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.