Diversity And School Transfers: Diversity For Whom?

The deadline (January 16) is fast approaching for the administration to decide whether to file a brief in the Michigan affirmative action cases and, if they do, what to say about whether “diversity” is compelling enough to justify racial discrimination.

There has been no shortage of criticism of diversity — that it is not “real” diversity but is only skin deep; that it violates the fundamental American principle of treating people “without regard” to race, religion, or ethnicity; and, most prominent of all, that it is unfair to those whites and Asians who are excluded to make room for less qualfied minorities.

One criticism I have not seen, however (except when I tried to make it here), is that the diversity justification for discrimination is also profoundly unfair to its unacknowledged beneficiaries, the preferentially treated minorities. It violates a fundamental precept of liberal moral philosophy — that equal respect requires that individuals be treated as ends, never as a means to the benefit of others.

“Diversity,” however, justifies “taking race into account,” i.e., admitting minority students who wouldn’t otherwise have been admitted, because their presence is said to improve the education of others. As the University of Michigan argued (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) in its brief to the Supreme Court opposing the granting of certiorari,

the presence of “meaningful numbers” (or a “critical mass”) of “students from groups which have been historically discriminated against, like African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans,” is essential to effective pursuit of its educational mission.

The preferentially admitted do not provide “diversity” to themselves, after all. True, as I argued in my previous post on this subject, they may receive some benefit from being in a “diverse” student body. But they would receive that benefit no matter what majority-white institution they attended. That is, admitting the preferentially treated blacks admitted to any highly selective university does not provide them with any diversity benefits they would not receive at less selective majority-white institutions. The diversity benefit that preferences are said to provide, that is, flows to the non-minorities whose education is said to be enhanced through their exposure to the preferentially admitted minorities. This is treating them as a means, not an end.

Don’t misunderstand. The preferentially admitted minorities receive enormous benefits from their acceptance, often with scholarships, to highly selective institutions, but those benefits are not derived from the diversity that they provide. They would have received the benefits of diversity at other, less selective institutions. Indeed, I believe providing those non-diversity benefits is the real purpose of diversity-justified racial preferences. That is why I described the preferentially admitted minorities earlier as “unacknowledged beneficiaries,” even though it is transparently obvious that the diversity rationale was devised as an argument for justifying preferences to minorities. Although I don’t doubt that defenders of “diversity” believe what they say about it, in my opinion its real purpose lies elsewhere — in compensating minorities for past discrimination and in engineering what is regarded as a fairer representation of minorities among the privileged classes. In short, its real purpose is indistinguishable from the purpose that led to the quotas rejected in Bakke or to minority set asides for municipal contractors.

Hostages to Diversity

I believe that ample evidence for my argument that diversity-justified racial preference is at bottom just racial balancing with a more appealing name can be found in diversity arguments offered by school boards around the country to justify their race-based assignment policies.

In two recent cases the Fourth Circuit invalidated diversity-based racial assignment policies, one in Arlington County, Virginia (Tuttle v. Arlington County School Board, 195 F.3d 698 [4th Cir. 1999]), and the other in Montgomery County, Maryland (Eisenberg v. Montgomery County, F.3d 123 [4th Cir. 1999], cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1019 [2000]). In Eisenberg, a white student was denied a transfer to a math and science magnet program because allowing him to leave his current school would have a negative “impact on diversity.” The county created a “diversity profile” of each school, and transfers were routinely denied on the basis of race in order to maintain “diversity.” Revealingly, the county argued that this wasn’t discriminatory because it was common practice to deny transfers for racial reasons to students of all races when the requested transfer would have a negative “impact on diversity.” The Fourth Circuit disagreed, saying that a policy did not cease to be racially discriminatory simply because it was practiced against all races. The court concluded that the county’s policy of promoting diversity by carefully regulating transfers on the basis of race was “mere racial balancing in a pure form.”

An even more revealing case had erupted in bitter controversy in Montgomery County in 1995 when the school board prevented two Asian-American kindergartners from transfering to a one-of-a-kind county French immersion program because of their race. According to a Washington Post article,

The parents of Eleanor Glewwe and Hana Maruyama had sought to enroll the girls in a French immersion program at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville. But school officials denied their requests, saying their departure from Takoma Park would further deplete the number of Asian students there. [Sept. 14, 1995, p. A1]

The two Asian kindergartners were denied permission to transfer into a French immersion program at another school, the school board decided, “because the transfer would upset the ethnic balance at their neighborhood elementary school,” leaving too few Asian students to provide diversity to the other kindergartners there.

One of the parents told the board that there were no more Asians in the school where her daughter wanted to transfer than there were where she was enrolled and thus that allowing her to transfer would not have any negative impact on diversity. Paul L. Vance, the Superintendent, replied to the board “that nothing in the school system’s policy permits ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ by hurting the diversity of one school to help it at another.” [Sept. 1, 1995, p. B1]. Public outcry eventaully caused the board to relent.

One other Maryland episode was even more bizarre. The writer Ted Gup wanted a transfer for his adopted son, who was born in Korea. He was currently enrolled in a school that was divided between a Spanish immersion program, which had predominantly white students, and an English program that was 90% minority, including large numbers for whom English was a second language. Gup wanted his son in an English program with native English speakers. The transfer was denied because — you guessed it — there weren’t enough Asians at his school and thus allowing his son to leave would have a “negative impact on diversity.”

