The Diversions of 'Diversity'

The most sterile, empty debate at Harvard is over the question of diversity. Not only is there no rational dialogue on the issue, but there is no agreement on terms. No one can expect any agreement when the terms that are hurled around are so big and so threateningly fuzzy, like racism and diversity. I would like to suggest a one-year moratorium on the unqualified use of these two words. It would be no big loss. Both have become little more than emotional banners, unwieldy, irresponsible, symbolic conflations of more specific issues and controversies, which we would do well to address directly and honestly. Let me suggest some of these here:

No one can expect dialogue when fuzzy terms like "racism" and "diversity" get hurled around.

1. Disadvantage Versus Symbolic Diversity. I think that everyone, especially the newly-formed Coalition for Diversity, should recall what happened to the issue of the growing Black underclass when it was first brought to the public's attention by the Moynihan Report on the Negro Family in 1965. Liberals like Moynihan who linked the plight of disadvantaged groups to broader problems in society suddenly found themselves silenced by a waves of critics on the Left who furiously objected to the stigma attached to terms like the "underclass" and "social pathology." Precursors to the multiculturalism of the 1990s, these critics rejected liberal arguments that linked "pathological" aspects of ghetto life to economic oppression and isolation. Instead, the report's critics urged a new emphasis on the strengths and virtues of the Black community.

This wave of revisionist (i.e. politically correct) arguments shifted the focus of the discussion on the underclass from the problems of racial isolation and economic class subordination to discussions of Black achievement and Black pride. Sociologists and policy-makers who attempted to link the life in the ghetto to broader social problems were criticized for holding to "white middle class" social and behavioral norms. This unfortunate turn in the debate squelched hard-headed, liberal proposals--proposals that might have solved the underclass problem--for more than two decades.

Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it, and the multiculturalists and their "coalition for diversity" are waving the same diversionary flag today. As the recent stink over the comments of Professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '57 on affirmative action shows us, multiculturalists reflexively suppress discussion about social and educational policies, such as affirmative action, which are premised on the belief that certain groups in society are educationally and economically disadvantaged. Today's diversity proponents favor more symbolic and emotional demands for "representation" in the student body and in the faculty. Contrary to the liberal vision, which takes very seriously the inequalities that divide American society, these demands for immediate "representation" are premised on the opposite belief that all groups in society are already equal.

Multiculturalists abandon the liberal rationale for affirmative action, which is to help disadvantaged minorities meet established standards on their own, for the radical rationale of diversity, which is to redefine standards in a way that confirms that everyone is equal now. It turns out, ironically, that multiculturalists have less in common with liberals than they do with far-right conservatives: The only difference is that one is culturally egalitarian and the other is culturally elitist. Neither offers a vision of social progress.

2. Supply Versus Demand. In light of recent news, it is almost unbelievable that some still insist that Harvard is not doing enough to attract members of underrepresented minorities. The Admissions Office this year implemented a "second search" specifically for Black candidates. Last month, The New York Times reported that the Admissions Office had extended the application deadline for Black applicants. The demand for Black students at colleges across America is so high, in fact, that institutions are resorting to extremely handsome race-based financial aid packages to lure Black students to their campuses. In other words, America's universities are engaged in a bidding war for Black students.

All this points to a limited supply of minority candidates for college, graduate school, and professorships. The "coalition for diversity" avoids this point in its effort to blame Harvard's atmosphere for discouraging minority students and professors from setting their feet on campus. Granted, perhaps Harvard could be more welcoming toward minorities (though I can't imagine how much more, short of literally rolling out the red carpet). But even Dean Archie Epps has said publicly that Harvard's administration and academic departments can only marginally affect the numbers of minority faculty hired in the near future.

Not only is there a shortage of Black faculty members to recruit, but the number of Blacks earning doctoral degrees has declined substantially in the last ten years, which means that even fewer well-qualified Black faculty members are available to augment Harvard's faculty ranks than before. From 1977 to 1986, the number of Ph.D.'s awarded annually to Black males dropped by more than half, a decline that was only slightly offset by a 15 percent increase in the number of doctorates awarded to Black women. And according to the National Science Foundation, in 1987 Blacks earned only 222, or 1.8 percent, of the 12,480 doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens in graduate science and engineering. The number of Hispanic science doctorates remain similarly low.

