Principles vs. Platitudes In The Diversity Debate

Read and listen carefully. No, not to what I’m about to say (you’d do that without my telling you to, right?), but to any representatives you’d care to pick in the ongoing debate pitting “diversity” against the principle of colorblind non-discrimination.

Read and listen carefully, and you’ll notice something I’ve been noticing with increasing frequency: those of us who oppose racial preferences do so on the basis of a principle we articulate — that the state should treat individuals without regard to their race, religion, or ethnicity — that is easy to understand and provides both a crystal clear rule for policy makers to follow and an easily usable, effective standard against which to judge the policies they make. This principle also makes it clear that those exceedingly rare circumstances where taking race into account is justified by a “bona fide occupational qualification” — such as placing a black undercover police officer inside a black gang — are, quite literally, exceptions that prove the rule.

By contrast, advocates of racial preference don’t speak of principles (except to dismiss them as not binding); they speak in platitudes about the virtues of “diversity,” virtues that, although usually exaggerated, for the most part no one denies. Not only do they almost never mention the operational specifics of the programs they defend; they avoid them like the plague, and try to keep anyone else from learning the details as well.

Since preferentialists speak in platitudes and not principles, their defense of racial preferences provides no guides to policy makers or guidelines by which to judge the policies they defend, other than the numbers of favored minorities they produce. How “critical” is having a “critical mass,” and how “massive” must it be? By what principle (can’t escape them), if any, should its size reflect the “mass” it attempts to represent, and where must that “mass” be — local, national, anywhere in the world? When, where, and why do differences, say, among Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans disappear into their presumably shared Asian-ness? Are Cherokees fungible, for representational purposes, with Cheyenne? If some discrimination is acceptable to produce the desired result, why not more discrimination to produce an even better result? Is there a limit, and if so where does it come from?

These thoughts were called to mind, most recently, by what even for this genre is an exceptionally platitudinous mess of pottage, “Why Diversity Matters,” by that diversiphile extraordinaire, Lee Bollinger, former president of the University of Michigan, current president of Columbia University, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Traditional academic measures of qualifications, Bollinger begins by strongly implying, have all but become obsolete, at least insofar as they reflect past performance:

… we in higher education understand that the admissions process has less to do with rewarding each student’s past performance — although high performance is clearly essential — than it does with building a community of diverse learners who will thrive together and teach one another.

Exactly why “high performance” in past academic pursuits is important at all is not clear, nor is it clear why more academically challenged applicants, along with highly skilled, say, carpenters and farmers aren’t also admitted to Columbia if “building a diverse community of learners” is what is of paramount importance.

In any event, doubt about the continuing relevance of traditional academic skills is quickly dispelled in the following characteristically Bollingeresque passage:

Universities understand that to remain competitive, their most important obligation is to determine — and then deliver — what future graduates will need to know about their world and how to gain that knowledge. While the last century witnessed a new demand for specialized research, prizing the expert’s vertical mastery of a single field, the emerging global reality calls for new specialists who can synthesize a diversity of fields and draw quick connections among them. In reordering our sense of the earth’s interdependence, that global reality also cries out for a new age of exploration, with students displaying the daring, curiosity, and mettle to discover and learn entirely new areas of knowledge.

The experience of arriving on a campus to live and study with classmates from a diverse range of backgrounds is essential to students’ training for this new world, nurturing in them an instinct to reach out instead of clinging to the comforts of what seems natural or familiar. We know that connecting with people very — or even slightly — different from ourselves stimulates the imagination; and when we learn to see the world through a multiplicity of eyes, we only make ourselves more nimble in mastering — and integrating — the diverse fields of knowledge awaiting us.

Bollinger asserts that “Affirmative-action programs help achieve that larger goal,” but he doesn’t say how, and he says nothing about the nuts and bolts of those programs. Indeed, one could substitute “motherhood” or “apple pie” for “affirmative action” without affecting the nature, or persuasiveness, of his argument.

Call me old-fashioned (I’ve been called worse), but when driving over a bridge, or if I ever have to get a heart transplant, I’d rather trust an engineer or physician who had mastered “specialized research” and not spent too much professional time “synthesiz[ing] a diversity of fields.” And besides, what exactly is the connection between having a “critical mass” of Hispanics (would all Mexicans do, or must a certain — but what? — proportion also be Cuban, Honduran, and Guatemalan?) and developing “the daring, curiosity, and mettle to discover and learn entirely new areas of knowledge”?

In reading this fluff it is easy to lose sight of the reality that what Bollinger is here defending is racial discrimination, i.e., treating people differently based on nothing more than their race or ethnicity. (Indeed, perhaps that is its purpose.) How nice it would be if Bollinger would stop for a minute with the hymns to the greatness and goodness of “diversity” and share with us some of the details of how Columbia goes about implementing his lovely vision.

