Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Diversity vs. social injustice

Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University professor, offers this analysis of the University of Michigan's defense of institutional racism (a.k.a. affirmative action):

Michigan's argument does not pass the smile test: It is not something you can argue with a straight face. True, diversity does add something to an educational environment; however, it comes in many stripes. It would do wonders for the freshmen of our elite universities to have among them more poor whites from Appalachia, a few more diehard Christians and maybe a few more students from Muslim nations such as Iran and Kyrgyzstan.

Indeed, research conducted by Stanley Rothman, professor emeritus at Smith College, indicated that the benefits of diversity in higher education are questionable at best, with diversity resulting in increased dissatisfaction with the quality of education and increased complaints by students about discrimination.

The weakest link in Michigan's case is proffered by its law school dean, Jeffrey Lehman: "When we teach our students about difficult issues such as whether it's appropriate for police to be able to use race [sic] profiles, when we ask our students whether it's appropriate to decriminalize crack cocaine, the discussion, the analysis, the learning that takes place is better in a racially diverse classroom."

The implication of Lehman's statement is that a white person cannot make a powerful case against racial profiling—or a black student for it. If this argument is upheld, the law school would need gay students for a discussion of civil unions, mental patients to examine involuntary commitment laws, and so on—a truly nutty idea. Moreover, some of the most strident voices for social justice are lily-white.

Michigan and company would do best if they stuck to "old" arguments. Some social groups suffered—and are still suffering—from gross injustices.

I concur with Etzioni's dissection of the diversity rationale, but I dissent from his suggestion that "social injustice" is a valid defense of the Michigan programs. In the end, he's essentially adopting Michigan's moral principle: people should be treated not as individuals, but as a member of a group. Now, Etzioni would not dispute my charge, as he's a "communitarian," who opposes individualist thinking. Still, it's hard to see how social injustice meets Etzioni's own smile test; the argument is essentially that Michigan must racially discriminate because of overall social injustice, not because of specific injustices committed by Michigan itself. This argument was actually advanced by a number of Michigan students who intervened in the lower courts. Their argument was that Michigan's policies were constitutional because America as a whole was so fundamentally racist that minority students could not otherwise succeed in college.

This is all a wonderful orgy of floating abstractions, but there's little direct evidence to support any of these theories. It also ignores the underlying question: how do we eliminate the stigma of racism in college admissions? The answer, as CAC said in its brief, is to treat everyone as individuals, thus rejecting artificial race constructs altogether. Keep in mind, Michigan's policy does not award bonus points to victims of "social injustice," but to any student who has a particular parentage. It's an automatic bonus derived entirely from genetics.

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