The mistaken road of affirmative action and diversity.


It is amazing to contemplate the number of arguments for affirmative action that have been advanced, and then ultimately discredited, since the policy first began to be implemented in the mid 1960s. Yet notwithstanding these repeated defeats, affirmative action has brought about vast — and vastly detrimental — changes in the very nature of higher education itself, changes that will be hard to undo even if the policy is finally prohibited by the courts, as it certainly should be.

Behind the insistence on affirmative action was a profound condemnation of our society. America, some civil-rights advocates believed, was so deeply and habitually racist that without racial preferences blacks could not expect to get an even break. Opponents of this view countered that an intrinsically and indelibly and thoroughgoingly racist society would scarcely have passed the comprehensive civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. Many ardent supporters of the civil-rights movement believed that getting rid of discrimination rather than giving people positive advantages was the way toward a just fulfillment of America’s Founding principles. Unfortunately, this pure civil-rights idea never had a chance to be tested in practice because no sooner was the ink dry on the laws, and America’s newly equal-before-the-law blacks and whites barely given time for a howdy-do, than LBJ and his liberal cohorts instituted group rights for blacks. Everyone was soon caught up in the debate over quotas and timetables, with the accompanying anger, resentment, denial, and defensiveness that are familiar to us all. But LBJ had announced the goal — equality as a fact and as a result, with racial preferences seen as a temporary expedient to overcome the handicaps imposed by past discrimination and to bring about equality of outcome between blacks and whites.

Group rights and color-consciousness not being consonant with the constitutional principles upon which the civil-rights movement had been based, supporters of affirmative action tried to reconcile racial preferences with traditional American ideals of liberty, equality, and individual merit. They insisted that it would not mean reverse discrimination, that it would not bring quotas, that it would not require the lowering of standards, that it was simple justice to compensate for slavery and segregation, that it was only a temporary measure, and that race would be just a tipping factor to helps schools or employers choose among equally qualified individuals.

As those who have followed the issue know, every one of these arguments has been proven false. Affirmative action did mean reverse discrimination, it did mean quotas, it did require the massive lowering of standards, it was not justified by slavery and segregation, it was not temporary, and race was not just a tipping factor but the decisive factor.

But even as these various rationales were being refuted and discarded, a new and more comprehensive articulation of affirmative action was emerging into prominence. This was the diversity ideology, meaning the demand for proportional group representation in all areas of endeavor, and not just for blacks but for a whole panoply of other minority groups as well. While the concept of racial proportionality had played a key role in affirmative action from the start, namely as the only sure proof of the absence of racial discrimination, it was now touted as nothing less than the organizing principle of our whole society. In other words, instead of racial proportionality being seen as a questionable means justified by a morally good end (such as the overcoming of past discrimination) it had become the end, an apodictical good in itself. Equal group representation and the accompanying discrimination against whites no longer had to be tortuously reconciled with American ideals of fairness and equality; it was their very fulfillment. America is “diverse,” and colleges must “look like America.” We must have diversity because we must have it. Even worse, we must have it because we have had it. We’re used to it now, we expect it, we couldn’t live without it. But an invidious injustice remains an injustice even if it has been institutionalized for a long time, and even if some people feel they could not abide life in its absence.

Meanwhile, far from enhancing higher education as has been claimed (i.e., providing diverse experiences and points of view, shaping the skills needed for leadership in a pluralistic society, etc.), diversity has diminished it. No fewer than three separate studies (by the National Association of Scholars, by Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, and by Stanley Rothman, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Neil Nevitte) have shown that the only “educational benefit” of proportional representation is ..proportional representation itself. At the same time, the cultic attention paid to the various ethnic groups as groups has radically devalued the idea of a common culture and intellectual tradition. In higher education in particular, diversity practitioners boast of the “new academy” that is now under construction, obliterating the ideals of liberal education as the cultivation of the individual mind through the study of works of lasting value, in favor of an “education” devoted entirely to diversity itself, with its focus on group identity, victimhood, and grievance against American society.

Most people are aware that diversity in higher education requires the recruitment, admission, and retention of minorities in faculty, staff, and administration as well as in the student body. Fewer are aware that diversity mandates the reorienting of the entire curriculum. This entails not only specific courses on diversity (now required at many institutions), but the injection of diversity learning into every aspect of the educational experience. And the reconstruction doesn’t stop with the classroom experience. According to diversity educators, all non-curricular activities, such as counseling, career planning, and residential life, must be informed by diversity concerns, facilitated in structured discussions and diversity workshops. The goal is to create students adept in “relational living,” who demonstrate “cultural competence,” students, that is, who can endure the falsehoods and injustices of the diversity regime with bland equanimity. Some real education does no doubt continue to take place, but as more and more traditionally minded professors retire, of whom there are precious few left as it is, their ranks will be filled by those who have been steeped in diversity ideology and its various theoretical cousins, such as feminism, postmodernism, deconstruction, and cultural relativism.

It is a searing shame that we have come so far on this mistaken road. There are many institutions of higher education in our country that can educate students at every level of ability, and these students, properly prepared, can go on to multiple kinds of success. In addition, new, targeted efforts supported by the Bush administration to improve our public schools and to tackle the problem of minority unpreparedness earlier, in elementary and secondary schools, will no doubt increase minority competitiveness over time. But even without college there are many honorable walks of life to follow, especially in a country with almost unlimited opportunities like ours. Engineered group outcomes work in exactly the opposite direction of the American genius, which is to free people to follow their own best gifts and inclinations, creating wealth, activity, prosperity, and happiness in myriad, dovetailing ways that cannot be planned by any diversity engineer. But the inexorable logic of the diversity ideology is that America’s “unfulfilled promise” will never be fulfilled until there is racial proportionality in every walk of life, and diversity becomes the be all and end all of our national existence. We could never really attain such an artificially controlled culture, of course, but we can tear down our society in trying.

And so far from bringing justice, diversiphiles are denigrating the real achievements of minorities, encouraging in them a sense of envy and entitlement, and ensuring their dissatisfaction with the accomplishments they can attain on their own. Instead of trusting our citizens, our system, and the natural variety and multifariousness of life itself, we have scorned honest work and torn down the old and noble idea of individual achievement, however modest, if genuinely earned. Worst of all, we have gone a long way toward destroying the great liberal education that has been a passport for so many students of various backgrounds to the life of the mind and a greater understanding of the human condition.

— Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.


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