Scholars weigh in on the meaning of diversity
One of the major objectives at Diverse is to bring clarity and understanding to the most pressing issues that confront the higher education community. Nowhere is there a greater need for such lucidity than in the area of diversity. In the most honored of academic and campus traditions, Diverse convened a group of scholars from various colleges, universities and associations to gather together for an open and frank exchange of ideas, thoughts and opinions about a range of issues — from the meaning of diversity to the future of affirmative action. The full extent of the conversation can’t be captured in one edition. Therefore we bring to you Part I of a two-part dialogue that will inform, enlighten and maybe even help define what diversity really means.
DIVERSE: What exactly is the diversity ideal?
NATAL: I think that, for me, the diversity ideal would be that in a free society you have the freedom to fulfill your desires, to fulfill your happiness and to seek your dreams. But you need laws. I’m originally from India and we have four castes and constantly there is this struggle going on in society as to which caste you are from. So how to deal with that is the issue.
WALTERS: As an ideal, I think we’re trying to mobilize a core set of beliefs about the rights of individuals in society to participate equally. I think I would start there, because that’s what we are trying to achieve and you can’t do that without going through the history of things like the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which lays the legal foundation for that. I think that a conceptual foundation really has to be the place we start from. Without that we cannot get a satisfactory interpretation of diversity.
DIVERSE: Does everyone agree with Ron?
WU: I would say he’s right in that diversity, like democracy, is a process not an outcome. It’s not something that we can finish. It’s something that we participate in. If you look at diversity as something that we achieve, and then we say, “There, we have it. We’re done,” we will be disappointed and bitter. We have to be prepared to roll up our sleeves and take it just as we do when we go and vote. You go and vote, and the person standing in line in front of you at the polling place says, “Why are we here again? We were just here two years ago.” Well, you have to vote again sometimes. This person doesn’t get it. That’s not what it’s about. Democracy is about taking part, and it’s about taking
part as equals. So that’s why I say we’re striving for it. The ideal would be a society in which we write the scripts of our own lives; where we are not confined by stereotypes; where we are able to form communities freely and not be ascribed to them on the basis of physical characteristics over which we have no control.
DIVERSE: You used the terms “individuals” and “communities.” Isn’t that the crux of what the controversies are all about, individual merit as opposed to group merit?
HARVEY: One of the reasons we wrestle with this concept is because there have been historical inequities. We are trying to overcome those inequities so that people who haven’t had some of the same opportunities get a chance to enjoy them. Had that been the case from the beginning, had the founding fathers and mothers actually been able to implement some of the concepts that were in place, we might not be having this discussion now.
BASKERVILLE: I think that in diversity, as a concept, you have to look at individuals, but you can’t lose sight of the community and the need for community coexistence, power and ecumenism within and among the communities. But I also hope that in the discussions and considerations about diversity as an ideal, we don’t lose the fact that there’s this role
of de jour discrimination in which these vestiges continue to exist, and that concept does not yet absorb the concept of diversity. We’re talking about two distinct concepts. The entitlement remedies and means of fostering outcomes are entirely different. But I think it’s critical to examine them in this context and the broader context of diversity, particularly as we face the preservation and enhancement of our historical institutions.
DIVERSE: When you start talking about group identity and ascribing certain characteristics and ideals to groups as opposed to individuals, isn’t that the legal trap that a lot of advocates have fallen into?
WALTERS: I don’t think so. What I think we have to realize is that the discussion about diversity is not ideologically neutral. A lot of the courts have been influenced by the shift of the political atmosphere to the right. Before, and I’m talking about 25 years or so ago, they were quite comfortable with the notion that there was such a thing as group rights. We know that the history of the 14th Amendment, going back to the 19th century, was that it was meant to elevate a group so that the individuals in those groups could enjoy equal rights. A lot of people have
it wrong because individuals don’t just hang out there by themselves with the assumption that the history of those groups is equal. The shift to the right and that discussion has made it appear that we have one America now, regardless of the status of the group that the individual is identified with.
WU: But part of the problem, though, is that we have a consensus, at least in public, that racial bigotry is wrong and diversity is good. You won’t find a major leader of any ideological background who doesn’t in some way celebrate diversity. The trouble is that it’s pitched at such a superficial level that we think that all it means is that you show up at Black History Month and you are done. You go to the lunar New Year celebration and eat an egg roll and that shows you comprehend the Asian culture. I think there is a tendency for the term to be trivialized. It makes it harder for those of us who want genuine change, meaningful change. It’s so easy for this language of diversity to be co-opted, to be abused in a way that is intellectually dishonest.
DIVERSE: Is the term diversity itself too vague? Does it really mean anything?
HARVEY: I was in a session not too long ago, addressing an audience, and a gentleman stood up and said, “Well, if you are really interested in diversity, we should carry this to its logical extreme. I’m a left-handed left-winger, and I’m under-represented. So in order for there to be true diversity, there has to be a percentage of people who represent this particular affinity at all levels in every institution. Is that what you are saying?” I said, “Of course that’s not what I’m saying. That’s trivializing it.” And I think, in a way, what we have are people who are taking the term, trivializing it, and as a means of doing that, lose sight of what are really the concrete structural impediments for people who are under-represented.