For example, he could tell us how much preference is extended to which groups for which programs? Is there a correlation at Columbia, as there is at lesser places, between the degree of preference received and a declining likelihood of successful completion? What percentage of preferentially admitted students get better grades their first year than their test scores would predict? If traditional measures of past academic performance are no longer reliable or relevant in picking tomorrow’s leaders, what measures are used? Are preferred minority applicants who score higher on those traditional measures more likely to be admitted than preferred minorities who score lower? If so, why? How many preferentially admitted students would not have been admitted under a race-neutral, colorblind admissions policy? Why not prefer even more? That is, if extending preferential treatment to, say, 100 incoming freshmen is such a good idea, wouldn’t admitting 200 be twice as good, especially since the second group’s no doubt lower scores on the measures of their past performance shouldn’t matter very much, those measures being of such reduced relevance these days.

I suspect, though I can’t prove, that part of the reason President Bollinger writes in such platitudes is that his conscience is so highly developed. For most of us, our conscience is, at best, a guide to right and wrong. For President Bollinger, by contrast, it is also obviously a keen analytical tool. It allows him to distinguish not only good from bad but true from false. Thus he writes:

The reality is that as much as we may want to believe that racial prejudice is a relic of history, conscience and experience tell us better.

The fact that his conscience tells him what is real may be why “the reality” he sees is so, well, idiosyncratic. For example, he writes that

the Supreme Court is considering two public-school cases out of Washington and Kentucky that would subvert the resounding principle that Brown v. Board of Education established 53 years ago on May 17, 1954, that “separate is inherently unequal.” If successful, both cases would ban local districts from developing voluntary desegregation programs that seek to maintain racial balance in our schools and counteract the worst resegregation crisis we have faced since the early days of the civil-rights movement.

Most observers, at least most observers without overactive consciences, know that there was no “resegregation crisis” in the early days of the civil rights movement, or before. The problem then was segregation, not re-segregation. Similarly, observers whose view of “reality” is not filtered through their consciences will wonder how Seattle could be experiencing any re-segregation, much less a “re-segregation crisis,” since it never experienced segregation.

In any event, even if it were true that the “resounding principle” of Brown is that “separate is inherently unequal” (I argue here, citing seven other posts where I made similar arguments, that it was not), it does not follow that “racial balance” everywhere is required, or that racial discrimination anywhere is justified to promote it.

Say What? (19)

  1. FreeMan June 1, 2007 at 7:16 am | | Reply

    The US has never been about “colorblind neutrality” The US is a White European-American Male Supremacy system – The limits on social equality are based on population

    The strongest social group White European-American Males can take some “racial discrimination” to make the US a more equal society for Women & People of Color

  2. Alex Bensky June 1, 2007 at 12:23 pm | | Reply

    If it’s so important that students learn to live and interact with different people, may we assume that Columbia will make sure in its dorms blacks don’t room with blacks, that the black studies department is dropped, and black students are required in cafeterias to mix in with the other students? After all, how much diversity can you pick up if you’re in classes and residences with people like yourself?

  3. John Rosenberg June 1, 2007 at 1:09 pm | | Reply

    The US has never been about “colorblind neutrality” …

    … And if people like you have your way, it never will be.

    Of course, the US has also never been free of robbery, but we don’t dump the principle holding that theft is wrong and give everyone who can claim descent from a robbery victim a green light to steal.

  4. anita June 1, 2007 at 3:22 pm | | Reply

    Bollinger is telling us about the future when the requirement for qualifications is dropped. That way, there will be no need for affirmative action because blacks will have no problem being qualified.

  5. anita June 1, 2007 at 3:30 pm | | Reply

    Freeman’s attitude is typical of liberals and many black people. what matters is getting the right number of papers for the right kind of people, regardless of what they actually know or can actually do. People are ignorant of what makes a country work, the way that the western countries work. They think it just happens, somehow, and that it does not matter much who knows what, that all the talk about test scores or qualifications is a gyp.

  6. Dom June 1, 2007 at 9:24 pm | | Reply

    As Anita pointed out, this is the future when the requirement of qualifications is dropped. The next step is to drop the requirement of success for graduation. After all, diversity is needed not only in colleges, but afterwards, also. Trust me, it’s coming.

  7. Cobra June 1, 2007 at 10:57 pm | | Reply


    Umm…why do you criticize Freeman’s “attitude”, and those of liberals and “many black people”, when I can turn on Fox News and watch this kind of discussion…

    >>>”O’REILLY: But the strategy is…

    MCCAIN: People can come and work.

    O’REILLY: Do you understand — and I’m not saying this in a condescending way, you’re smarter than I am.

    MCCAIN: Sure.

    O’REILLY: But do you understand…

    MCCAIN: No.

