Springing the Diversity Trap: Thoughts on How Not to Defend Affirmative Action

You know you’re in trouble when Ronald Reagan starts to sound progressive. And you really know you’re in trouble when so-called progressives make him sound that way, thanks to their own pathetic gesticulations on one or another issue. But unfortunately, such is the case with regard to affirmative action. The old saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies,” has never been more appropriate than today, with ostensible defenders of affirmative action beating a steady retreat from the principles used to justify the concept for three decades, replacing them instead with what many call the “diversity defense” as a rationale for these programs’ continuation.

It was Reagan, after all, who as California’s Governor, signed into law the affirmative action programs banned by Prop 209, and who said in 1974: “Time and experience have shown that laws and edicts of non-discrimination are not enough. Justice demands that each and every citizen consciously adopt and accentuate a commitment to affirmative action, which will make equal opportunity a reality.”

How nice it would be to hear anything that principled from today’s defenders of affirmative action. But to listen to mainstream liberals tell it, affirmative action was never aimed at uprooting institutionalized white privilege; rather, it was simply a tool to allow people of “different backgrounds” to “learn from each other’s experiences,” “appreciate cultural differences,” and “tap the full potential of our nation’s human resources.”

To that end we’ve been treated to books like The Shape of the River, written by former Presidents of Harvard and Princeton, which argues that affirmative action in college is needed, not because racism is still deeply embedded in the fabric of educational institutions (least of all the ones they served over!), but rather, so as to create a cadre of black and brown academic elites, capable of “contributing more fully” to their society. This ponderous volume has been hailed as the ultimate defense of affirmative action programs, which, if that’s true, means the programs are in deep trouble. To the extent colleges like the Universities of Michigan and Washington are defending their own affirmative action programs in court on the basis of these “benefits of diversity,” it is not an exaggeration to say that this literary contribution may single-handedly do more damage to the cause of racial justice than Ward Connerly and Pete Wilson combined.

There are a number of problems inherent to defending affirmative action on the basis of the benefits of diversity, all of which should be readily apparent, but seem to have escaped consideration. First, the courts have begun to rule in most instances that diversity, whatever its benefits, is not a compelling state interest: the kind these same courts say must exist in order for state actors to fashion any race-conscious policy, like affirmative action.

Although diversity boosters have attempted to quantify the value of this otherwise abstract concept — by conducting surveys with college graduates and asking them such methodologically rigid questions as “Do you think your educational experience was enhanced or harmed by racial diversity?” — the fact remains, compared to the principled, albeit flawed reasoning of those attacking affirmative action (i.e., these programs amount to “reverse discrimination” and violate “color-blindness”), arguments about the importance of “learning to value difference” seem uncompelling by comparison.

Secondly, the benefits of diversity appear to all who know the history of affirmative action, to be an obvious retreat from the earlier rationales, which focused on institutional race and gender barriers to opportunity. This retreat makes it easier for critics to claim that such barriers must no longer exist, since if they did, surely the civil rights community would be talking about them, and continuing to push affirmative action on that basis. The diversity defense, in this sense, has become like President Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” mantra: tantamount to an apology for doing what needs to be done to challenge a system of inequity that no one seems willing to acknowledge even exists anymore. Diversity as a key rationale for affirmative action, serves in no small way then as the partner of white denial regarding racism itself.

Third, arguing that diversity on college campuses is beneficial because it allows students to “learn from one another’s different experiences,” begs the obvious question: Why are folks’ experiences so different in the first place? Especially on the basis of race such that colorizing the room would offer substantial new insight? The answer is obvious: it is racism itself that causes Americans to have such radically different experiences in this society; in which case the benefits of diversity as learning opportunity cannot be abstracted from the reason why such diversity is currently lacking: namely institutionalized inequity. Better to just focus on the cause of white homogeneity and dominance, than to offer to treat the symptom alone, as is done by the diversity defense. If racism is what causes different experiences, then racism, and the need to uproot it, should be sufficient rationale for things like affirmative action.

But of course, those institutions being sued over their “preferential” policies have a hard time acknowledging this basic truth. For them to admit their own complicity in the perpetuation of racism, through admissions criteria that overemphasize things like standardized tests or AP course credits, would be embarrassing and open themselves to lawsuits from people of color. Furthermore, it would put at risk their ability to use such selective and elitist criteria, which, after all, is necessary to keep up appearances that one is a top-notch institution as defined by the U.S. News college rankings, itself a financial imperative in the eyes of trustees and powerful alums. Thus, Universities being sued by organizations like the Center for Individual Rights, find themselves having to rely on obtuse, legally suspect arguments like the diversity defense, even as they ignore the reasons why their schools lack such diversity, and thus need to undertake race-conscious recruitment and admissions in the first place.

Finally, claiming that there is something inherently valuable about people from different backgrounds learning and working together, allows the right to counter with their own versions of pro-diversity arguments, such as “we need more Christian conservatives among liberal arts faculty,” or “we should promote ideological diversity” in a presumably left-leaning department like Women’s Studies.

Although most can see through these arguments, the reason why the right is off base with such positions is important: namely, Christians and conservatives have never been the victims of targeted, systemic oppression and exclusion. As such, to compare their plight at finding jobs in the Berkeley English Lit department with the exclusion of instructors of color, for example, is preposterous. But again, the key issue is institutional discrimination. That is why racial diversity or gender diversity is absent, and why affirmative action is still needed.

Unless we reorient the discussion to issues of equity and justice, it will be just as likely that historically Black colleges, none of which ever excluded anyone on the basis of race, nor apply admissions criteria which have race-exclusive impacts today, will be forced to diversify by dramatically expanding slots for white students, as that predominantly white schools would have to change.

This is already happening at Tennessee State University, where a court order is forcing TSU to become fifty percent white (it’s now eighty-five percent black), while only expecting historically-white University of Tennessee to become eleven percent African American. The logic of “diversity,” of course, compels this response, absent a historically grounded institutional analysis of racism: including a grasp of who are its victims, and who are its beneficiaries.

The only glimmer of good news is that recently the court overseeing the case against the University of Michigan allowed a group of students of color to enter into the case alongside the University. The students argued, and the court agreed, that the University would not likely mount the kind of defense that would touch on ongoing institutional barriers to full access, whereas this would be the core of the students’ case for affirmative action’s continuation.

Those seeking to protect affirmative action from further erosion should copy a play from these students’ playbook, and stop relying on liberal diversity-crats to fight for justice. Doing so is the last thing on most of their minds. And the quicker we all realize that, and put Reagan back on the right where he belongs, the better off we’ll all be.

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