Law in Contemporary Society

Diverse Concepts of Diversity

-- By AaronShepard - 15 May 2009


Racism is one response for why diversity policies exist.

  • I must remind you again about casual solecisms that you do not catch and remove from your writing. This is not a good first sentence for an essay, because it presents not an idea but a familiar response to a question coming from nowhere. But writing this sentence more simply, and grammatically, is easy: "One reason diversity policies exist is to counter racism." You need to make yourself conscious of sentence structure, both when you write and when you edit. If necessary, read your prose out loud to yourself during the editing phase. You harm yourself more than you realize by not achieving accuracy.

Increasing integration and diversification can theoretically ameliorate the ills caused by generations of systematic racism in society; to accomplish this, programs of affirmative action have been created. There are many arguments used in support of these policies, with some being stronger than others. Included among these are balanced representation, compensation for past injustice, and of course, the promotion of diversity. The former two are among the many I will not delve into in this paper, although they certainly deserve consideration. I also center the analysis on educational uses of affirmative action, namely the ‘diversity in the classroom’ argument.

  • You're going to analyze the "diversity in the classroom" argument for what? Not "affirmative action," surely? That's some broad general term people have emotional reactions to and habits of thought about. So let's get specific. I think you are discussing the "diversity in the classroom" argument for giving some consideration to the balance of ethnic backgrounds in admissions to large public university programs, where selective institutions are supported more or less entirely by public money. So you should not only be making statements about what diversity means (to them, not to you), but also comparing their levels of sensitivity to ethnicity with their sensitivity to geographic location, secondary school, musical talent, condition of being a veteran, "goodness" at trivial athletic rituals, and a host of other arbitrary criteria? Including donor status of the parents, right?

Diversity was the prime argument in support of affirmative action used by Professor Shaw in a recent debate on the subject, and is one of the key points for those who support the concept in general. The assertion is that diversity contributes to an overall learning experience, both for those who are ‘diverse’ (not in the majority), and those who aren’t (the majority). Clearly, at many institutions of higher learning, the majority consists of white students, with perhaps Asians represented strongly as well. This leaves many other groups disproportionately represented when compared to overall levels in the population.

  • This graf doesn't make any sense to me.
    1. Aren't "whites" almost always the most disproportionately represented people? Take, just for a moment, us here at CLS. Whites are not a majority in this city, they're not a majority of the population of all the countries in the world from which Columbia Law School admits students, but you can't say we don't have quite a disproportionate bunch of white people around here.
    2. And who are these "Asians"? What's the point of having a category that treats Syrians, Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese as the same, but completely different from the "Europeans" (another form of white people), who inhabit a peninsula of northwest Asia?
    3. Does the last sentence of your graf mean that you have a number somewhere that shows black people are over-represented in US publicly-funded law schools? Or even that there's some law school somewhere that's got disproportionately many black people in it?

Increasing racial diversity

Affirmative action can increase the amount of minorities, such that they more closely (albeit, not completely) resemble those levels found in the general public. As such, they promote diversity on at least a superficial level. But does this benefit anyone?

  • Why ask the question you mean to ask in this form, which contests tautology? Obviously it benefits the people who get a chance they would not otherwise have. The question then is whether reserving some chances for some people is good for the public.

If the goal is to merely look diverse, then clearly this meets the objective; however, this simplistic notion does not seem to capture the true potential of the policy. The real objective should be to have a diverse classroom of ideas, such that it creates a broader understanding between potentially disparate peoples.

  • That's you determining what diversity means. But hadn't you better start, given that the task is to evaluate an argument made in a context, with the context? What does a highly-selective public university do to effectuate a commitment to equal opportunity?

This goal is one that is fairly palatable; we promote diversity to understand different groups of people better by interacting with those we otherwise wouldn’t. No problem there. Especially in a society that is growing increasingly diverse, understanding those from other backgrounds will become crucial. However, the question is whether cutting across merely racial lines is enough. Is it sufficient, or desirable, to promote diversity by merely setting a range (quota?) of certain races for the general populace, or alternatively, by giving ‘extra credit’ to minority races (such as the concept approved by the Supreme Court in Grutter)?

Proponents of such a position will argue that it is, in that it is the most efficient means to assure a grouping that is racially diverse, and hence likely to represent a variety of backgrounds. They may also point to other aspects supporting affirmative action, such as integration in ‘elite’ professions, or allowing a redistribution of such professions across a geographic landscape. Without addressing these arguments though, only the first applies to a general concept, of promoting diversity by merely using race.

