February 24, 2003


Looking Back at an Ugly Time: An unchallenged war against the very idea of diversity will
turn us back in the direction of segregation. (Bob Herbert, 2/23/03, NY Times)
There's a reason why so many mainstream individuals and groups, and some of the nation's largest corporations, have filed briefs with the Supreme Court in support of Michigan's effort to save its affirmative-action programs. The United States is a better place after a half-century of racial progress and improved educational opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities, and women.

We have all benefited, and voluntary efforts to continue that progress, including the policies at Michigan, are in the interest of us all.

Justice Lewis Powell, who wrote the controlling opinion in the Bakke case in 1978, eloquently addressed the matter of campus diversity when he said that "a robust exchange of ideas" is of "transcendent value to us all."

An unchallenged right-wing war against the very idea of diversity will turn us back in the direction of the noxious beliefs spewed out by National Review in 1957.

The question is not whether diversity may be valuable for some people or desirable to them, but whether it is in fact a "transcendent value" and should be made compulsory even for those who do not desire it. To start with, no one actually believes that diversity broadly is a transcendent value--no one proposes that white supremacists, paedophiles, cannibals, misogynists, etc. have reserved spots in our universities so that we can all be exposed to a genuine diversity of opinion. In fact, schools have largely headed in the opposite direction, requiring a uniformity of opinion on many issues, lest anyone be offended by thoughts that are "different". Few would find fault with banning Nazism from the classroom, but if the increasing diversity of the student body requires that a shrinking range of opinions be presented--so, for instance, that racial differences on IQ tests, or social effects of immigration, or demographic effects of abortion, or health effects of homosexuality, or similar topics, are considered out of bounds--then it seems fair to ask whether diversity has added something to the educational experience or subtracted something.

The next question is why it is thought helpful to admit people who are objectively unqualified. By this we don't mean that they are inferior per se, but that they have not met the entrance standards that their classmates have met. Here there are two possibilities--one can argue that the standards don't matter and that the diversity itself is more important or one can argue that it is only circumstances that lead to one student meeting the standards and the other not. Both of these are essentially arguments for extreme egalitarianism and they raise the question why not just select student bodies via a random lottery? If you truly believe all people to be equal at their core, then why isn't the heterosexual WASP male who doesn't qualify just as much a victim of his upbringing as the black girl from the ghetto? If you take a less drastic view of nature vs. nurture and argue that but for the disadvantages of their prior education some minority students would be qualified, it seems fair to point out that while this may be true it also implicates character. No one, I don't think, would argue that a person who is innately qualified could not have met admission standards had they prepared themselves better. We can recognize the external reasons why they failed to do so without then turning around and absolving them of any responsibility for this failure. Surely there are many majority students who are in the same boat, but we don't--for good reason--cut them any slack. The effect of this influx of the unqualified has, for obvious reason, been the complete degradation of the grading system in college, inflating average grades to the point where they mean nothing. Here again, we're left to ask whether diversity has in practice improved education or decimated it.

The next argument folks like Mr. Herbert have to fall back on is that it is good simply to have different types of people in every setting, that the sole basis for diversity is skin color or gender or whatever. [This is, of course, an argument that they do not apply to fields where blacks, women and such predominate. Thus they don't propose "improving" the NBA by forcing teams to take white, Latino, or Asian players. They don't propound diversity in women's sports, allowing men to compete for spots on the teams. They don't object--or most don't--to historically black or women's colleges.] In effect they are asking us to judge people solely by the color of their skin (or some other immutable characteristic). But then they also demand that only the judgment they've settled upon be allowed. They ask that we freight race with enormous meaning but that only they be allowed to tell us what the meaning is. Why, for instance, if the very quality of being black is so important is it only reasoinable to mix the races in some government derived proportion? Why might someone not think as different proportion was valid? Why might someone not say that homogeneity was more important, at least in certain areas? From whence do folks like Mr. Herbert receive their wisdom that race is a sufficient reason to admit exactly 10% blacks to the University of Michigan or 4% of Asians to UCLA or 51% women to colleges generally, or whatever arbitrary measures they wish us to accept are transcendent? Regardless, we're left with a system where because we now think it wrong that Student A would not have been admitted to College B in 1930 because of his race, he now must be admitted because of his race. We can bicker about the relative motivations of the two regimes, but all we've done is replace one variant of racism with another.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to accept any of the proffered reasons for diversity and we're left to look at the results in order to discern motives. It seems apparent from that perspective that the point really is to impose a utopian egalitarian vision. It is an attack on ability (which is, unfortunately, unevenly distributed amongst us); on opinions that do not conform to the idea of absolute equality; on elite institutions in and of themselves (so that we today graduate kids from college knowing no more than their grandparents learned in high school); and, in toto, on the very bases of Western Civilization--on the free exchange of ideas, on individual achievement, on character, on responsibility, and on natural hierarchy. It is the levelling wind and it's already bent us too far..

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2003 9:55 AM

I have been too busy to compose a thoughtful letter on this subject but have seriously been considering one to the president of MIT etc. along these lines -- if you win, you'd better turn out lots of first-rate brown engineers for those corporations you say you are so concerned about, because none of them will ever be able to hire a first-rate white one again.

First-rate engineers are a scarce commodity everywhere. They can count. They won't participate in the diversity game because it's stacked against them.

Posted by: Harry at February 25, 2003 3:59 PM