Racial preferences have been almost impossible to dislodge because their human costs are usually hidden. College admissions officers don’t inform rejected student applicants that they were turned down to make room for diversity admits. An HR office does not tell job seekers or the company’s own employees that they were not hired or promoted because they would add nothing to the company’s diversity metrics. The rejected applicants may suspect that they didn’t get a desired position because of a racial preference, but they can rarely be 100 percent sure.
The offstage nature of these tradeoffs allows preference proponents to deny that diversity decisions entail a zero-sum calculus. In 2019, a U.S. district court judge upheld Harvard’s racial-admissions preferences after a lengthy trial. In her opinion, Judge Allison Burroughs insisted that race is only a positive factor, and never a negative factor, in Harvard’s admissions process. Such a claim is specious. The only reason that institutions implement racial preferences in the first place is that there are not enough qualified applicants among non-Asian minorities to achieve a racially proportionate student body or workforce under a meritocratic selection system. Hiring a diversity candidate under a preference regime almost always means not hiring a more qualified non-diverse candidate. The former’s gain is inevitably the latter’s loss.
Now a British classical music organization has inadvertently ripped the veil off the diversity arithmetic, and the consequences may be far-reaching. Earlier this month, the English Touring Opera told nearly half its orchestral musicians that it would not be renewing their contracts for the 2022 season because it has “prioritised increased diversity in the orchestra.” In other words, as a bunch of white guys you must be cleared out so that we can boost the collective melanin levels among our musicians. Your talent does not matter; your skin color does.
Here, at last, were concrete, publicly identified victims of a preference regime. The reaction was swift. Since the Sunday Times broke the story, the English Touring Opera has been thrown on the defensive. Arts Council England, a government arts funder and the opera company’s main patron, is backpedaling on its aggressive promotion of diversity after the company claimed that it was only following the Council’s mandates in terminating the white musicians. It turns out that the public has little stomach for watching the diversity sausage be made.
The English Touring Opera has been a valuable addition to Britain’s classical music scene; it deemphasizes warhorses in favor of a less overplayed repertoire. Recent seasons have offered strong representation of Renaissance and Baroque composers, including an oratorio by Giacomo Carissimi (an obscure seventeenth-century Roman composer); madrigals and motets by Carlo Gesualdo, Guillaume de Machaut, and Josquin des Prez; and Purcell’s short opera Dido and Aeneas. The ETO travels across England, bringing top-flight performances to places that otherwise would not have access to such eclectic live music.
Up to now, the ETO has not stood out as particularly “woke.” Its stagings are elegant and not revisionist. It does not seek to deconstruct opera’s alleged misogyny and colonialism. But in a letter to ETO’s sacked orchestra players, artistic director James Conway warned belatedly that the company will be “going through some significant changes over the next few seasons”—all, apparently, related to diversity. Conway invoked the appointment of the ETO’s new music director, conductor Gerry Cornelius, as a factor in those changes. ETO trumpeted Cornelius’s mixed Sri Lankan and Irish parentage when it hired him. Was Cornelius chosen on musical grounds alone? Perhaps; his resume is impressive. Thanks to the diversity regime, however, his status as a “BME” (a black or minority ethnic background person, Britain’s version of POC) can’t be ruled out as decisive.
To increase diversity in the pit, the ETO held orchestra auditions this summer, a break with its traditional practice of rehiring its freelance instrumentalists from season to season. The auditions were overseen by Chi-Chi Nwanoku, one of Britain’s leading champions of racial equity in classical music. Nwanoku runs the Chineke! Orchestra, composed predominantly of black and “ethnically diverse” musicians; in her advocacy of color-conscious hiring practices, she is Britain’s version of the Sphinx Organization’s Afa Dworkin. The ETO ignored a press query asking if its recent auditions were blind (i.e., with the musician’s identity concealed behind a screen) and what the winners’ race was.
