The Magazine

The Diversity Kit and Caboodle

The latest in cynical, ideological scholarship.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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In 1999, Mitchell Chang, a UCLA researcher, administered the Modern Racism Scale to students in diversity courses at a public university in the northeast. This test, a set of seven questions used since the 1980s, purports to "read" attitudes the respondents would prefer to conceal. (Item number 3, for example, is: "Blacks are getting too demanding in their push for equal rights." Respondents state whether they strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat agree, or strongly agree.) Researchers concluded that "diversity course requirements are good vehicles for shaping students' racial views."

In 2002, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard published a survey of eleventh graders in an integrated Massachusetts school district. Using a Diversity Assessment Questionnaire they had developed, researchers tabulated students' racial attitudes and ambitions. (Sample question: "How comfortable would you be with a work supervisor who was of a different racial or ethnic background than you are?") They found that most kids were content around each other, and 89 percent felt prepared to work with people of different races. One worrisome result surfaced, though: White students expressed less interest than others in mingling with minorities as adults.

Those troublesome whites. . . . In a section of the Harvard study headed "Academic Support," white students reported receiving from teachers and counselors the least encouragement to attend college and the least information about college admissions of any group. Nevertheless, it is a cardinal tenet of diversity thinking that it is whites who benefit most from the preferences given to racial minorities. (Asians rarely figure in the discussions.)

The argument is that "majority students who have previously lacked significant direct exposure to minorities frequently have the most to gain from interaction with individuals of other races," as researcher Jonathan Alger put it in an essay entitled "The Educational Value of Diversity." Specifically, DR starts from the assumption that the white point of view is impoverished because it is not informed by the experience of oppression. Only rarely does DR explore how minority students profit from contact with whites. Indeed, diversity researchers maintain that while whites need interracial contact, blacks need both interracial contact and protective immersion in their own race.

One recent study by two professors of education at Stanford University, Anthony Lising Antonio and Kenji Hakuta, shows DR pushing the scrutiny of whites to Orwellian lengths. Researchers recruited 357 white students at Stanford, UCLA, and Maryland and broke them into groups of three. Each trio was assigned a "collaborator," who was either black or white. The subjects composed a short essay on child labor or capital punishment. The collaborator asked students to summarize their views and led a brief discussion. After that, the participants wrote another essay on the same issue. The papers were collected and students wrote a third essay on the other topic. Investigators rated the essays for Integrative Complexity (IC), defined as the capacity to differentiate and integrate two or more perspectives (purportedly a feature of higher thinking). The result: Groups with a black collaborator displayed greater IC in their essays. Researchers concluded that exchange with black interlocutors deepens white students' thinking. Which was of course the goal.

Along the way, however, this sort of intrusive race vigilance flouts the humane premises of civil rights. To single out one race for enlightenment by another race is, some would say, a perversion of liberal education. DR poses as scientific inquiry, and promises educational improvement, but the data actually reveal a good deal less. If students subjected to diversity training acknowledge that their perspectives have, well, diversified, who's to say they are demonstrating a "learning outcome" and not mere conformity?

It should come as no surprise that students respond as desired. Having had speech codes and sensitivity training foisted on them over the years, they mistrust promises of anonymity. They've learned to play the game and move on. Quick to detect which answers will be praised as proof of learning gains, they suspend conscience and provide them. Diversity researchers take the results, package them as science, and parade them in courts of law. But this is an ideological enterprise, at once utopian and cynical, that, regrettably, will continue while money is plentiful and the students go along.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.