Diversity on campus: Does it have a future?

Story highlights

  • John McWhorter: Diversity is under threat on campus, from exactly the students cherished for their diversity by admissions committees
  • He says affirmative action must be preserved, on basis of economics, not race and ethnicity

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Diversity is under threat on college campuses across the land -- from exactly the students cherished for their diversity by admissions committees.

Let us recall that for almost 40 years now, diversity has been the gold standard defense of racial preferences. Racial diversity is said to enhance the classroom (and general social) experience by exposing other students to views purportedly most likely to come from people of color.
John McWhorter
Yet it is too little remarked that much of what we hear from black students -- and not only amidst the protests of late but often over decades past as well -- flies directly in the face of the whole diversity argument that university administrators propound so ardently.

    Safe spaces

    For example, at Oberlin, student protesters are demanding not just one but several "safe spaces" for "Africana-identifying" students. It's fair to assume that white students would not be allowed in these spaces, given that the rationale is that here is where black students could catch their breath after the endless sallies of racism that the school's students and environment force upon them daily.
    Aside from the obvious problems with this plan, note that students barricading themselves in this way would have pointedly little interest in sharing their experiences as "diverse" people with their fellow white students. Even those who would consider this self-segregation justified will admit that these students are giving a thumbs down to the idea that they are valuable on campus as "diverse" lessons for others.
    Or, in this recent opinion piece in The New York Times, a black physicist tells us that the presence of students of color in university classrooms should not require justification on the basis of the color of their skins.
    Now, it's unclear what new strategy she is proposing to ensure a representative number of such students on a campus if they are not singled out for their "diversity." Be that as it may, here is one more person of color arguing against the admissions rationale considered so inviolable in discussions of affirmative action since Justice Lewis Powell created the "diversity" argument (rather briefly) in the Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke decision in 1978.
    Finally, for all the appeal of the notion of black students earnestly teaching white students the view from beyond the affluent suburbs, black students quite often don't like being expected to take on that role.
    I have lost count of how many times a black student has told me, in question sessions after talks on race I have given, that being required to attest to the "black" view of things is, of all things, one way that college campuses are racist (!). Here is an articulate expression of this kind of complaint, very much commonplace since the '80s. And truth to tell, how many of us would enjoy being singled out in any setting, all eyes upon us, as the one assumed to have intellectually valuable counsel?
    Once again, the writer above likely isn't aware that his declaration stands as a rebuke to a justification that likely played an important part in his evaluation for admission. However, it stands as a rebuke indeed.
    Jonathan Butler (c), a University of Missouri grad student who did a 7-day hunger strike listens during a forum in November after the resignation of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe.

    Providing diversity lessons?

    One might claim that students can teach white ones about their "diversity" in other ways, but prospects for that look glum from further reports one often hears.
    Black students don't like being asked questions about where they are "from," about their hair care regimens, or being approached in general as if they belong to a distinct clan of persons, as we have learned from discussions of microaggression over the past few years. OK -- but it's unclear what space is left for these students providing diversity lessons for others.
    So: There is the verdict from the very people singled out for their "diversity" by admissions committees. We might add that it's hard to see how diverse viewpoints relate to not just some, but most, of what a college curriculum consists of. The black view of French irregular verbs? Systolic pressure? The usual counterargument here is that white students will benefit from the simple fact of interacting with colleagues of color -- in, say, a lab -- as preparation for interacting with people of color in the work world. On that one, I often wonder just what it is about black people that white students are to learn to watch out for.

    A different kind of affirmative action

    All this is clearly a mess. Now, one solution is to sigh that it's "complicated" and change the subject. But that's a cop-out we've been settling for for decades, and it's clear that it gets none of us anywhere. We settle for this cop-out nonetheless out of fear that actually taking the issue by the horns will mean turning our backs on seeking social justice. But it doesn't.
    Rather, the facts on the ground -- as opposed to in colleges' multiracial publicity photos on websites and brochure covers -- can be taken as support for the growing movement to base admissions preferences at universities on socioeconomics.
    The originators of affirmative action policies would find this a familiar and compelling approach, given that until the Bakke decision, the whole policy was founded on a quest for reparation, making up for historic discrimination against black people.
    In an America where it is becoming increasingly difficult to see poverty, the "underclass," and historic disadvantage as having solely a black face, restoring affirmative action as an anti-poverty policy is progressive.
    Some assail this approach as cluelessly "race-blind," but they're wrong. Fears that hardship-based affirmative action would mean black and Latino students being all but eliminated on college campuses in favor of working-class whites are overblown, as is clear from rigorous treatments such as this one. Rather, letting go of the ever-fragile diversity rationale would, while leaving college campuses with healthy populations of black and Latino students, finally let us exhale.
    To wit: no more pretending there is a black take on Jane Austen or differential quotients, or that white students having black students in their classes about these things will teach them something useful for when they meet black colleagues at the law firm they work for after graduation. No more singling out black kids to talk about "the" black experience. No more skirting by the inconvenient fact that an affluent black student is rather insignificantly "diverse" compared to a white one who grew up with one parent in a trailer park.
    In a nutshell, quite a few "diverse" students are -- whether unwittingly or not -- opposed to a key rationale for their recruitment and admission, and the whole diversity rationale has always been extremely fragile anyway.
    Affirmative action must be preserved, but what we need to affirm in the 21st century is disadvantage. There are those who will insist that such a view is conservative -- yet it is them who will seem backward in the future.