you have diverse teams at the top level.
That’s entirely appropriate and commendable; it’s just important that people understand that it doesn’t necessarily scale.
It is easier to have diversity in appointments to the federal judiciary than it is to make every major law firm diverse, because at the level of “every major law firm,” you are constrained by the demographics of American law schools. By the same token, it is easier to have a diverse cabinet than to achieve an equivalent level of diversity across the staff of the House of Representatives. The hope has to be that high-level representation helps generate larger and more robust candidate pools in the next generation. And, indeed, way back in the Lyndon Johnson administration we got the first African-American Supreme Court justice, while it was only under Obama and Biden that judicial appointments writ large became broadly representative. When I was a kid there were already tons of political columnists who looked like me, and that made it easier for me to take the path I’ve taken. Today’s stock of journalists is more diverse, which I hope will provide inspiration and encouragement to a more diverse stock of aspiring journalists and lead ultimately to a more diverse field.
The progressive movement needs leaders who maintain high aspirations but also set reasonable goals. You want a cycle of continuous improvement rather than the current norm of setting implausible goals and then tearing the organization apart for failing to meet them.
There’s been an incredible backlash on the left not just to the specific analysis of the pipeline problem, but to Obama-style invocations of the long arc of history or Weberian observations about the strong and slow boring of hard boards. But even though all of this stuff is legitimately frustrating, it is still true that resolving entrenched structural problems is difficult and requires both time and discipline.