Making Good on the Promise of Diversity

Making Good on the Promise of Diversity
By Frank H. Wu

As diversity increasingly becomes the theme of civil rights, we must work together to ensure the abstract concept is given the necessary content to strengthen rather than weaken the progressive movement for racial justice. While all of us should have our voices heard in the discussion, it is crucial we avoid demagoguery, which would divide us.

The argument for introducing non-Black racial minorities to our conversation should not be misunderstood as an argument for replacing African-Americans in that dialogue. Otherwise we risk worsening the prospects of African-Americans, especially in higher education.

The trends are clear. The face of our nation is changing. We will almost certainly experience a profound transformation within our lifetimes, which no society in recorded history has ever undergone peacefully, much less successfully. Around 2050 or so, we will cease to have a single identifiable racial majority in this country.

At least in numerical terms, we are becoming multi-racial. We can see the new realities already in California, New York City and on many university campuses.

Accordingly, regardless of our own racial background, academic discipline or political orientation, we should begin our discussions with a picture of the world that is factually accurate. It is impossible to address the tensions of our democracy, much less the world, with a literally Black and White portrait of the population. Alongside African-Americans and Whites, there are millions of Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians and people of multiple ancestries whose experiences deserve to be valued and whose claims warrant consideration.

Yet history is compelling. There is unfinished business — the legacy of practices as brutal as they were pervasive, started under chattel slavery and continued through Jim Crow — which demands public policy responses. The present effects of past discrimination create disparities that affect African-Americans in particular.

The invidious patterns are apparent in virtually every aspect of daily life, and they are measurable. They are related to other forms of legal segregation that have harmed non-Black racial minorities, but they also are measurably distinct.

Ironically, many of the attempts to introduce diversity have not been meant to advance its cause but to undermine it. Asian Americans, for instance, often are held up as the so-called “model minority,” as if to suggest African-Americans should be more like them.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that such a group comparison might be useful, the comparison of Asian Americans and African-Americans is more superficial than it is substantive. It is usually based on a willful disregard of the very different prejudices toward Asian Americans and African-Americans.

Most recently, the anti-affirmative action cause has used Asian Americans as an example, with the claim that they are harmed by the programs. The implication is that people of color must have a limited proportion of enrollment at elite schools, so the number of Asian Americans is reduced if the number of African-Americans is increased and vice versa. Although Asian Americans and African-Americans both face bias in the admissions process, each is led to blame the other.

What is worse, officials try to substitute people of color as if they are interchangeable commodities. They brag that a college is diverse, even if it has few African-Americans. They use Asian foreign nationals, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans to boost their numbers and avoid appearing exclusively White.

We can do better. It will not be easy, but it will be necessary for our shared future. Our insistence on institutional leaders and grassroots efforts that build bridges among communities, as well as our support for scholarship that is contextual, critical and engaged, will enable us to make good on the promise of diversity.

— A longtime faculty member at Howard University, Frank H. Wu became the dean of Wayne State University Law School in his hometown of Detroit in 2004.



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