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The Dilemma of Diversity

I try to be open-minded about diversity. That includes, most importantly, admitting that I might well be wrong. So I wonder about my bias against bias.

Ironically, I am intolerant of intolerance. The problem is that the attempt to avoid assumptions about others, based on their background, requires the rejection of a common attitude. I’d prefer to be realistic. Perhaps my friends will regard what I have to say as controversial, but they know that inspires me all the more.

Opponents of racial diversity often style themselves as proponents of intellectual diversity. These positions are not mutually exclusive. No doubt there are advocates who wish to hear multiple viewpoints being expressed on campus without the speakers suffering adverse consequences, who are sincere in their beliefs. Racial diversity and intellectual diversity, however, are related. It is on the very issue of our differences, biological and cultural, real and imagined, that society displays the greatest range of opinions. Those of us who aspire to create institutions of higher education that offer access and equality, in more than rhetorical terms, should bear in mind the profound disagreement about what constitutes unfair discrimination.

I will explain in concrete terms. Here is a hypothesis that is descriptive, not normative: throughout history and even around the world today, it was not and remains not at all unusual to assume a person’s bloodline offers true insight into their probable behavior. That is a claim about the reality around us, not a statement that such conditions are ideal.

Yet that is the essence of prejudice and profiling. Whether to trust someone or not has depended on whether their “people” were friend or foe, from this village or that tribe. Each collection of human beings was said to have distinctive characteristics, corresponding somehow to their cuisines or the surrounding climate. In the next province, they would swear that those folks over there were properly renowned as hot-tempered as they themselves were sweet.

The American consensus, achieved through the civil rights movement if threatened in contemporary politics, is that such reactions are inappropriate. Persons should be treated as individuals rather than representatives of groups. Even if there is a bit of truth to the stereotype, it is a generalization that will cost more than it will benefit, including morally. Among the assertions that demagogues like to make is that they are honest, everyone else hypocritical. Grant them a “maybe.”

People who declare that they do not generalize or are “color-blind” are naive or willful. Everyone considers characteristics that are visible in assessing strangers. It may be rational. We shy away, instantly and some would argue instinctively, from someone who is moving erratically down the street, shouting obscenities, without pondering if she is afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome. She is presumed to be dangerous. Another person’s race is difficult to not notice and hard to forget. If she is ambiguous, we are curious, despite our awareness it would be rude to ask outright. Our hunches and intuitions, positive and negative, are right there beneath the surface.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am emphatically not suggesting that we should walk around inferring that this person deserves our business because they are distant cousins or that that person does not deserve our charity because their ethnicity is allegedly corrupt. I am merely noting that these sentiments were espoused openly in the United States until recently (and in some quarters still now) and continue to be elsewhere. And our unconscious racism affects us whether or not we deny it.

Even communities that are numerically in the minority are majorities within their own domain, whether institutions and neighborhoods here, or at least in an imagined land. They can hate a subset within their own, based on gender, sexual orientation, faith, social class, dialect or a finer distinction outsiders would not comprehend. They also might feel hostility toward the majority, or other minorities, indistinguishable from what they are subjected to, though they are relatively powerless to act upon the antipathy.

Among the frustrations Asian Americans discuss among themselves about Asian Asians, for example, is that the former are a minority, while the latter overseas are a majority. Even those Asians who travel as tourists have only a temporary experience of disfavored status, and, unlike Asian Americans who are third-generation Californians, the Asians can go back to where they came from. In Asia, there are few Asians as such. They identify as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani and so on. There is no love lost among them.

I want to fight against bigotry. That means I have to acknowledge the facts. There are still many among us, including those who hold leadership roles and those whom we otherwise take to be decent enough, who are convinced that ancestral origins, akin to birth signs in a zodiac, are a legitimate basis for drawing lines among us and making decisions. Pretending we agree to the contrary is not wise even if it is hopeful. Persuading those who insist their invidious racial outlook is somehow rational requires understanding them.

We ought not project our own sense of superiority in these matters, because then we will not be effective; better that we be humble in our arguments.

Frank Wu is a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean.

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