Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 2003 / 10 Shevat, 5763

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

The fig leaf of 'diversity' | As a justification for racial preferences, "diversity" is one of the great fig leaves of modern American academia. It first appeared in 1978 -- well after affirmative action had degenerated into the practice of admitting students on the basis of color. That was the year of the Supreme Court's Bakke decision, in which Justice Lewis Powell cast the decisive fifth vote to strike down the University of California's racial quotas -- but then turned around and said that a university could take race into account in order to ensure a "diverse student body." Racial preferences that were clearly unconstitutional at the front door, in other words, might be able to sneak in by going around to the back.

Powell thought he was authorizing the use of race only as one of numerous factors that an admissions committee might take into account. Inevitably, though, it became in many cases the deciding factor. Today, universities routinely treat applicants differently on the basis of skin color, admitting black (and often Hispanic) students with significantly lower test scores and grade point averages than their white and Asian counterparts. And the excuse for all this systematic racial discrimination is "diversity."

Now the issue is back before the Supreme Court, which will soon hear arguments in a pair of cases challenging the University of Michigan's use of racial preferences. The justices will be asked to decide, in effect, whether Powell was right: Is the goal of diversity enough of a "compelling interest" to override the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment?

Certainly most Americans don't think so. In a nationwide poll reported last year in The Washington Post, respondents overwhelmingly opposed racial preferences. That view cut across all groups: 86 percent of blacks, 94 percent of whites, 88 percent of Hispanics, and 84 percent of Asians agreed that college admissions (as well as hiring and contracting) "should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race or ethnicity."

Americans have internalized Martin Luther King's foremost teaching -- that human beings should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. They understand that real diversity encompasses "points of view, backgrounds, and experiences," as Powell put it in Bakke. They know that race is no proxy for those qualities, and that a state university that claims otherwise engages in just the kind of racial stereotyping that the 14th Amendment condemns.

And yet the defenders of racial preferences insist that mere racial diversity enhances college life. It has "positive effects on civic and social attitudes, tolerance, even analytic skills," writes Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and a leading advocate of the existing race-based system. But one could just as easily argue that the absence of racial diversity enhances college life. That is one of the attractions, after all, of historically black colleges like Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman.

A generation after Bakke, it takes a real effort of will not to notice how the "diversity" regime has brought about the very opposite of interracial harmony and understanding. "Diverse" college campuses are among the most racially balkanized places in America, observes John McWhorter, the acclaimed black linguist and essayist, in his new book, Authentically Black (Gotham). "Separate black fraternities and sororities thrive," he writes, and "the modern black fraternity has not the slightest interest in admitting white pledges."

Many universities offer separate black orientations, separate black graduations, and courses in African-American studies that routinely "double as exercises in fostering hatred of The White Man," McWhorter says. All fit into "a general atmosphere where black students are tacitly taught that black 'authenticity' means hunkering down behind a barricade. . . . Black students typically cluster in their own section of dining halls, throw their own parties, often have their own theme houses, and are in general ushered into a separatist ideology that they often did not have when they came to campus."

And this is of such compelling importance that it should trump the Constitution?

A double standard in admissions -- one for whites and Asians, a much lower one for blacks and Hispanics -- is no way to foster respect and tolerance. It victimizes those who apply to college and get rejected in favor of less qualified applicants. It feeds the belief that black students are not as bright as everyone else on campus. It fosters hypocrisy on the part of college officials. It undermines black achievement by conditioning black students to think that they can enjoy the fruits of excellence without doing excellent work. It is, in the end, institutionalized condescension, and the longer it persists, the more lasting harm it does.

The phony "diversity" of the racial bean-counters is corrosive and dishonest. It stigmatizes its supposed beneficiaries and sends the ugly message that what matters most about us is the color of our skin. If anything is an affront to the Constitution and to human dignity, race quotas and preferences are. The Supreme Court cannot say so soon enough.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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