On Diversity.
by Brandon Wesley Dennis (Wes)
Summer 2003

Lest my position seem unclear throughout the duration of this article, let me begin by stating that I am against affirmative action, at least insofar as "race" is concerned. This is largely because I do not believe that classifying people with respect to "race" is ultimately helpful or positive, because "race", per my framing the term in quotation marks, is ultimately nonexistent, though as a social construct it continues to be damaging in manifold ways (cf. Barth�s discussions of das Nichtige, or Nothingness, by way of analogy). I am convinced, then, that all references to "race", except by negation, lend legitimacy to the notion of it and are thus likely to result in a kind of racism (without the quotes -- racism is real whereas "race" is not). It is a curious observation of mine that the majority of those arguing against affirmative action make reference to "skin color" while the majority of those arguing in favor of it prefer the loftier sound and resonant connotation of "race". Moreover, and obviously, all group classificatory schemes will necessarily de-emphasize the individuality of the persons therein -- from "race" to politics -- though more so, I think, with respect to "race" as opposed to ideological classifications, and it is worth noting that some persons who argue for affirmative action argue that there is an almost necessary correlation between the two (which is, of course, patently false). I'll not delve further into these concerns here, but suffice to say that I think a large part of the difficulties surrounding the subject is a difficulty with the terminology -- and the explicit or implicit meanings of the terms -- that we use to discuss the subject. (That said, for the remainder of the essay I'll refrain from using the quotation marks. You may add them mentally, if you like -- I certainly will.)

Let me also state that I think even those who argue for race-based affirmative action must ultimately be against it in principle (hoping that it will eventually be unnecessary), unless they truly believe that race runs deeper than skin color or other superficial phenotypic differences -- in which case they are wrong -- or unless they resort to such weak arguments to the effect of saying, "As long racism exists, affirmative action will be necessary," for there will always be some racism. (A statement similar to the reversal of such arguments is also true: "As long as affirmative action is deemed necessary, racism will exist.") The question is whether there is enough racism now to justify taking some sort of action, which, if there is, must be followed by the question of whether this kind of affirmative action is likely to improve the situation at all. And while I answer "yes" to the first question (for there are many kinds of racism) and "no" to the second, I do agree with a small number of columnists who have written that, while race-based affirmative action is ultimately deleterious, it should not (at this point) be struck down via Court mandate, but rather in state legislatures. The issue is way too controversial for that and the backlash would be incredible, and whereas the legislature regarding further gay rights must, I think, unfortunately fall to the Court, I do not think that affirmative action is currently disenfranchising enough persons (and I think that the argument that it constitutes reverse-discrimination is one of the weaker arguments against it) to warrant a final verdict on the matter.

That said, for the remainder of this essay I will attempt to present the best case for affirmative action of the race-based sort, which I think has much to do with the issue of (racial) diversity -- in the end, I think all arguments for affirmative action somehow, whether explicitly or implicitly, must appeal to diversity. Indeed, in the Bakke case, cited in Grutter, Justice Powell "expressed his view that attaining a diverse student body was the only interest asserted by the university that survived scrutiny" (Syllabus; p. 2). Admittedly, "diversity" has become, as Justice Thomas noted as soon as the second page of his Grutter dissent, "a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti," and most of the people employing it are confused about it. As a result, arguments seem to lose much of their force whenever someone brings up the issue of diversity; for these reasons it is relatively easy to tear apart any argument with diversity as its crux even before one has heard the argument. Indeed, I would never resort to it as a crucial argumentative point, and while I bring it up often in general mockery, outside of such experiments as this you will be very unlikely hear me convey the concept in a positive light. But, as said, for the remainder of this essay I will try to do just that.