  • This is straw-man construction. Someone responding to the argument you have so far advanced would not choose to present a less sophisticated rejoinder; the problem with the argument you've presented so far isn't that it's too nuanced and needs to surrender to an even more brutal oversimplification. The university or school within the university exists in a political and social context, which includes the Regents or Trustees, state legislators, citizens' watchdogs, political operatives, and litigators with axes to grind, as well as large numbers of taxpayers who understand the value of the public education system to their children, and an even larger number of taxpayers who don't want to pay more taxes. Admissions to highly-selective institutions are professionalized in order to avoid even more complex pressures exerted by individuals seeking admissions. But basic issues of social policy remain. If the university wants to have an orchestra, there will be reservations for clarinetists. The university cares about equal opportunity because the society of which it is a part cares, and its address to equal opportunity questions should be expected to reflect the values of the larger society. In the Netherlands, selection to oversubscribed programs is by rigid lottery: they Dutch too believe in equality, so they give every student an equal chance. We believe we believe in equality, but what we behave like we believe in is "merit." White people, who have a natural tendency to be admitted in numbers they consider adequate (until some other sort of reservation system starts producing lots of non-white people), tend to see no problem with the definition of merit, however scientific or unscientific it is, that produces the sort of institution they're familiar with. When someone challenges that conception of "merit," however, they fail to see that the question being raised is valid at all: "merit is merit is merit, and who is that fellow to question it?" tends to be the response. The Dutch—whose view of what happens when different communities see merit differently was formed in the latter 16th century, and is not a happy one—just wonder at the stupidity of Americans who don't hold lotteries.

  • Shall we talk about India?

  • In other words, you should look at the real environment of decision-making and the available alternative theoretical perspectives, ones that also have consequences that can be studied on the ground.

Is such diversity enough?

I don’t find this to be convincing, unlike many other arguments used to support affirmative action policies. First of all, there is significant evidence that the beneficiaries of affirmative action are not in fact those who, traditionally, the policy would seem to be for. Affirmative action was designed to benefit those who suffered as a result of historical injustice. Now, however, those benefiting from affirmative action are disproportionately biracial children, or children of immigrants. This is fine if diversity is your goal, but it seems to be problematic for other arguments in support of affirmative action, including helping African Americans who have been the most adversely affected by our nation’s racial problems.

As mentioned though, racial selection in admissions does lead to great superficial diversity. However, because those that benefit are often children of immigrants and/or wealthy minorities, is this really creating diversity? As far as immigrants are concerned, their children would surely have a variety of backgrounds, especially if a broad range of nationalities were included. However, if this is a goal, why stop at merely those children of immigrants who have black skin? It would seem that a classroom would benefit equally by having a student of Arab descent as it would one of West African.

Alternatively, one could argue that an urban or poor background provides a significant difference in viewpoint than does a suburban or wealthy background (the latter of which makes up a disproportionately high percentage of many ‘elite’ classrooms). This is undeniably true. However, is this limited by race? Doesn’t the oft-repeated example make some sense, being that a rich child of privilege, who attended all of the best schools growing up in a secluded community, will be likely to have a similar background, regardless of race? If diversity is the goal, doesn’t it make more sense to have a holistic evaluation, and not aid those who are already advantaged (and hence, would not bring a significantly different viewpoint than those already in the majority at many institutions)? The complementary example is generally the white kid from Appalachia, who while not prejudiced against historically in the same way, does face many of the difficulties (at least in significance, if not nature) that an urban minority might. Wouldn’t bringing in someone such as that provide more of an alternative in background than merely another member of the majority (‘class wise’) who is simply another race?

Is this the best way to help?

The true problem I have with the diversity rationale is not in its attempted application, which seems crude and inappropriate for the actual purpose. The main issue is that it is a slippery slope, and leads to possibilities that are likely untenable if artificially contrived. To restate, when I say diversity, I mean diversity of ideas; in my opinion, this is what is beneficial, not merely a physical diversity (although the two can, and likely will, overlap). But if diversity is the end goal, how much diversity should be sought? For instance, I think one of the more valuable forms of diversity is having those of differing political opinions; you can have eight different shades of people in a room, but if everyone agrees with each other, what good is a conversation? Therefore, shouldn’t diversity policies in admissions create a mixture of political ideology? What about religious beliefs? Should there be a questionnaire, with a complicated algorithm used to determine the ideal makeup of an admitted class?

I think these solutions would clearly not be accepted by most people, despite their potential benefits educationally. Therefore, I don’t see why it is appropriate that more useful mechanisms of diversity aren’t allowed, while one that is so fallible is. The counterpoint is perhaps that the other things work themselves out, but that race will not. Race shouldn’t be the goal though; if one wants backgrounds that resemble those which are deficient in a student body, then search for those qualities holistically. But merely telling someone that they are diverse, regardless of their actual character, seems to be insulting both to the student, and to the overall institution. It is interesting to see how leaders will approach this issue, especially given the clear diversity in background of our new Commander in Chief.

-- AaronShepard - 15 May 2009

  • The major missing piece in the essay is the concept of equality. That institutions should be striving to achieve it, and that in order to achieve it they have to define it, and that their definitions arise out of the historical experience of the society and the current political and social conditions in which they act, and that their acting consists of making many micro-decisions about people that aggregate to macro-decisions about policy—all of this is absent from the analysis because the starting-point is absent.

  • I think the place to start, then, is with the social commitment, which is to equality. Understanding what it means, and why we have unequal expectations of its meaning, and how our unequal expectations of its meaning emerge from our unequal historical experiences, might be a reasonable background to a conversation that presently transpires in the form of imagined dialog about "an argument" so divorced from its context as to be discussable using categories with little empirical utility and illustrations with little connection to present social reality.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:00 - IanSullivan
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