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Diversity Myths

The Washington Post has a “Five Myths about …” series, and over the weekend Valerie Strauss focused on college admissions.  Here’s her fifth “myth”:  “Schools don’t need affirmative action to make diverse classes.” 

Ms. Strauss begins by noting that [1] some schools have rejected racial preferences — a.k.a. affirmative action — and still improved racial diversity, and that some critics have pointed out that racial preferences “are [2] unfairly discriminatory and [3] don’t help minority students” and that [4] if “diversity” were really the goal of racial preferences, “`then preferences would be given on the basis of unusual characteristics, not on the basis of race.’”

So, how does Ms. Strauss refute 1, 2, 3, and 4?  Well, as a matter of fact she doesn’t.  She doesn’t even try.  She just ignores them.

Instead, she simply asserts that racial preferences “do appear” to increase diversity, and she defines diversity to be simply the percentages of black and Hispanic students at some schools and how close they come to their percentages “in the general population.”  In other words, she says that if you give an admissions preference to people of a particular race, you will admit more of them.  Wow, that’s amazing.

She concludes with a paragraph that bemoans, “Today, affirmative action has lost much judicial support” and that public support is “mixed” (actually public support is much less than judicial support, but never mind).  She’s unhappy that under Supreme Court precedent schools are stuck with the “diversity” justification for racial preferences; she’d apparently prefer a compensatory rationale — a dubious one under any circumstances (since, for example, the overwhelming majority of blacks admitted to more selective schools are not from poor backgrounds), and especially now that Latinos outnumber African Americans among groups getting preferential treatment and that those losing out now are more and more likely to be Asian Americans.  Ms. Strauss must think that for hundreds of years in this country Asian Americans owned Latino slaves.

And here’s Ms. Strauss’s last sentence:  “Meanwhile, most minority groups remain underrepresented on college and university campuses, even though most students enrolled at the country’s K-12 public schools are minorities.”  The “most minority groups” phrasing is to acknowledge that Asian Americans and Arab Americans, for example, are not underrepresented, which is why they are now discriminated against.  And the reason that some groups are “underrepresented” on college campuses is not because of slavery, but because of the sad state of our public schools (the solutions for which are more likely to be conservative than liberal), the belief that studying hard is “acting white” (or, worse, acting Asian), and especially the fact that some groups have many more children growing up in single-parent families (which is, unsurprisingly, correlated with not doing well in school).

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I should stress that Ms. Strauss’s aim of “making diverse classes” is a misguided one in any event.  The aim should be to admit the best qualified students, regardless of race or ethnicity.  The notion that there are “educational benefits” from racial and ethnic diversity is unpersuasive.

Just what is it that we expect African-American and Latino students to say to white and Asian-American students that will provide the latter with such compelling “educational benefits” that racial discrimination by the government is justified to make it more likely that these conversations take place?

The purported existence of such conversations — which is what the “diversity” justification boils down to — is, as Ms. Strauss concedes, the only justification for admission preferences that schools can now use.  So we need to think carefully about what these conversations might be.  Now, I am going to discuss why I think it is hard to imagine anything that will fit the bill, but those who disagree ought to spell out what oral observations they think do fit the bill.  Fair enough?

For starters, I say “oral” because they really ought not to be something that could just as easily be read, since then the observations might simply be assigned as class reading.  It would be better if the lessons were not simply about equality or tolerance or treating other people as human beings, if it is likely that such straightforward lessons have already been learned (at home or grade school or church or on Sesame Street) or can be learned elsewhere (say, at work).   And the observations should really be about something that only black and Latino students are likely to know.

So it can’t be an observation about growing up poor, because there are poor people of all colors; and, again, the overwhelming majority of, say, African Americans who are admitted to our more selective schools — that is, the ones likely to weigh race and ethnicity — are from middle- or upper-class backgrounds (eighty-six percent, according to the race-preference bible, The Shape of the River).

It can’t be an observation about growing up as a slave, or under Jim Crow, or during the Civil Rights Era — because the eighteen-year-old students getting these preferences in 2017 were born in, let’s see, 1999, thirty-five years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  True, these students may have faced other discrimination — but then, so may have Asian American students and Middle Eastern students (and, for that matter, the European-American students who’ve recently applied to college).   

If it’s not socioeconomic disadvantage or history, then perhaps there is a particular African-American perspective on calculus, or a Latino perspective on economics.  I mean, to be compelling it must have something to do with something weightier — less stereotypical — than food or rap music.  No?

Well, there must be something that middle-class eighteen-year-old African Americans and Latinos can tell eighteen-year-old whites and Asians that they are incapable of thinking of or reading about on their own.  Perhaps whites and Asians have never heard of racial profiling or the Trayvon Martin case, for example.

Whether the lesson schools are trying to teach is that African Americans have a particular point of view or, rather contradictorily, that African Americans don’t have a particular point of view — both are urged with equal vigor, even though the former relies on stereotyping and the latter seems rather obvious in a country that includes Condoleezza Rice and Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Carson and Barack Obama — it is odd that schools use racial essentialism in admissions and expect students to use it when listening to someone.  At least, it is odd if students are being taught not to judge other people by their skin color.

What’s more, schools have to have faith not only that these observations can be made, but that they will be made.  That is, they can’t know for sure what observations (if any) a black or Latino student might make in class; it is even harder to predict what observations that student will make outside of class.  So they have to have faith that those observations will be offered — and that a lot of counterproductive statements won’t be offered — as well as that the benefits from them being offered will justify something as ugly as racial discrimination.

Perhaps it’s not so much what the student says as it is how he or she says it.  That is, what schools are really hoping that whites and Asians will learn from “diversity” is that African Americans and Latinos are just as smart as they are (by the way, is there any evidence that, in a country whose laws and popular culture systematically condemn racial bigotry, this is a widespread problem?).  Of course, if it is of compelling importance that this point get made, it would be foolish to create a campus where the white and Asian students are systematically required to have better academic qualifications than the black and Latino students — which is exactly what schools are doing, of course.

Now, how compelling do these “educational benefits” have to be?  At a minimum, they have to be compelling enough to outweigh the costs of using racial preferences.  In fact, they must significantly outweigh those costs, since if something does as much harm as good, or even just a little more good than harm, the benefits can hardly be compelling.

So here’s a list of the costs of using racial preferences in university admissions: It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it mismatches African Americans and Latinos with institutions, setting them up for failure; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school and encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership — an untenable legal regime as America becomes an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society and as individual Americans are themselves more and more likely to be multiracial and multiethnic.

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“Justice-Involved’ Individuals” – The Trump administration’s Department of Labor headlines a press release last week with that “euphemism of the decade” used by the Obama administration. Come on — don’t elections have consequences?