    O’REILLY: …what The New York Times wants and the far-left want? They want to breakdown the white Christian male power structure of which you are a part, and so am I. And they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically breakdown the structure that we have. In that regard, Pat Buchanan is right. So I say that you’ve got to cap it with a number.

    MCCAIN: In America today, we have a very strong economy, low unemployment. So we need additional farm workers, including by the way, agriculture. But there may come a time where we have an economic downturn and we don’t need so many.

    O’REILLY: OK, but in this.

    MCCAIN: So I think it has to vary.

    O’REILLY: In this bill, you guys got to cap it.

    MCCAIN: Yes.”

    Anita, there was absolutely NOTHING “color-blind” about that discussion on the 5/30/2007 edition of the “O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News.

    O’Reilly and Republican Candidate for President Senator John McCain weren’t discussing grades and test scores, Anita. They were discussing the threat to their self-admitted “white Christian Male Power Structure”, something that SHOULD NOT EXIST in the John Rosenberg theory of America.


  8. FreeMan June 2, 2007 at 12:25 am | | Reply

    Anita – “Western Countries work” on the basis of White European-American Male Supremacy Do you think Bush earned his MBA?

  9. meep June 3, 2007 at 7:52 am | | Reply

    Who do you think these racial preferences are helping? If underqualified for what they’re being admitted to, people will not graduate, or, another popular choice of universities, they’ll graduate with a watered-down degree that will give entry to no profession except that in academia.

    And suppose a person in a preferred group is actually qualified — if your qualifications aren’t easily verified, it may be assumed that you’re of lesser ability than those in non-qualified groups. This isn’t a racist or sexist response, but rational considering you know that professional/educational qualifications were being weighted less than membership in a particular group, just as one wonders how qualified a well-connected guy was to get his particular positions, say. Look at the comment immediately above – it’s assumed the only way George W. Bush got his Harvard MBA was connections. One can dismiss what he actually achieved in comparison to his peers (pretty average amongst Yalies, I think), and one can dismiss that he scored high enough in armed forces aptitude tests to be trained to fly jet fighters. So think of that principle applied to those in a preferred group – it doesn’t matter if the preferred group is racial, ethnic, sex-based, or connections-based.

    So it obviously doesn’t help the qualified, and is counter-productive for the underqualified. Cui bono? Seems to me the main beneficiaries are the people who set up and maintain these programs.

  10. FreeMan June 3, 2007 at 4:08 pm | | Reply

    No the main beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are the Women & People of Color individuals or businesses that are given an opportunity in this Sexist & Racist White European-American Male society – these opportunities were & are denied to qualified Women & People of Color individuals or businesses because of sexism against Women & racism against People of Color

  11. leo cruz June 3, 2007 at 8:03 pm | | Reply


    Bush went for a Harvard MBA because he could not get into the University of Texas Law School because of his poor grades and LSAT scores. This affront was something he remembered years later when he said

    ( maybe jokingly ) that as Texas’ governor he was going to cut the U of Texas budget for having the nerve to deny him a slot in the UT -Austin Law school entering class. A training class to fly jet fighter trainers in the 60’s was hardly the most competetive thing to get into, it is not the ” Top GUN ” program of today. I have do doubt he got into the Harvard MBA program thru his conncetions. Even Harvard Law school today seems to let some people in thru connections. Witness the case of the son of Finn Casperson an investment banker. The reality of the fact Meep, is that alumni preferences, prefereces for the children of the famous and wealthy is still widespread in the private universities of our country and it mainly benefits white folks like you.

  12. Winston Smith June 4, 2007 at 3:41 pm | | Reply

    But see, Leo, it doesn’t benefit white folks like me, whose parents are lower-middle class and never attended college.

    We’re not all privileged because of our skin color, and it is indeed racist to presume so.

  13. Mencius Moldbug June 4, 2007 at 5:24 pm | | Reply

    Bollinger’s little piece (I wish it was free online) reminds me, of course, of David Stove

  14. FreeMan June 4, 2007 at 7:09 pm | | Reply

    Winston Smith – You may not realize it but White European-Americans do receive Skin Color Racial Privileges – It is documented in the US Constitution where “White” Slaves were counted as whole persons but Black Afrikan Slaves were counted as 3/5 persons

  15. The Gay Species June 4, 2007 at 8:25 pm | | Reply

    I’m very uncomfortable with individuals who appeal to the obvious facts of diversity, and then reject the reality that the essentialists of yesterday, denying diversity, created serious and malignant injustices.

    By definition, equality denies preferences. But by the same definition, it denies slavery. And yet, a people who appealed to “all men are created equal,” did not regard all people equal. In fact, they enslaved a great number of them. Even after Emancipation, “equal protection” slipped into “separate, but equal.” The institutional and systemic effects of that period cannot clear the slate by fiat. Slavery and segregation has had, and will continue to have for the foreseeable future, pernicious effects. The only way to “right” the “wrong” is not by retribution, much less by “wiping the slate clean,” but only by restitution. And the debt owed for these terrible wrongs is considerable, assuming we also espouse justice, and actually mean it.