WU: And we have to look at the history. It’s not enough just to say that the group isn’t represented at the rate that we expect, because what we’re finding is, for example, White male college students are now reaching a point where females are outnumbering them on many campuses and in many disciplines in a way that no one would have expected. And some people are actually saying, well, we need to do something like affirmative action for White male students. So it’s important to ask “Is the group at parity or not at parity?” But it’s also important to ask about the history. I would be willing at least to say that if you had a case where you were able to prove that systematically an institution had, for generations, discriminated against White males, then you should remedy that in some way. I am not aware of any instance in U.S. history, of any college or university or any other body having done that, but I think we should be open to it. But the risk here is that like civil rights itself, the phrase will be taken over and co-opted.
BASKERVILLE: I agree with that, I just think it’s important that we not get stuck in the history. We must understand and look at the history as the genesis. But if we look at the contemporary factors with the segregated communities, separatism based on race and ethnicity, segregated schools, the gaps in wealth, attainment and achievement, all these things are persistent. The people who argue most vigorously for examining diversity and pluralism by looking at individuals would have us overlook the contemporary and persistent re-segregation in society against groups.
DIVERSE: What do you think, Gerry?
GIPP: This is really a complex issue from the Native American perspective. History, of course, is important to us. We have 500 different tribal groups in this country. Most speak very different languages, have different cultural traditions and so forth, and yet there are very strong commonalities among our communities that hold us together. But we’re living in a nation where a government has been imposed on us, a nation that stopped our lifestyle in its tracks basically and didn’t allow it to evolve like it should have. So the whole diversity issue is very strange to us in the sense that we have not historically been welcomed into this country as citizens. We only became citizens in 1924. So we have a very different history. So all of that enters into play when you start to talk about diverse populations, and yet we all understand, however, that diversity can mean good things for us as well.
WALTERS: This is a very good point. These concepts of diversity sometimes arise for the convenience of the majority. I think we have to be aware of that because diversity can be a loaded concept in which the majority jumps over the history and presumes we are all the same and can be shoved into the same box. I just want to raise that because I have opposed this concept of the marginalization of African-Americans. That same presumption is at the heart of this concept of diversity. I think when you’re going forward into a new century, you’ve got to deal with that. Hispanics for example, constitute a very powerful voting bloc. They in turn will be invoking the specificity of that power for their own rights, like Asians in other parts of this country. I think that there’s a tension here that we shouldn’t ignore, and we have to discuss it in order to make diversity meaningful, otherwise the concept really has very little value for the people sitting around the table. It may have a lot of value for the institutions, but what value does it have for you?
POLONIO: There are two concerns I have about diversity. One is to what extent can you have a strong country and have diversity? What is it that is going to bind, bring people together? What are the common values that allow a country to thrive? Can diversity eventually destroy it because there are too many voices, too many priorities? Can you be loyal to this country when you have an alliance to another country, another nation? There is another side to this diversity dialogue that we tend to ignore. The assumption that we make is ‘being inclusive is good, valuing people is good,’ but there is very little dialogue about the other side of it, that we do pay a price for inclusiveness.
I think human nature is to try to be similar and eliminate anything that is different and is going to create tension. The second part I want to talk about — diversity, as far as I’m concerned, it is a sugar-coated terminology. It is sweet. It is simplistic. It gives people permission to use the word to reach approval and neutralize some of the most uncomfortable things that have happened with society. So, it is a double-edged sword in that we have taken something that people died for and made it sweet, like a piece of candy.
DIVERSE: Is diversity an inevitable consequence of the demise of affirmative action?
WU: I would say part of the problem is our unwillingness to address chattel slavery, Jim Crow and enduring the consequences of systematic discrimination against African-Americans in America and, in some
instances, other ethnic groups. So what’s happened is this: It used to be, as recently as a generation ago, you could talk in a meaningful way and have collective dialogues where people would disagree about the condition of African-Americans. You could go on a college campus and ask how are we going to address the problem of not having any African-Americans, whether it’s faculty or students, etc. The legal regime we live under now does not permit that sort of race-specific dialogue, or permits it only if you are willing to run fairly high risks of being sued for reverse bias. So, what’s happened is we’ve tried to be very inclusive to say we want to include every kind of diversity, any kind of claim, any kind of demographic, and we treat all of the claims as if they are equal claims, and they are not.
WALTERS: You have a point there because the Supreme Court last year struck down a very important principle that was at the heart of affirmative action. It was the idea of proportionality. What angers me is that African-Americans and others have now embraced this principle without saying straight out that affirmative action was killed, that we now have a different standard and it is something called diversity. It does not have the idea of proportionality. In fact, you can have diversity without having any Blacks at all, because you don’t have a proportionality. So, we have not faced that. We have welcomed this idea without criticism.
