Politics & Policy

Diversity Prop

Grace on the cheap.

Let me just say it up front: My problem isn’t with diversity, it’s with propaganda.

The rest, as they say, is commentary.

So let’s get going with the commentary.

Diversity isn’t an unqualified good. In fact, save for a few pedantic exceptions — God, wisdom, etc. — there are no unqualified goods. Tolerance is bad if you tolerate evil. Democracy is a problem if it becomes tyrannical, which it most certainly can. Law can be “a ass.” Dissent isn’t necessarily heroic. For every Mandela, Gandhi, or Thoreau there are 1,000 — no, 10,000 — drooling morons, jabbering misfits, and opponents of progress with equal claim to the title “dissenter,” “dissident,” “protester,” “rebel,” or “non-conformist.” When a group or society is heading in the right direction, the maverick is no hero for telling everyone to turn around. Even Irish whiskey, taken to an extreme, can be a problem.

Diversity is another of those words we imbue with all nobility and goodness without question or reservation. And that’s nonsense. If diversity were always and everywhere good we would be clamoring for more midgets in the NBA. We would demand that mobsters get jobs at the FBI and we would consider it a grave problem that not enough blind men — and women! — were applying to be crossing guards, snipers, and surgeons.

Indeed, if diversity were always a boon to the educational process, we would decry the ghettos of backwardness we call all-women’s colleges and historically black universities. After all, are not blacks and women in the most need of educational support? Lee Bollinger, the former president of the University of Michigan (and current president of Columbia University) recently declared:

Diversity is not merely a desirable addition to a well-run education. It is as essential as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare. For our students to better understand the diverse country and world they inhabit, they must be immersed in a campus culture that allows them to study with, argue with and become friends with students who may be different from them. It broadens the mind and the intellect — essential goals of education.

Well, if it’s an essential goal of education, let’s diversify Morehouse College right now before one more black kid is forced to study without the benefit of experiencing the glories of sharing a dorm with a few Asian and white kids. And since it’s an established fact that blacks are more educationally disadvantaged than most, doesn’t that mean that integrating black schools is even more of an imperative than getting a few more African Americans at Harvard?

Many of our greatest scientists, statesmen, soldiers, and artists attended remarkably un-diverse institutions. Indeed, many of our greatest black leaders attended all black, and often all black male, institutions of higher learning. And yet, if I were to say that a black man can’t be properly educated unless some of whitey rubs off on him, I’d get in a lot of trouble.

But that’s the diversity argument in a nutshell. The old argument about redressing past wrongs against historically disadvantaged people has been defenestrated. It’s not about helping black people by giving them a little extra consideration any more — it’s now about helping white people, by “exposing” them to minorities. The evidence, anecdotal and scientific, that such exposure is indisputably beneficial simply does not exist. In fact, an important new study just published in The Public Interest suggests just the opposite in many significant respects.

At least the old idea, equally flawed and well-intentioned, worked on the premise that affirmative action would be a temporary effort, aimed at fixing a specific problem and moving on once fixed. But diversity is forever. It’s a permanent regime of race-based policies with an internal logic that remains just as valid 100 years from now.

Now there are those who will argue that diversity efforts run counter to America’s long-standing commitment to merit. I agree with the idea that diversity programs conflict with the idea of merit, but I don’t think the meritocracy is as old as many people think it is. Sure, the ideal of a meritocracy — Jefferson’s aristocracy of talent and all that — is very old, but America fell short of it for a long time. Not long ago many of the nation’s top colleges and grad schools used quotas to keep Jews out. Harvard famously decided it had “too many” Jews and implemented a “silent quota.” Until Lionel Trilling, Columbia never even had a tenured Jewish professor. When four out of five winners of N.Y. Regents scholarships were Jewish, notes historian David Brion Davis, most New York medical schools had a strict anti-Jewish quota — in the name of diversity. The dean of Columbia University’s medical school defended his school’s quota by arguing, “The racial and religious makeup in medicine ought to be kept fairly parallel with the population makeup.”

Nobody can reasonably dispute that there was an old boy network which discriminated not only against Jews, blacks, and what few Asians there were around — and, of course, against women — but against middle-class ethnic whites as well. What people forget is that the SAT and a host of other measures were created in the 1950s and 1960s in order to dismantle the old boy network, to give the poor and socially disadvantaged a chance to compete with the sons and daughters of privilege. And it was remarkably successful on that score. America’s elite colleges and universities became vastly more integrated — ideologically, socially, and racially — because America made the decision to live up to the meritocratic ideal (the marketplace and the G.I. bill probably had a lot to do with it, too). The average IQ at elite U.S. schools soared as the duller children of privilege were forced to compete with middle-class Jews, Catholics, and blacks in ways they never had before. But there were costs. Higher education became much more of a national job-training program and less of an incubator of virtue and good citizenship. Local communities lost some of their best and brightest to the big cities because, for the first time, their best and brightest had an opportunity to compete there on a fair level. And, yes, the self-esteem of some groups suffered as fair chances failed to yield “fair” results.