Foremost, the concept of diversity as presented is often extremely vague -- exactly what kind of diversity are we seeking? -- and few of its proponents make efforts to clarify their meaning. To do so, then, let's refer to the supposed benefits of diversity, as expressed in the Grutter opinion, and try to work backwards (contrary to other arguments against diversity, it must be noted that ultimately diversity is not an end in itself):

Rather, the Law School�s concept of critical mass is defined by reference to the educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce. ... As the District Court

emphasized, the Law School �s admissions policy (1) promotes "cross-racial understanding," (2) helps to break down racial stereotypes, and (3) "enables [students] to better understand persons of different races."
(Opinion of the Court; p. 17-18, numbering added)

Even in the Court's opinion, it seems, the confusion as to the kind of diversity meant manifests itself in a way not unrelated to the confusion regarding what is meant by race. Particularly, benefits (1) and (3) seem to assume that race refers to something more than skin color and the like; if race does refer to skin color here, then (1) makes no sense at all -- "cross-skin-colored understanding"? -- and (3) -- which would translate to "enables students to better understand persons with different skin colors" -- suddenly sounds strange and shallow. However, if the kind of diversity meant here is cultural diversity, these statements make more sense. The problem here, then, is that there is no necessary correlation between race and culture (unless one expands the definition of race to include culture, in which case the problems with the terminology resurface). And while there are often correlations between race, i.e. skin color, and cultural background, to assume in policy that there is and will be a correlation between the two essentially comes down to stereotyping. If cultural diversity is the aim, then, it might be sought not by basing affirmative action on race but on culture, which may be less objectionable. And while it is true that there are problems with attributing a sort of group ideology and pattern of thinking even to members of the same culture.

Now, then, let us return to benefit (2) above, that diversity "helps to break down racial stereotypes." This, it seems, would be true no matter what is meant by race; assuming that students of different races had sufficient interaction with one another, the likewise diverse nature of their interactions might effectively disconfirm racial stereotypes. While of course there are well-known individuals who disconfirm these stereotypes in full view of the public eye -- from Eminem to Justice Thomas himself -- there is something to be said for the immediacy and tangibility of such a disconfirmation in, say, a Philosophy seminar or a campus dining hall. It bears consideration, however, that the kind of diversity actually being sought here is of two kinds, though the proponents of diversity often fail to neglect this point. Thomas noted well the kind of diversity that often receives the bulk of attention in such arguments by referring to the interest in achieving diversity as an "aesthetic," restating a part of the Law School's argument as follows: "Classroom aesthetics yields educational benefits..." (Opinion of Thomas, J.; p. 7) It is difficult to see what kind of benefits would result from simple aesthetic changes -- especially one as significant as the breaking down of racial stereotypes -- unless they were inexorably tied to some other kind of non-racial diversity that would weaken the assumed link between aesthetics and purported attitudes and opinions (which are the basis of racial stereotypes). And, fortunately, there is such a corresponding diversity: individual diversity. Refer to the following:

The Law School does not premise its need for critical mass on "any belief that minority students always (or even consistently)express some characteristic minority viewpoint on any issue." ... Just as growing up in a particular region or having particular professional experiences is likely to affect an individual's views, so too is one's own, unique experience of being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race unfortunately still matters. (Opinion of the Court; p. 20-1, underline added)

The Court might well have added that "one's own, unique experience" of being a racial majority would likely effect an individual's views as well. However, in support of racial diversity one might add that, as evidenced by the prevalence of stereotyping in this society (such that even the proponents of diversity are not immune), not enough unique voices that accompany minority appearances have been heard to make the true individuality of these persons sufficiently manifest (even where, unfortunately, the individuals themselves are concerned). Moreover, a similar problem exists with stereotyping, by minorities, of persons in the racial majority; this makes sense when "[a]s to public education, data for the years 2000-2001 show that 71.6% of African-American children and 76.3% of Hispanic children attended a school in which minorities made up a majority of the student body" (Ginsburg, J., concurring; p. 2). For further results of this kind of isolation, one need look no further than one's television and the kinds of racist statements uttered on BET or any of the racially-centered "black comedies" (as distinguished from that strange genre of comedy of the non-racial sort). In fact, I would wager that a majority of sitcoms and comedians are deleterious in this respect, and in fact not only depict the stereotyping of the "other" but also the stereotyping of "themselves" (with shows like Everybody Loves Raymond stereotyping Italians, albeit in a silly fashion, the comedic stylings of Margaret Cho, which stereotype Korean families, and so forth). Achieving racial diversity, then, might very well be likely to dispel racial stereotypes (and might eventually do away with a lot of bad television to boot).