Gup had some interesting observations on his experience.

I look upon this controversy from a somewhat curious perch. My family is interracial — my two sons are adopted from South Korea. I live on a fully integrated street and have always championed both public schools and diversity. Nor am I a stranger to issues of race in the classroom, having taught elementary school, high school and college. But never did I expect, least of all here in progressive Chevy Chase, to be staring down a time tunnel at bias and racial imbalances remedied elsewhere long ago….

My reasons for wanting my elder son transferred from Rock Creek Forest were as complicated as his young life. He was asking some very difficult questions about adoption, his origins and identity. Given that he was Korean-born, and is being raised in an American Jewish family, it seemed to us that the last thing he needed was to first learn to read and write in Spanish. Nor, we felt, would his quest for identity be anything but aggravated were he the only Asian American in a class of African American and Hispanic children. A child psychologist warned us and wrote in a letter to the board that throwing our son into such a complex cultural and ethnic milieu could prove utterly bewildering for him. And frankly, I was offended that minority children — mine included — should be ghettoized merely because they wished to go to school in English. [Gup, “Crazy Kindergarten Quotas: My War on Montgomery [County’s] De Facto Segregation,” Washington Post, Outlook Section, August 27, 1995, p. C1]

When Gup called to protest the denial, he was told that

Asian Americans could not transfer from Rock Creek Forest. That was the rule. More Asian Americans were needed to boost the diversity profile of the school. This was not about my child or anyone’s child. The sad truth is, it was not even about diversity. It was about Montgomery County’s strategy for avoiding litigation by showing it had a diversity plan in place.”

Gup also writes that he “couldn’t help but wonder what cultural contribution my son could make — he was just five months old when he left Korea.”

Gup’s point about fear of litigation was, alas, well taken. The Clinton administration was vigorous in its defense of diversity-based racial assignments (later, it would file briefs supporting the racial assignments that were invalidated by the Fourth Circuit in the cases mentioned above), and civil rights groups adamantly defended race-based diversity. In Montgomery County,

School officials said they would be courting legal trouble if they ignored the racial and ethnic composition of individual schools and allowed them to grow more segregated. Montgomery County was widely criticized by a team of Harvard University researchers last year for not strictly regulating the racial and ethnic makeup of schools.

Indeed, Gary Orfield, well-known Director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, had written a report critical of Montgomery County for backsliding. In fact, in commenting on the case of the two Asian-American girls who were initially blocked from transferring to the French immersion program, Orfield has the distinction of uttering the most obnoxious comments I’ve seen in this area. In an absurdity that would have been regarded as strained had it occurred in fiction, both of the girls in question were only half Asian-American. Each had one American parent, and each would have been allowed to transfer with no questions asked if their parents had put “white” instead of “Asian-American” on their forms.

Orfield’s Harvardian response?

Orfield said it’s not unusual for families to feel handcuffed by such transfer controls. “There’s no [school] assignment policy that allows everybody to do what they want,” Orfield said. Yet he said that the county should be more lenient with children of mixed heritage.

“My feeling is that they should not be restricted at all. They are an asset for integration purposes wherever they go,” Orfield said.

“They are an asset for integration purposes” sounds dangerously close to “they are a credit to their race (whatever it is).” Everyone else, however, should be held hostage to diversity.

Orfield’s other point — that no one has a right to go to the school of his choice — echoes a common refrain from liberal apologists of diversity. Here, for example, is the eminent “communitarian” Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, making essentially the same point.

Here lies the far-reaching assumption underlying the diversity argument for affirmative action: admission is not an honor bestowed to reward superior virtue. Neither the student with high test scores nor the student who comes from a disadvantaged minority group morally deserves to be admitted. Provided the criteria of admission are reasonably related to a worthy social purpose, and provided applicants are admitted accordingly, no one has a right to complain. [Sandel, “Picking Winners,” THE NEW REPUBLIC, December 1, 1997, p. 17]

Both Orfield and Sandel confuse not having a right to attend the school of one’s choice (which is true) with not having a right not to be excluded based on race (which is not true). What a sad and bedraggled thing liberalism has become.

If the Supreme Court upholds “diversity” as a compelling interest, the Fourth Circuit opinions referred to above would in effect be overruled, these diversity-inspired racial school transfer policies would almost certainly be revived, prosper, and become the norm.

Say What? (4)

  1. […] of success you can see all around you — for well over a decade. For example, in January 2003 I wrote that “one criticism I have not seen” is that diversity-justified […]

  2. […] This sort of liberal exploitation of minorities is, alas, not new. Obama may be practicing it more vehemently than any past president, but he didn’t invent it. Over a decade ago I wrote about the same phenomenon in Diversity And School Transfers: Diversity For Whom? […]

  3. […] involves turning young kindergarten and elementary school students into what a decade ago, in Diversity And School Transfers: Diversity For Whom?, I called “hostages to […]

  4. […] This willing sacrifice of an individual right to be free from racial or ethnic discrimination to some purported greater social good — in this case, maintaining friendly tribal relations — has unfortunately been aided and abetted by modern liberalism’s embrace of the dark strain of communitarian social theory. Consider, for example, the views of the most eminent communitarian, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, in his Democracy’s Discontent and other books. I quoted a typical example here: […]

Say What?