And just as the meritocracy had costs, so does diversity. In fact, it would have costs even if minority applicants had identical academic records and SAT scores indistinguishable from the general pool of students because the concept of proportional representation is ultimately arbitrary when set against the riot of desires, aspirations, abilities, and attitudes of the college-bound population. Children of Asian immigrants may disproportionately want to become engineers and doctors while Jews may cluster around, say, law or journalism. Blacks may be more inclined toward education or business.

Whatever. The point isn’t to play pin the stereotypical career on the ethnicity. The point is that to say that any given room must have at least X percent of blacks, Y percent of Asians and Z percent of whites — simply because that’s their distribution, in this sprawling continental nation — is to impose an entirely ideological, theoretical and inherently arbitrary system on a discrete phenomena. Why not simply pick the closing average of the Dow Jones to use as the basis for such numerical games? Invariably, as the number of Asian Americans in a class or a school approaches their “natural” distribution Asians would be judged more strictly vis-à-vis the standards applied to Arab Americans (or whomever).


This isn’t to say that I’m against diversity, though racial diversity seems less important than social diversity (they overlap but aren’t the same thing). If the choice is between an abstract black and an abstract white and they are for all intents and purposes otherwise indistinguishable, I’m not going freak out if the black kid catches a break, even if it that violates the principle of colorblindedness. But, I’d be even more in favor of a poor white kid from Oklahoma catching a break at the expense of a black dentist’s kid.

But what I cannot stand is the propagandistic notion that this is all cost-free or that diversity is merely replacing another form of prejudice. James M. McPherson of Princeton University recently argued that affirmative action is justifiable because he benefited from the “old boy network.” Such arguments disgust me because A) Who cares? and B) They make no sense except as political theater. If McPherson admitted at the end of his career that he got his first job through bribery or fraud, would he say that justifies affirmative action? After all, he’s not defending the old boy network, he’s denouncing it. Second, McPherson seems to have anointed himself a representative of white people, and therefore any white who gets the shaft today shouldn’t complain because McPherson got his unfair break already. What this leaves out is that diversity didn’t replace the old boy network, it replaced a system based on merit — quota defenders always leave that part out. And, besides, the old boy network screwed whites too. Middle-class whites are being told to accept a new system that discriminates against them even though the old system did too. Third, this is all very easy for McPherson to say. He sounds like a hero only after his distinguished career is winding down. What sacrifices will he make?

Such grace on the cheap is a hallmark of liberal defenses of affirmative action these days. So is denial. David Broder’s April 6 column could not be a more pristine example of both. After a long love letter to everything he’s gained from diversity, Broder sums up by recounting Justice Scalia’s exchange from the bench with the University of Michigan’s lawyer. Broder writes:

If diversity is so important to you, Scalia told the university’s lawyer, lower your standards to the point that more minority applicants can qualify. Not only is that derogatory in its implications, but it is strikingly inappropriate from anyone who purports to believe in pure meritocracy. Today neither Michigan nor The Post lowers its standards to admit minorities. They look for minorities within the large pool of qualified applicants.

Lower the standards? And deprive this country of the quality that a great university (or, if I may say so, a great newspaper) can contribute? That is a contemptible alternative.

That may be true of the Post, I don’t have enough information to say. But we know for a fact it is not true of the University of Michigan, where black applicants have a roughly 20-percent advantage over whites. Broder is a smart guy, but you can’t help but get the sense that he’s deliberately refusing to think — or to think out loud — about what he’s saying, so as to stay on the good side of his diverse newsroom.

Compare this to Jeffrey Rosen’s astoundingly honest — given the forum(The New York Times Magazine) and his job as a professor — appraisal of the costs of diversity and the potential costs of getting rid of it. Rosen believes that the ideological imperatives of diversity are so strong that if we get rid of quotas, universities will simply find another way to lower standards. I think he’s probably right, though I also suspect that the marketplace would find new ways to “price” the degrees of schools which lower their standards. (Then again: Harvard’s price seems immune to deflation.) As Andrew Sullivan notes, Rosen seems to work on the assumption that blacks will never be able to compete fairly and so he thinks quotas are the least-damaging way to pursue a noble end, since our leading universities are more smitten to racial diversity than they are to academic excellence. It’s a deeply depressing argument when you think about it, but at least it’s honest about the costs of diversity. And even a bad diagnosis is refreshing if all you’ve heard are dishonest good ones.


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