So I just want to throw that criticism out there, because this idea of proportionality seems fair in my mind, but the majority does not accept it. They do not accept the idea of proportionality and distorted it to mean quotas. And it was clearly not quotas. So what do you have then, if you don’t recognize the history of exclusion, if you don’t have an exacting standard of how you achieve diversity, if you don’t have any enforcement mechanisms … You have something called diversity which is very light in terms of social standing.
BASKERVILLE: When you said that African-Americans have accepted that affirmative action is dead, you weren’t accepting that as fact?
WALTERS: No, what I’m saying is that we really haven’t accepted it. But some of our greatest legal minds recognize that diversity is all we’ve got, this is all we could get.
BASKERVILLE: And that part is true. Affirmative action is alive and well in the sense that if you can prove a case, you can succeed. You can bring a case based on group discrimination. The burden of proof for winning affirmative action cases is so high that diversity evolved as an informed legal strategy.
Affirmative action is still on the books as an appropriate remedy under
limited circumstances, we can’t lose that, and those left who are members of groups that are under-represented in every positive measure are still grappling with ways of finding the right case, the right judges, the right forum, so it’s not a substitute for affirmative action. But affirmative action is not dead, but it is a strategy for moving forward.
WALTERS: I don’t know about that. I wish I could believe that.
BASKERVILLE: You think affirmative action is dead?
WALTERS: Yes. It has undergone almost a fatal transition.
HARVEY: Diversity now becomes a way to achieve that color-blind society without “discriminating against anybody.” So it is a double-edged sword. You have to realize that it is an ideal, but what it represents is representation and participation. And that’s what we want. But how do we achieve that in a quantifiable way? Because if you pursue diversity for the next 20 years, and then you find that the groups that have been historically under-represented are still under-represented, then you have to question whether or not this is, in fact, the approach that is going to get those groups an opportunity to participate in the same way that others have.
BASKERVILLE: Then I have to be able to go back and show the intentional exclusion and its history, and come forward step by step, which is possible, but painstaking. So what I’m saying is diversity is not a substitute for affirmative action. Proving an affirmative action case is a huge challenge. It’s costly, it’s made so difficult by the courts that the likelihood of success is very slim.
DIVERSE: One of the major criticisms of diversity initiatives is that there are no ground rules.
WU: Ron mentioned that you can have diversity and have virtually no Blacks in sight and he is absolutely right. If you look at many of our leading schools, and you look at the numbers that they boast, having 25 or 40 percent people of color, and if you break it out, what you find is that their African-American enrollment has not increased substantially in the past decade, hasn’t increased substantially in the past generation. And in some instances if you ask what is the native- born African-American enrollment, it’s declined.
The diversity numbers often look great because we’ve got many, many Asian Americans. Now that’s not a bad thing. I think that’s a good thing, but it’s a different thing. Increasing the number of Asian Americans doesn’t do anything to appreciably help the condition of African-Americans. If anything, it just exacerbates matters because it creates this tension between Asian Americans and African-Americans. So, part of the problem is that once we make diversity abstract, we have this real issue with filling the numbers in with whatever is convenient, and it makes it hard for us. The day will come, it’s already come, when a Neo-Nazi will show up and say, “I bring diversity.” And you know what? That person is right. There aren’t that many open Neo-Nazis, certainly not on the faculties of most of our institutions, and I think that’s good. We shouldn’t have Neo-Nazis on our campuses, yet if we embrace diversity and say difference is great, we are embarrassed because then it is not quite clear what we say to the Neo-Nazi.
So, what’s happened is that it’s become so much more complicated because of demographic change. One of the thorniest issues, and this may not be the appropriate time to talk about it … but there is now a significant divide between Black foreign nationals and their children, and African-Americans. In many ways they don’t have the same experience, and it worries me, because part of what we’re seeing is colleges where it’s not African-Americans. They’ve got great Black enrollment, but if you just study it with even the most cursory glance, you’re like, this is not African-American enrollment. It’s Black.
DIVERSE: Is this a natural and inherent pitfall that when you have this ambiguous term, you start to exacerbate distinctions as opposed to actually minimizing distinctions?
GIPP: I think the whole concept of diversity can be seen as divisive. And I think that grows out of the fact that people, as Frank mentioned, have an unwillingness to accept and to take the time to understand cultural differences that are there. I think that’s an argument that will be used in the future. There is a guy by the name of Peter Wood, who wrote a book called Diversity: The Invention Of A Concept, and he alludes to the concept that diversity could lead to the breakdown of liberty and equality and all of this that this country has stood for, supposedly. But I think that’s an argument that is going to become even stronger because of that unwillingness. And for me, from my perspective, that’s all driven by power. People not wanting to engage and keeping control, and ultimately it is power.
— In Part II of “Dissecting Diversity” in the Sept. 8 edition, the scholars discuss intra-group tensions, the Black-Hispanic Alliance in higher education and the future of Black colleges.
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