Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
This term the Supreme Court will soon hear two challenges to affirmative action policies used in almost every university and college admissions and hiring procedures. These protocols have long been obvious violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.”
Yet ever since the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978 green-lighted discrimination in admissions to further “diversity,” subsequent challenges to affirmative action policies in university admissions have ordered only cosmetic changes in various discriminatory practices, while leaving intact their legality and rationale.
Whether the current suit will yet again kick the can down the road, or finally end discrimination in higher education admission criteria, will depend on confronting the central begged question that since 1978 has justified affirmative action: the importance of “diversity” in improving educational outcomes.
But 44 years after Bakke, there still has not been a rigorous, empirically based definition of “diversity,” or demonstration of the “educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” as Justice Sandra Day O’Conner assumed in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), that create a “compelling state interest” justifying discrimination on the basis of race.
In contrast to “diversity,” real diversity is a timeless fact of human existence, based on numerous criteria such as culture, mores, language, religion, geography, political philosophies, social organizations, values, and economic status. Ethnicity, not “race,” is the basic unit of human identity, and it is comprised of these elements. The “diversity” we talk about today is based on the superficial physical differences like skin color or hair texture, and duplicates the crude, reductive “race” categories of post-Darwinian “scientific racism” based on skin colors like “black,” “white,” “brown,” or the all-purpose, utterly vague and meaningless “person of color.” Ignored are the more important differences of culture and ethnicity. How people live is what creates their identities, not how they look.
This “diversity,” moreover, also ignores the diversity of people sharing the same physical characteristics and ethnicity. A rubric like “black,” just taking into account Americans of African ancestry, captures nothing of the great variety of 42 million “black” Americans. But like the old racist slur “all black people look alike,” for college administrators anxious to elevate their institution’s “diversity,” all black people think and live alike.
Likewise with a word like “Hispanic” or “Latino,” which ignores the incredible diversity of Central and South America––different languages, ethnicities, customs, and mores create a remarkable diversity not just among nations, but within an individual country. Mexico, for example, comprises mestizos, descendants of Europeans and Africans, and Indigenes. Differences in education and wealth are also obvious. This real diversity describes every country in Latin America as well. How does “Latino” tell us anything meaningful about those peoples and their defining differences?
Finally the most important diversity is that of individuals, each unique, with unique minds and the free will to choose a different identity, adopt a different culture, or follow a different ideology or set of beliefs. Humans are not determined, not even by culture, powerful as it is, or tradition, or faith, let alone by “race.” The history of immigrants in America gives us abundant empirical evidence of this truth, as generation after generation of immigrants have transformed into Americans, all choosing how much or little of the old identity they want to preserve.
The “diversity” affirmative action produces, then, is not about that diversity of minds and beliefs that is so important for individual identity. That “diversity” is in fact the opposite of true diversity––a homogenizing orthodoxy that bespeaks an uncritical, limited mind. Camouflaged in their superficial “racial” uniforms, the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action are supposed to share that orthodoxy, which reflects an illiberal progressivism that seeks out and tries to destroy other political beliefs.
Moreover, that racialist ideology is predicated on the belief that “racism” is indelibly written into our country’s institutions, making the “protected class of color” a permanent victim owed reparations for prior sins like slavery and segregation, no matter how affluent and privileged their backgrounds. As such this “diversity” ignores other factors like social and economic class, and how both contribute to the individual’s identity, as well as create solidarity with other well-off people and ethnicities in the same class.
Hence the spectacle of upper-class blacks––only 5% of black college students attending the 200 most prestigious institutions come from the bottom 25% of the income scale–– enjoying the advantages of affirmative action policies denied to lower-class “white” applicants, who are lumped in with affluent “whites” and so offer no “diversity benefits” to the university’s culture.
That this is the underlying assumption about the benefits of diversity is obvious from the oral arguments in the first Fischer v. University of Texas (2013) case, when the University’s lawyer explicitly said that a minority applicant from a privileged background would add “diversity” to the university that a lower-class white student wouldn’t. Having grown up among poor people of all ethnicities, a “white” poor kid living in a shotgun shack will definitely bring diverse experiences and opinions that “benefit” the university.
As for the purported “benefits” this selective and superficial “diversity” will bestow on minorities, they are harder to find than the problems that have followed from privileging “race” over equal treatment. Greater interaction among students, which presumably leads to greater understanding, is not as prevalent as ethnic segregation, with most campuses having ethnic-themed graduation ceremonies, fraternities and sororities, dorms, programs, and even spaces for socializing. Hard to see how all that segregation promotes interracial understanding.
More grievous is the “mismatching” of black students to universities, a consequence of prestigious universities lowering their standards to admit students “of color” in order to juice their “diversity” stats. The result, as Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. in their 2012 book Mismatch document, “is much greater rates of dropping out, earning poor grades, or finding refuge in easy majors like ethnic studies that have very few prospects for employment. They also have a harder time passing licensing tests such as the bar exam, and earn fewer degrees in science and engineering than whites and Asians.”
Meanwhile, the degradation of higher education curricula by watered down foundational skills and fundamental knowledge, and by the endemic politicization by leftist propaganda like Critical Race Theory; tendentious anti-Western melodramas; and illiberal identity politics continues. These phenomena have been abetted by affirmative action policies that have lowered admission and grading standards.
More important, they have robbed all students of the core purpose of higher education: to train minds how to think critically by the “free play of the mind on all subjects,” as Matthew Arnold described liberal education, and by inculcating the instinct “to try and to know the best that is known and thought in the world irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other consider whatsoever.”
The aim of such an education, as Alan Bloom explained, is freedom: “By liberal education I mean education for freedom, particularly the freedom of the mind which consists primarily in the awareness of the most important human alternatives [to the question of ‘what is a human’] . . . A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern . . . The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate, but because he knows other worthy of consideration,” which often “go against the grain of our nature or our times.”
In other words, an education diametrically opposed by the “easy and preferred” answers defining the multicultural and “woke” fads “of our times” that are indoctrinating students from kindergarten to graduate school with an illiberal political orthodoxy that stifles dissent and free thought, and “cancels” all those whose free minds that “go against our times” in order to challenge and reject that orthodoxy––Education for subjugation, not for freedom.
Affirmative action policies, by enshrining in federal law a duplicitous notion of “diversity” that violates the Constitutional right to equality before the law, has empowered the destruction of a liberal education that trains minds to be worthy of our unalienable right to be free.
Eliminating affirmative action policies will not restore our decayed universities. Even if the Supreme Court strikes them down, educrats are already adept at work-arounds that hide their illegal reliance on “race,” such as discarding standardized tests, or relying on loaded essay prompts that reveal racial identity and give scope to subjective evaluations.
But by reaffirming a principle of law and rejecting the specious rationale of “diversity,” the Supreme Court can lay down a marker that might deter other attempts to ignore our Constitutional rights and diminish our freedom.