ETO mounts two arguments in defense of eliminating its previous players. Its orchestral musicians are freelancers, working on an at-will basis with no contractual expectation of future employment, it says. That’s true. In practice, however, a freelance orchestra is little different from a tenured ensemble. As one British conductor explains: “You are loyal to your regular players, and they are loyal to you.” Some musicians eliminated to make way for diversity hires had worked for ETO for more than 20 years. They were understandably anticipating a return to employment, especially after the economic hardships of the Covid shutdown.
ETO also claims a mandate from Arts Council England. “This [action] is in line with the firm guidance of the Arts Council,” Conway wrote to the terminated players. But Arts Council England, which distributes nearly 600 million pounds a year from taxpayer and lottery revenues to arts organizations, rushed to differ with ETO’s assessment. “We did not instruct the English Touring Opera to send this [termination] letter,” the Council said, as reported in the Daily Mail. “We are now in conversation with ETO to ensure no funding criteria have been breached.”
The Council’s denial is undoubtedly accurate in a literal sense: it did not demand this particular letter. But ETO can be forgiven for thinking that a rapid escalation of its diversity quotient comports with its benefactor’s wishes. The Council publishes turgid hundred-page reports slicing and dicing a dizzying array of its recipient organizations’ diversity metrics. Those reports reduce Britain’s leading classical music ensembles to a congeries of racial identities: The London Symphony Orchestra: only 4 percent BME; the Royal Opera House: 11 percent BME; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: 3 percent BME; the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society: 3 percent BME; the Welsh National Opera: 6 percent BME. Even the shining star in Britain’s cultural firmament, the Royal Shakespeare Company, comes in for a diversity drubbing at only 3 percent BME.
The Council’s funding decisions are driven by the imperative to “reflect the diversity of contemporary England.” Doing so means wasting taxpayer dollars subsidizing commercially viable pop music, such as hip-hop and rap. The Council brags about funding the American tour of a British rapper. Grant applications must detail the steps grantees will take to “broaden the diversity of their workforce and governance.” Grantees who fail to meet their diversity targets “will lose funding,” according to a recent document. If passing on Britain’s inheritance of high art and beauty is a concern of the Council’s, it buries that concern deep beneath its “we can all create diverse art” populist cheerleading.
The Council did not respond to a request to explain how grantee organizations are supposed to improve their diversity profile without prioritizing diversity in their contracts. The ETO almost certainly breached no “funding criteria” in laying off its players; the Council displays no concern for maintaining the excellence of an ensemble or protecting the expectations of its members. For the Council to insist, in effect, “We meant diversity, but not by those means” is disingenuous. Once you unleash the diversity ideology, it will mow down everything in its path.
Almost as disingenuous is the Music Union’s huffing and puffing about the ETO layoffs. The union declared itself “appalled” by Conway’s letter. But the union, too, pumps out verbiage about workplace diversity. It advocates the collection and publication of diversity data, quarterly diversity trainings in music organizations, less emphasis on white European composers in music education, and a 20 percent minority quota on new union memberships by 2024. It asserts that “representation” is the key to orchestral success. Actually, a desire for classical music on the part of audiences is the only thing that will keep classical music alive. Teaching the public to view that music and its performers through the lens of race is a sure way to kill such desire.
It is telling that diversity proponents strive to distance themselves from the consequences of their ideology when those consequences are made public, revealing identifiable victims. Dislodging someone from a job may feel different from not giving the most qualified applicant a job in the first place. But in both cases, someone is deprived of an earned benefit based on the irrelevancy of race. Every preference-practicing institution is creating invisible casualties; every exhortation toward racial engineering pushes merit aside. Those doing the exhorting are secure in their own positions; ETO director Conway has not stepped down to make way for a BME leader. But the next time an institution celebrates its diversity practices, we should remember ETO’s Saturday Night Massacre and understand that something similar is happening at that institution and countless others. The maintenance of our cultural heritage depends on an awareness of these realities.