Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is "Diversity" a Code Word for "Racism"?

Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg thinks it is in this article. In all the media flurry surround the changing of the guard in Washington, the news about the abolition of affirmative action in Michigan escaped the attention of many. On November 8, the people of Michigan passed a ballot measure that prohibits the use of preferential treatment in public universities. This measure is in response to the 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger in which the court upheld the use of affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School. Grutter upheld the 1978 decision in Bakke, in which the court argued that preferential treatment is allowable in univeristy admissions policy in order to create a "diverse" student body.

Goldberg's point seems to be that diversity justification is now being used to tailor policies that amount to quotas of racial/ethnic minorities. But he also brings up the idea that the diversity justification is not working to promote academic achievement for students of color.

The diversity justification assumes that a diverse student body is a good one because it fosters a special kind of learning environment that a mono-cultural or mono-racial one does not. Goldberg cites a study that says that African American students do not necessarily do better in racially diverse school settings.

The origins of the diversity justification can be traced to several desegreation cases, but most notably McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950). McLaurin was an African American student who was admitted to a segregated state law school and was given a special desk and alcove to attend classes, but he was not allowed to mingle with the white students. I've posted above a picture of McLaurin in his segregated class. The Supreme Court objected to the law school's treatment because it said that such segregated education prevented McLaurin from being able to experience various kinds of "intangible considerations" that would affect his ability to learn law such as "his ability to study, to engage in discussion and exchange views with other students, and in general, learn his profession." Thus, a segregated education harmed McLaurin. This idea filtered up into the famous Brown v. Board of Education case. In short, "segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children".

What I find striking about this line of reasoning is that there is no consideration about whether white children are harmed from an "undiverse" learning environment. Goldberg doesn't seem to think about this either.

I wonder how our discussions about affirmative action might have been different if the Courts hadn't used this line of reasoning and instead relied on the decision in Mendez v. Westminster School District. In this case, the Ninth Circuit court ruled against segregated Mexican schools in California. The court wrote: “The evidence clearly shows that Spanish speaking children are retarded in learning English by lack of exposure to its use because of segregation, and that commingling of the entire student body instills and develops a common cultural attitude among the school children which is imperative for the perpetuation of American institutions and ideals…"

While its not explicit, this line of reasoning could be taken to mean that a diverse education is good for both white children and students of color because that diversity helps to create the conditions for democracy. This is very different than the dominant reasoning of the court in affirmative action matter that says diversity is good because it helps individual students of color to succeed. Instead, under the Mendez justification, diversity is something we should try to achieve because it helps us to practice democracy better.

What if "diversity" were not code for "racism" but for "democracy"?


Friday, November 03, 2006

Pandemic of Violence toward Women

This artwork is done by Cynthia Rodriguez and is entitled "Los Numeros sin Almas/ Numbers without Souls". It is done in honor of the numerous women murdered in Juarez, Mexico and utilizes imagery usually associated with the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead--November 2).

Early last month, the United Nations issued a report documenting the global epidemic of domestic violence toward women. The reports explains that in the developed world, 20-25% of women have experienced some form of assault, physical coercion, or sexual violence from male partners or family members. In the global south, these figures are sometimes as high as 70-80% of women. The report argues that the prevalence of this sort of violence is one of the largest human rights violation we face today.

A UN report on the rights of indigenous women, released at the same time, points out (as did Alicia Gaspar de Alba in our podcast on the women of Juarez) that it is poor indigenous women who bear the brunt of much of physical and structural violence in the world.

At the same time there are critics of these reports. A group that calls itself RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) argues that most discussions of domestic violence perpetuate a myth of male aggressor and female victims. RADAR wants to demonstrate that men are often the victims of female violence and that women often take advantage of the myth of male aggressors to deprive men of custody rights over children--a form of violence according to the group.

The work of this group seems misplaced. Much of its tone toward domestic violence research is antagonistic and downplays the seriousness of the global phenomena of violence toward women. A better approach, it seems to me, is the one taken by bell hooks in her short work "Feminism is for Everybody". There she argues that the question is not whether men or women are primarily to blame for domestic violence-- the issue is patriarchy. Men and women can both be patriarchal and perpetuate the system of unearned gender privilege and male dominance. So yes, women can be abusers--frequently of children--but this just means the problem is of the prevalence of violence in general as a way to maintain the family in control.

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