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"?



At 9:56 PM , Anonymous Dennis said...


I think you're more of an optimist than me. When I read the words "perpetuation of American institutions and ideals" what came to mind wasn't democracy but patriotism, capitalism, and patriarchy (I know, they're redundant). I like your take better, I think, though I suppose it depends on who is doing the teaching.

Also, things might be significantly different if "diversity" wasn't practiced for its instrumental use (i.e. it is more efficient at churning out good citizens), but instead held as having instrinsic value.

Doesn't valuing diversity because it better creates the conditions for democracy also use diversity in an instrumental sense? What's the link between diversity and democracy, anyway? It seems that you're presupposing that diversity makes democracy better, but is that the case? If so, how?

At 5:38 AM , Anonymous Parisa said...

Diversity is actually the most natural form of existence, necessary biologically for survival. I'm not at all qualified to speak from science, but this small fact is important. We also know, however, that racism seems to be pretty deep in the social psyche of humankind. The two are hard to reconcile. We need each other, but we don't WANT to need each other.

When we're working in a system in which diversity has been ignored so that one part of a species can have and maintain power, we're working doubly against what is the natural order of things: first, trying to correct the artificial exclusion of diversity in a racist society; second, attempting to create diversity that (at least according to biologists) happens naturally in an artificial way (with rules and ratios).

All of that can make it LOOK as if diversity is racist, because by addressing racism at all it brings up all the questions of what makes for equality and what makes for success that are NOT asked in building racist cultures and institutions. Once you have a racist system in place, it's true that it is harder for marginalized groups to succeed in mixed environments because the very construction of the environment has been designed for the success of the dominant group.

Democracy has historically done a really good job of supporting racism, and in fact allows ample opportunities structurally for defining certain people out of citizenship or personhood. Diversity doesn't necessarily lead to democracy, or at least not to what I would call an enlightened democracy. I wonder if you would fill in the steps of that connection .

At 12:38 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Dennis and Parisa: You both raise some good points.

I can clearly see how that particular phrase in the Mendez decision could go in different ways--but that is part of my point about legal interpretation. Social movements can be built about the language in these cases. My hope would be that progressive groups could latch onto the kind of diversity justification found in Mendez for providing a really robust defense of programs such as affirmative action. The idea would be that they are good not as redress for harms against people of color, or as a way to help people of color in particular do better in society, but especially as a way that all people can benefit from having diverse public spaces in which learning from one another can benefit everyone. I think that the kind of diversity justification you get from the dominant case law--Brown, McLaurin, etc--tends to be based on this idea that these programs are really only there for the benefit of black people and everyone else has to sacrifice for their benefit. Unfortunately, empathy is a scarce resource in our society and that tends to short circuit support for these programs.

When I refer to democracy here, I guess i have in mind something that is less than political or actually existing institutional democracy and more along the lines of what John Dewey calls "creative democracy". He calls democracy a "way of life" that values equality among citizens and seeks to find ways to open paths of communication and learning between different groups in society. Pure "majority rules" democracy can certainly stand in the way of progressive change (as Parisa reminds me, if civil rights had been left up to democracy then we would probably still have de jure segregation). But I think the ideal of democracy is a system of power in which people have a say in the processes that will directly impact their lives. A really robust democracy would be one that gives recognition to the ways in which are lives are differently situated in those decision making processes and tries to adjust for those inequalities, enabling people to speak for themselves, from what they know. In that regard, diversity and democracy are integral to one another if we want a stable and prosperous society.

At 8:45 AM , Blogger L.T. said...

This may be (a) purely personal; (b) purely circumstantial; or (b) just not politically correct.

Diversity seems to be a way for professional HR types to discriminate against white males (especially Vietnam-era veterans) without impunity.

IMHO, if your diversity program does not include old white males, it is just reverse discrimination with modern window dressing.


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