Before I end this article, two points are worth mentioning. It is also worth mentioning that these points are more applicable to undergraduate programs than graduate programs, though they might have some relevance to both.

(1) In addition to academic concerns, all universities (or, more properly, the administrators and faculty), whether implicitly or explicitly, and whether confused about their goals or not, have some vision as to the kinds of people they want to see enter into society upon the students' graduation. I think and hope that the majority of universities would hope to produce critical thinkers who are not merely "tolerant of differences" (for some differences should not be tolerated, at least in the smarmy and even insulting manner of the relativist's tolerance), but who moreover are able to judge appropriately and to recognize that all differences -- especially those of the superficial kind -- are not worthy of significant attention and are not (nor should they be) definitive, where individuals are concerned. With respect to the present topic, universities should hope to produce individuals who, having associated with persons of different racial backgrounds, have gained so much from their "cross-racial understanding" that they realize the nonsensicalness of the phrase (even if the administrators do not).

(2) However much potential these students may have exhibited before entering the university, they are not yet the people that the university would like to produce. If they were -- and unfortunately many students remain very much the same throughout their academic career -- the college experience would prove to be largely unnecessary, except for, perhaps, where making a living and earning a decent salary is concerned (which is unfortunately the reasoning that sustains most people throughout their schooling). So while I think that the arguments regarding the stigma that results when minority applicants are admitted to a school that employs race-based affirmative action (even when there is no way to be certain that that particular individual was admitted because of it) cannot be taken lightly, ultimately it is not acceptance that matters, but graduation. And no less important than this -- nay, much more so -- are the things learned along the way. College should be a time of change and growth -- academic, social, but most importantly with respect to thinking skills and ideology -- and, owing to the advanced ages of the students as well as the distancing of the students from their parents and home community (living on campus, etc.), the college experience often provides an excellent opportunity for these kinds of growth. It is certainly an experience from which those "71.6% of African-American children and 76.3% of Hispanic children" might greatly benefit, as would all of the persons who, per the circumstances of their upbringing, were denied the opportunity to associate with individuals who have had such different life experiences.

And yet, despite these potential benefits of diversity, I am against race-based affirmative action, in principle as well as in policy. While I will not delve deeper into the manifold reasons for this here (though you might well have picked up on quite a few of them in this essay), I will close with a quote from Justice Scalia's opinion in Grutter:

Still others may challenge the bona fides of the institution�s expressed commitment to the educational benefits of diversity that immunize the discriminatory scheme in Grutter. (Tempting targets, one would suppose, will be those universities that talk the talk of multiculturalism and racial diversity in the courts but walk the walk of tribalism and racial segregation on their campuses -- through minority-only student organizations, separate minority housing opportunities, separate minority student centers, even separate minority-only graduation ceremonies.) (Opinion of Scalia, J.; p. 3)

It is unfortunate that, for all of the purported benefits of racial diversity and affirmative action, these benefits are being cancelled, in no small part, by the same people who have championed them. I have no doubt that many of the persons who tout the benefits of race-based affirmative action (many of whom were, no doubt, "beneficiaries" themselves, in addition to a greater majority of exploitative persons who know where there is money to be made) have nonetheless been integral in the growth of campus programs, stereotypical media portrayals, and deleterious arguments and ideologies paying homage to race that do naught but lend legitimacy to and further the emphasis on a concept that should be subject to de-emphasis and negation wherever it is uttered. As long as these people continue to be successful in their efforts, affirmative action will, in the grand scheme of things, inevitably result in failure.

But whether we like it or not, the Court has spoken for now, and race-based affirmative action is left standing. So perhaps in the meantime our targets should be the persons and programs that effectively negate whatever benefits might otherwise result from the practice.

(All cited quotes are from Grutter v. Bollinger, available for reading and download at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/)

-- Wes --