Americans like diversity at work—but only in theory

Not always where it counts.
Not always where it counts.
Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Three-quarters of Americans agree it is important for workplaces to promote racial and ethnic diversity, according to a study published by the Pew Research Center today.

The response doesn’t vary too much by race, with 81% of black Americans saying it is very or somewhat important, 73% of whites, and 75% of Hispanics. Yet while it appears that most Americans support diversity, the Pew study suggests the support doesn’t actually extend to action to ensure that it increases.

Just 24% of Americans said a person’s race or ethnicity should be taken into account alongside their qualifications in hiring decisions in order to increase diversity. Nearly three-quarters said only an applicant’s qualifications should be considered in hiring—even if it meant less diversity.

On this, a racial divide emerges: 78% of white Americans believe only qualifications should count, compared to 54% of black Americans. More than two-thirds of Hispanics also said only qualifications should count.

This disconnect can be seen at Microsoft, the world’s most valuable company. It has a compensation plan for executives linked to diverse hiring, but some employees took to an internal message board to denounce it as discriminatory, Quartz found. “As long as we give more money and higher annual reviews explicitly for NOT hiring/promoting white men and Asians, this will continue to be a serious problem at the company,” one comment read.

The wider implication of the Pew study is that most Americans believe achievement in their education system and the labor market is sufficiently based on merit. That’s despite evidence to the contrary.

An analysis by the New York Times in 2017 found that black and Hispanic students were more underrepresented at top colleges and universities in the US than they were 35 years earlier, even after decades of affirmative action. The roots of the problem extend to an inequitable and segregated school system. A report by the US Department of Education in 2014 found that schools with lots of students of color tended to have less access to advanced courses (pdf) such as AP subjects, fewer experienced teachers, and limited access to resources needed to provide a high quality education.

Americans know these inequities matter. The same Pew survey shows that 62% of white Americans think children should go to local schools, even if that makes them less racially mixed. Whereas, just 28% of black Americans believe the same thing. Instead, 68% of black respondents said students should go to schools that are racially and ethnically diverse, even if that means traveling out of their neighborhood. The report was based on a nationally representative survey of 6,637 US adults.