The Rise of Diversity in Campus Culture

One of the extraordinary phenomena in campus culture in the last two decades is the rise of “diversity” as a concept, condition, banner, and ambition.  How is it that “diversity” went from being a routine term with no particular cachet into the notion/term of the moment.  It appears everywhere from my son’s kindergarten classroom wall (“CELEBRATE DIVERSITY”) to high-level administrative office doors at universities everywhere. 

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy has an explanation in The American Prospect in an essay entitled “The Enduring Relevance of Affirmative Action.”  Kennedy begins by recounting the numerous challenges to and the rising unpopularity of affirmative action in the 1980s and 90s, then asserts that the tide has shifted.  People who don’t profit directly by affirmative action practices aren’t so angry about race-based practices any more, Kennedy writes, and for one reason major reason: “The amorphous and malleable idea of ‘diversity.’”  While few private businesses wanted to defend “reverse racism,” Kennedy says, he recalls ”the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative-action cases when 65 major companies, including American Express, Coca Cola, and Microsoft, asserted that maintaining racial diversity in institutions of higher education is vital to their efforts to hire and maintain a diverse workforce.”

That illustrates how “diversity” transformed what had appeared to be a punitive or reparation-like process into a positive and productive and forward-looking one.

“The rise of the diversity rationale for affirmative action has not been costless, but it has ensured that appreciable numbers of racial minorities are in strategic positions, while dampening certain side effects that attend any regime of racial selectivity. Unlike affirmative action based on grounds of compensatory justice, the diversity rationale is non-accusatory. It doesn’t depend on an assumption of culpability for some past or present wrong, and it minimizes the anger ignited when whites are accused of being beneficiaries of racial privilege. Everyone can be a part of diversity.

“Many are drawn to the diversity rationale because it frames affirmative action not as special aid for designated groups but as a way of producing better services and products. Businesspeople love to say that ‘diversity is good for the bottom line.’ Many of them would be ideologically allergic to a business practice based solely on notions of justice or altruism but comfortable supporting a program that can be seen as reinforcing the principal mission of their enterprises.

“The diversity rationale also facilitates the evasion of prickly subjects—for instance, the fact that racial minorities selected for valued positions sometimes have records that, according to certain criteria such as standardized tests, are inferior to those of white competitors. The diversity rationale moves the spotlight from the perceived deficiencies of racial minorities to their perceived strengths. Unlike other justifications for affirmative action that seek to make exceptions to meritocracy, the diversity rationale is consistent with meritocratic premises. This is the most striking and historically significant aspect of affirmative action: It enables racial-minority status for the first time in American history to be seen as a valuable credential. Instead of the presence of blacks and other racial minorities constituting an expiation of past sins, the diversity rationale makes their presence a welcome and positive good.”

Precisely.  When you talk about “diversity,” you don’t sound resentful, grievance-oriented, or paternalistic.  No identity politics needed.  It agrees with old American virtues of effectiveness and pragmatism, too.  The evidence that a racially diverse classroom produces better outcomes is shaky, to be sure, but even if “diversity” signals only a rhetorical shift, it worked, and it will continue to work for a long time.


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