"Diversity" sounds like a very good idea, and the Supreme
Court recently upheld racial preferences on the grounds that they
contribute to diversity on campus. Although the court narrowed the
criteria that could be used to implement preference programs, the
ruling is basically a victory for affirmative action. It is also
a flawed ruling.
Previously such programs were justified in the name of compensation
or atonement: blacks and other minorities need to be “made
whole” for their longstanding historical sufferings. But the
compensation argument has become weaker over the years, as new generations
of minorities seem further removed from the direct effects of slavery
and segregation. Moreover, how does one justify compensating an
alleged victim by imposing the cost on people who have had no hand
in the original injustices?
Consequently those who support minority preferences in college admissions,
job hiring and government contracts have had to think of new justifications.
In the area of university admissions, they have hit upon a novel
idea: racial preferences help to diversity the campus and enhance
the intellectual and cultural environment for all students.
The basic idea, which has considerable intuitive appeal, is that
a diverse campus is better than a monolithic one. African American
and Hispanic students who are admitted to Berkeley or Michigan bring
valuable new perspectives so that not only do minority students
benefit from attending selective colleges, whites on those campuses
also benefit from the presence of more Hispanics and African Americans.
Oddly a program that systematically discriminates against whites
can now be defended as existing in large part for the benefit of
There are, however, two fundamental problems with this benign portrait
of racial preferences promoting the common good. First, the diversity
that is being generated is largely artificial and bogus. Most selective
colleges do not recruit inner-city African Americans or Hispanics
from the barrio; rather, they recruit middle-class blacks and Hispanics
who go to better schools and have stronger academic skills. This,
of course, enables those minority students to have a better chance
of succeeding on campus, but it also means that they tend to come
from the same relatively privileged backgrounds as their white counterparts.
Consequently the main difference between the minority and white
students is not their worldviews or life experience: it is merely
the color of their skin.
Moreover, since selective campuses are uniformly liberal in their
political views, the recruitment of African American and Hispanic
students frequently has the effect of strengthening the monolithic
liberal climate of campuses like Harvard, Stanford, and the University
of Michigan. Strangely a campaign to bring racial and ethnic diversity
to the American campus has the effect of undermining another form
of diversity: intellectual diversity.
The second problem with the diversity rationale can be summed up
in two words: Asian Americans. Because Asian Americans on average
perform well on tests of academic skills, they are helped by merit-based
admissions policies. Affirmative action policies have the effect
of increasing the proportion of blacks and Hispanics on campus,
and reducing the proportion of whites and Asian Americans.
But aren’t Asian-Americans “diverse”? Don’t
they bring intellectually and culturally enriching viewpoints? Of
course they do. What this means is that the choice between affirmative
action “diversity” and the merit-based monolithic campus
is a false choice. In reality, merit-based policies also produce
Consider an example that is very close to real life: with a merit-based
admissions policy, campuses like the University of Michigan and
Berkeley are likely to be around 50 percent white, 40 percent Asian
American, 5 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent black. With racial preferences,
such campuses are likely to be around 40 percent white, 30 percent
Asian-American, 15 percent black, and 15 percent Hispanic.
It’s important to see that the second result isn’t more
“diverse” than the first: it simply reflects a different
ethnic mix. There is no guarantee that the second mix would be any
richer, intellectually or culturally, than the first. Indeed it
seems a fair assumption that since merit-based policies bring smarter
and better-prepared students to campus, they will provide a generally
stronger and richer intellectual climate than the one produced by
policies that depart from the merit principle.
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