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Say it with me: All people are created equal

I've written this before, but it bears repeating: Abigail Fisher is not suing the University of Texas for denying to recognize the benefits of diversity by not admitting her. She's claiming that it was fundamentally unfair—unjust—for her to be denied admission. Her evidence and reasoning aside, the fundamental issue here is not diversity, but justice. 

As a result, any response to her claim and the resulting discussion needs to focus on the issue of justice, not diversity

Affirmative action programs weren't implemented following the Civil Rights Act (and limited cases, before the Act!) in order to bring diversity to white institutions. They were designed to bring a semblance of fairness to a badly rigged game by identifying those who were long on the losing end (non-white people), and giving them the same advantages enjoyed by the winning team (white people).

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the push-back against affirmative action was immediate, well organized, and highly effective (the history is detailed in this book). It forced supporters of affirmative action into a defensive stance that involved rebranding a social justice exercise into what we today call "diversity programs." This rebranding took the attention off of ending systemic racism and morphed the discussion into a justification of diversity. (It also made many ostensibly liberal people, including college professors, sound like Scalia in their opposition of affirmative action, but this was also part of the plan.)


Look, we either believe that all people are created equal, or we don't. If we truly believe in this radical notion, then any unbalanced social result must be due to extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, influences. A lack of diversity isn't a missing extra feature, but striking evidence of a process of exclusion. As Dr. Jedidah Isler put it in her recent NY Times editorial:
Black students’ responsibility in the classroom is not to serve as “seasoning” to the academic soup. They do not function primarily to enrich the learning experience of white students. Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do; they love physics and want to know more. Do we require that white students justify their presence in the classroom? Do we need them to bring something other than their interest?
Working with this clear view we'd be able to see the injustices in our world—yes, even in our various fields of science!—and mobilize solutions based on attaining a state of social justice. But if we see a lack of diversity and fail to ask why? and how? then we will be forever lost, pushing seemingly pointless "diversity programs" on our colleagues and later wondering why the efforts don't yield a sustainably diverse environment.

I'm not arguing that there are not benefits to diversity. These benefits have been well studied and documented. But most of these benefits arise from the fact that Black, Latin@ and American Indian people lead vastly different lives from white people. This difference is primarily due to de facto segregation in the places where people live, socialize, study and work. Furthermore, this segregated state of affairs is not equitable; separate but equal is as much a lie today as it was in 1896, even if the exact mechanisms differ. This unbalanced situation is fundamentally unjust, and leads to myriad suboptimal outcomes such as physics classrooms devoid of Brown/Native/Black students.

Thus, the diversity missing from historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) like Harvard is detrimental to higher learning and everyone would experience a net benefit from reform. But this is a proximate issue. The ultimate issue are the myriad historical and present-day systemic mechanisms that act along race lines to actively exclude the students who would bring diversity. Once we recognize and correct for—or better yet, remove—these barriers to inclusion, then diversity will readily follow.

Of course, this process will be difficult for the people who have the power to effect change, namely white people, because they are responsible for erecting and maintaining these barriers, intentionally or not. A given white person may or may not be a signatory to the Racial Contract that results in white privilege, including ready access to wealth and higher education. But all white people are beneficiaries, and the benefits (privileges) cannot be refused or given back, at least not until the racist underpinnings of our society are reckoned with and destroyed. Sadly, we are far from this promised land.

Fortunately, white privilege (and other forms of privilege) can be leveraged, or spent down in order to undermine white supremacy and assist one's sisters and brothers of color. This process involves a deliberate, regular and sustained set of personal efforts including self-(re)education, accountability, and a cultivation of racial empathy. To be clear, the process is hard. But being on the short end of white supremacy is always, and without exception, much harder.

An important step is recognizing the limitations of focusing on diversity, and the fundamentally different approach of focusing on social justice. Here's a handy comparison of logical processes to get you thinking within a more effective framework:

"Colorblind" (racist) approach:

See all-white classroom 
⬇︎
Assume there's no systemic racism, and the playing field is therefore level 
⬇︎
"The lack of Black/Brown people must be because the blacks and hispanics don't like to work hard or something" (In practice, this last logical step often sounds like this.)

Corollary: "See? I told you those black and brown kids should go to slower-tracked universities where they can do better."

Multiculturalism, Diversity-based approach:

See all-white classroom 
⬇︎ 
"Oops, we must've forgotten to add in the diversity. Let's fix that by adding in the diversity" 
⬇︎
"Damn, the Native/Brown/Black people did poorly. But since diversity is good, let's stick with adding diversity" 
⬇︎
"Darn, the diversity efforts haven't increased the number of people of color."

Social justice approach:

See all-white classroom 
⬇︎
Know that race is a social construct and has absolutely no impact on intrinsic cognitive abilities and potential for scientific excellence
⬇︎
"The overrepresentation of white people in this classroom must be due to an external factor, and I bet it's systemic racism." 
⬇︎
Identify, confront and change the racist system, educate the individuals who mistakenly think race is biologically real (whether consciously or not), and actively affirm that racial minorities have a place in your institution 
⬇︎
"Wow, this diversity sure is awesome!"




Comments

Boris Yeltsin said…
The "Affirmative Action" wars have been exceptionally ugly in America, especially as I can think of no other issue that pins working-class whites/whites of a lower socioeconomic background against people of color. It's an effective "divide and rule" tactic.

Framing this in terms of "diversity" does so much to misinform the debate. The inclusion of "affirmative action" is a "John Rawlsian" solution to correct the faults in American life, as in principle, we should not be judging the merits of students based upon who their parents are (e.g. the schooling they could afford for their children, where they lived, the amount of money they have, etc.)

For years, Ivy League colleges were bullshitting us with "diversity" statistics for black students. In fact, there was a high representation of the super-rich from Africa whose parents sent them to private boarding schools.

http://magazine.good.is/articles/ivy-league-fooled-how-america-s-top-colleges-avoid-real-diversity
Boris Yeltsin said…
Comrade Johnson may know of this book:

http://www.beacon.org/Place-Not-Race-P1106.aspx

I found it recommended via Michelle Alexander. It puts recent discussions in context.

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