“Springing the Diversity Trap”

Tim Wise


know you’re in trouble when Ronald Reagan starts to sound progressive. And you

really know you’re in trouble when so-called progressives make him sound that

way, thanks to their own pathetic gesticulations on one or another issue. But

unfortunately, such is the case with regard to affirmative action. The old

saying, "with friends like these, who needs enemies," has never been

more appropriate than today, with ostensible defenders of affirmative action

beating a steady retreat from the principles justifying the concept for three

decades, replacing them instead with what many call the "diversity

defense" as a rationale for these programs continuation.


it was Reagan, who, as Governor of California, signed into law the affirmative

action programs banned by Prop 209, and who said in 1974:


and experience have shown that laws and edicts of non-discrimination are not

enough. Justice demands that each and every citizen consciously adopt and

accentuate a commitment to affirmative action, which will make equal opportunity

a reality."


nice it would be to hear anything that principled from today’s defenders of

affirmative action. But to listen to "mainstream" liberals tell it,

affirmative action was never about uprooting the vestiges of institutionalized

white male privilege, even in theory; nor was it about equity at all, but

rather, simply a mechanism whereby people from "different backgrounds"

can "learn from one another’s experiences," come to "appreciate

cultural differences," and "tap the full potential of all our nation’s

human resources."


that end we’ve been treated to books like The Shape of the River, written by

former Presidents of Harvard and Princeton, which argues that affirmative action

in college is needed, not because racism is still deeply embedded in the fabric

of educational institutions (least of all the ones they served over!), but

rather, so as to create a cadre of black and brown academic elites, capable of

"contributing more fully" to their society. This ponderous volume has

been hailed as the "ultimate" defense of affirmative action programs,

which, if that’s true, means the programs are in deep trouble. To the extent

colleges like the Universities of Michigan and Washington are defending their

own affirmative action programs in court on the basis of these "benefits of

diversity," it is not an exaggeration to say that this literary

contribution may single-handedly do more damage to the cause of racial justice

than Ward Connerly and Pete Wilson combined.


are a number of problems inherent to defending affirmative action on the basis

of the benefits of "diversity," all of which should be readily

apparent, but seem to have escaped consideration.


the courts have begun to rule in most instances that diversity-whatever its

benefits-is not a "compelling state interest": the kind these same

courts say must exist in order for state actors to fashion any race-conscious

policy, like affirmative action. Although "diversity" boosters have

attempted to quantify the value of this otherwise abstract concept-by conducting

surveys with college graduates and asking them such methodologically rigid

questions as "do you think your educational experience was enhanced or

harmed by racial diversity?"-the fact remains: compared to the principled,

albeit flawed, reasoning of those attacking affirmative action (i.e., these

programs amount to "invidious reverse discrimination" and a violation

of "color-blind equal opportunity"), arguments about the importance of

"confronting stereotypes" and "learning to value difference"

seem weak and uncompelling by comparison.


the benefits of "diversity" appear to all who know the history of

affirmative action, to be an obvious retreat from the earlier rationales which

focused on institutional race and gender barriers to opportunity. This retreat

makes it easier for critics to claim that such barriers must no longer exist,

since if they did, surely the civil rights community would be talking about

them, and continuing to push for affirmative action on that basis. The diversity

defense, in this sense, has become like President Clinton’s "mend it, don’t

end it" mantra: tantamount to an apology for doing what needs to be done to

challenge a system of inequity which no one seems willing to acknowledge even

exists anymore. "Diversity" as rationale for affirmative action serves

in no small way then, as the partner of white denial regarding racism itself.


arguing that "diversity" on college campuses is beneficial because it

allows students to "learn from one another’s different experiences"

begs the obvious and critical question: Why are folks’ experiences so different

in the first place? Especially on the basis of race such that

"colorizing" the room would offer substantial new insight? The answer

is obvious: it is racism itself that causes Americans to have such radically

different experiences in this society; in which case the "benefits" of

diversity as learning opportunity cannot be abstracted from the reason why such

"diversity" is currently lacking-namely institutionalized inequity.

Better to just focus on the cause of the symptom known as white homogeneity and

dominance, than to offer to treat the symptom alone, as is done by the diversity

defense. If racism is what causes different experiences, then racism-and the

need to uproot it–should be sufficient rationale for things like affirmative



of course, those institutions being sued over their "preferential"

policies have a hard time acknowledging this basic truth. For them to admit

their own complicity in the perpetuation of racism-through admissions criteria

which overemphasizes things like standardized tests or AP course credits-would

be embarrassing and open themselves to lawsuits from people of color.


it would put at risk their ability to use such "selective" and elitist

criteria, which, after all, is necessary to keep up appearances that one is a

"top-notch" institution as defined by the U.S. News College

rankings-itself a financial imperative in the eyes of trustees and powerful

alums. Thus, Universities being sued by groups like the Center for Individual

Rights, find themselves having to rely on obtuse, legally suspect arguments like

the diversity defense, even as they ignore the reasons why their schools lack

such diversity, and thus need to undertake race-conscious recruitment and

admissions in the first place.


finally, claiming that there is something inherently valuable about people from

different backgrounds learning and working together, allows the right to counter

with their own versions of pro-diversity arguments, such as "we need more

Christian conservatives among liberal arts faculty," or "we should

promote ideological diversity" in a presumably left- leaning academic

department (like Women’s Studies). Although most can see through these

arguments, the reason why the right is off-base with such positions is

important: namely, Christians and conservatives have never been the victims of

targeted, systemic oppression and exclusion. As such, to compare their

"plight" at finding jobs in the Berkeley English Lit department with

the exclusion of instructors of color, for example, is preposterous. But again,

the key issue is institutional discrimination. That is why racial diversity or

gender diversity is absent. And that is why affirmative action is still needed.


we reorient the discussion to issues of equity and justice, it will be just as

likely that historically Black colleges–none of which ever excluded anyone on

the basis of race, nor apply admissions criteria which have race-exclusive

impacts today–will be forced to "diversify" by dramatically expanding

slots for white students, as that predominantly white schools would have to

change. This is already happening at Tennessee State University, where a court

order is forcing TSU to become 50% white (it is now 85% black), while only

expecting historically-white University of Tennessee to become 11% African

American. The logic of "diversity" of course, compels this response,

absent a historically grounded institutional analysis of racism: including a

grasp of who are its victims, and who its beneficiaries.


only glimmer of good news is that recently the court overseeing the case against

the University of Michigan allowed a group of students of color to enter into

the case alongside the University. The students had argued, and the court agreed

that the University would not be likely to mount the kind of defense of their

own policies that would touch on ongoing institutional barriers to full access,

whereas this would be the core of the students’ case for affirmative action’s

continuation. Those seeking to protect affirmative action from further erosion

should copy a play from these students’ playbook, and stop relying on liberal

diversity-crats to fight for justice. Doing so is the last thing on most of

their minds. And the quicker we all realize that, and put Reagan back on the

right where he belongs, the better off we’ll all be.


Wise is a Nashville-based antiracist organizer and writer. He can be reached

at [email protected]


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