To be realistic, minority activists who demand more representation either in the student body or in the faculty should stop ranting about the discrepancy between the proportion of minorities at Harvard and the proportion of minorities at large. They should focus instead on the proportion of minorities represented in the actual pool of qualified applicants for admission and faculty hiring. No one, to date, even asks that such numbers be made public. Let's examine these figures.

Let's replace talk of diversity with talk of disadvantage, moving toward a more sober vision of social progress.

3. Differences Among Minority Groups. One contradiction, never before resolved to my satisfaction, is the ease with which multiculturalists switch between cultural affirmation and the denial of cultural influences. Take the activists' excuses for the overrepresentation of Asian-Americans at Harvard. Whenever someone remarks how well Asians succeed in the educational system, the activists are quick to say that--despite all the statistical evidence--this is only a "model minority" myth.

Asian culture, they insist, has nothing to do with Asian overrepresentation at top colleges. But whenever someon3 notes Blacks' comparative lack of success, the same activists argue that Blacks can't succeed because standardized tests are culturally biased. Culture, somehow, can work against you but never for you, unless you are white.

It might also come as a surprise to know that students of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent are now underrepresented at Harvard. The only two groups that are over represented--and they happen to be extremely overrepresented--are Jewish and Asian students, who comprise about one-fourth and one fifth of the class of 1996, respectively.

Before these activists advocate this step closer to racial quotas, they should know that the Harvard Admissions Office refuses to release the admit rates of Blacks and Hispanics, although they have made public the admit rate for whites (about 17%) and Asians (less than 15%). Both supporters and skeptics of affirmative action have every right to know exactly how much an applicant's skin color matters in the admissions process. I am turned down repeatedly whenever I ask admissions officers here and at other institutions for these percentages. Let's make these numbers public as well.

4. Deconstructing Racism. Finally, let's take a crack at that oppressive monolith of a word, "racism." I will just suggest a first, crucial distinction we can make, which is between contemporary and historical racism. As sociologist Michael Harrington explained in his 1984 book, The New American Poverty, "racism is too easy an explanation" because it implies "that the social and economic disorganization faced by Black Americans was the result of the psychological state of mind of white America, a kind of deliberate--and racist--ill will."

He goes on to suggest that "there is an economic structure of racism that will persist even if every white who hates Blacks goes through a total conversion." If this idea sounds like heresy, it's only because we have bought in so completely to the dogma that racism is the inalienable, indivisible expression of a general will on the part of whites living in the past, today and in the future. The liberal contention that Harrington puts forward is that most of the racial inequality that persists today is not the intentional result of discrimination, but primarily an economic phenomenon, arising from the long history of Black oppression and segregation.

If anything, Harrington's insight that "racism" can be broken down at all gives us hope that there is a liberal alternative to dead-end multiculturalism and its endless harping on "Eurocentrism," minority representation and curricular diversity. The solution begins with deconstructing the very terms that multiculturalists have abused in order to deconstruct practically everything else. It also entails a reordering of our priorities, which should focus on working toward social progress and extending educational and economic opportunities--not cultural leveling and ethnic representation--both outside Harvard and here at Harvard. While affirming different "cultures" and fighting prejudice are important tasks, they are far from the central task at hand, which is promoting real and not just symbolic equality in society. A fixation on ethnic identities is not only stifling, but really symptomatic of the deeper, more urgent material inequalities in America that need to be addressed.

Let's replace talk of diversity with talk of disadvantage, replace representation with opportunity, concentrate more on increasing the supply of qualified minority students and professors rather than bidding up the demand, admit present differences in the educational aptitudes of different groups, and, most importantly, move this whole discussion past racism. Changing our vocabulary is the first step toward a more sober and focused vision of social progress.