The Magazine

Dubious Diversity

The corrupting influence of the Supreme Court's favorite doctrine.

Jul 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 42 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Finally, the diversity rationale contributes to the cultivation of intellectual conformity inside the university, with ripple effects throughout the wider culture. The chief beneficiaries of affirmative action at elite universities come from middle and upper middle class families. It is widely presumed that these beneficiaries will come to class and make points and tell stories about being victims of societal and unconscious discrimination and about the need for government to take aggressive action to combat the nation's pervasive racism.

As it happens, the diagnosis and the prescription are shared by the vast majority of administrators and faculty at elite universities. As a result, the diversity rationale helps to create an echo chamber in the classroom, with minority students reinforcing the opinions of their white professors. The homogeneity of opinion causes everybody's intellectual habits to suffer.

There is a direct line from the widespread embrace of the diversity rationale to the vulgar, if representative, warning about the future of the Supreme Court issued by Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman in the American Prospect in the wake of Bush v. Gore: Ackerman warned that "the president will nominate a right-wing extremist who happens to have a Hispanic surname rather than a black face." The underlying message is the same one that I heard 15 years ago from my Yale Law School classmate: Real Hispanics, like real blacks, are determined not by the color of their skin but by the conformity of their opinions to the left wing of the Democratic party.

Proponents of affirmative action contend that the consequence of its elimination--elite campuses composed almost entirely of whites and Asians--is unthinkable. It's not. Were racial preferences eliminated, and were race-neutral means not found to achieve racial diversity, those minority students no longer able to gain admission to elite schools on the basis of their academic skills would still attend very good schools a rung or so lower in the rankings and would graduate with excellent opportunities--perhaps improved, given that they would have been competing in the classroom against students with similar academic skills--to make their mark in the world.

In view of our nation's cruel history of racial discrimination, the prospect of an almost all white and Asian Harvard or Yale, Swarthmore or Oberlin is certainly unnerving to contemplate. But given our universities' chief and overriding responsibility to promote free inquiry and to foster intellectual integrity, the reality of the diversity rationale for affirmative action--which traffics in stereotypes, rewards hypocrisy, and cultivates intellectual conformity--is difficult to swallow.

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.