    When Affirmative Action was first proposed as one of the remedies for the centuries of injustice, a common objection was “two wrongs do not a right make.” Agreed. But, propose another remedy. “Oh, just wipe the slate clean.” Injustice without restitution is what kind of justice? So, most of us approved state-sanctioned discrimination “in favor” of those who had been indelibly damaged, left in the abyss, and physically chained — but as a remedy, for a time, not as a indefinite redress of indeterminate period. No restitution is, or will likely, compensate for all those centuries of injustice, but giving “preferential access” to those whose ancestors had been denied all access, citizenship, freedom, education, employment, etc. was the leastwe could do. Otherwise, “justice” is a principle and platitude without any substance! And “equality” is another fraudulent claim behind which to hide.

    Now, these restitutions belong to, and only to, those whose ancestors came from Africa (mostly involuntarily, lest we’ve forgotten). We have an enormous debt to repay those of African descent, a debt we may never be able to repay, much less satisfy. But, and here I agree with you and Roseburg, that “debt” is non-existent to others, those who chose to come to these shores like all our other (except African) ancestors. They want to “lift themselves up” in the New World, by their initiative, let’s see the initiative, not the preferential quotas assigned by some utilitarian social-planner to flatten the curve.

    Diversity by its nature must accept that we are not all identical, nor are we going to have equal starts and finishes, much less the same resources to get from one point to another. Flattening the curve only denies the diversity, while appealing to diversity to flatten the curve. We call these folk Special Pleaders.

    Since U.C. Berkeley is cited in the original, I’ll remind readers that, if, if, it’s admissions office did not use demographic, ethnic, and cultural diversity as criteria for evaluation, but simply “academic merit,” the college would be 98% Asian by ethnic origin. Many families of Asian ancestery are indignant; they paid their taxes; their progeny score top with highest honors; Cal is a competitive university (with preferences for California residents, by law), but its admissions allocates space for Caucasians lest the fading Caucasian population feel it’s been exploited. Who is playing the preferences game? Is Cal right to distribute spaces on the basis of ethnic heritage? Watch the Caucasians with their own Special Pleading for “access” to “it’s” university dissimulate just like everyone else.

    Principles? Platitudes? Depends on who is speaking them at the time.

  16. John Rosenberg June 4, 2007 at 8:45 pm | | Reply

    I have written several times that I would welcome an offer to abandon race preferences in return for some form of restitution. Others will argue that restitution has already been paid, in the form of Civil War dead, welfare, and, yes, nearly a half-century of racial preference, but I think a debate on the amount and nature of restitution in return for abandoning all race preference would be a good thing.

    I’ll remind readers that, if, if, it’s admissions office did not use demographic, ethnic, and cultural diversity as criteria for evaluation, but simply “academic merit,” the college would be 98% Asian by ethnic origin.

    And the problem with this hypothetical result is exactly … what?

    In any event there are all sorts of ways to ensure real diversity without micromanaging the racial and ethnic market. How about a lottery among all those who graduate from high school or graduate with a B average? And why should Calif. schools, or the schools in any state who are funded in large part to serve state residents, prefer lower-ranking minorities from out of state over higher-ranking state residents? If you do that you might as well give preferences to illegal immigrants.

    Oh wait. Many states already do that….

  17. Cobra June 5, 2007 at 8:49 am | | Reply

    Winston Smith writes:

    >>>”But see, Leo, it doesn’t benefit white folks like me, whose parents are lower-middle class and never attended college.

    We’re not all privileged because of our skin color, and it is indeed racist to presume so.”

    Leo is correct, Winston. As much as anti-Affirmative Action types are loathe to admit, there are distinct privileges to having white skin in America. I will grant you that many whites are oblivious–that it just seems “normal”.

    Why don’t we try something?

    Here’s a link to a “White Privilege Checklist” by Peggy McIntosh of Wellesly University.

    It’s very interesting food for thought on this thread about “diversity.”

    Tell me how many items you can “check off”, Winston.


  18. Hull June 5, 2007 at 4:42 pm | | Reply

    Well said, Mr. (or Mrs.) the Gay Species.

    I’ll keep your comment/statistic about UC Berkley and Asians in mind the next time I decide to kill a few hours in one of these online debates on diversity. That’s a good one.

  19. ava August 21, 2008 at 10:40 am | | Reply

    Actually, lower middle class whites who are the first in their families to go to college do get extra consideration by college admissions committees. If you didn’t already know this, your school counselor needs some extra training or you need to step up your research. I think when it comes to college admissions, asians are the ones who face the most discrimination. The standards for accepting them are even higher than whites (officially or not).

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