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In the National Review, Jay P. Greene and Frederick M. Hess, fellows, respectively, at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, assure their readers that they’re “quite fond of diversity and inclusion, in principle.” They then go on to tar campus DEI “administrative units” as “a profound threat to free inquiry and academic integrity.”
Critics on the left tend to see diversity programs as window dressing that does little to effect meaningful change. As Johnathan Charles Flowers wrote in these pages in the summer of 2020, administrative statements of goodwill and support rang hollow after the murder of George Floyd: The “long tradition of incorporating and supporting ‘diverse’ individuals” with mere words helped administrators to “shield their home institutions from the need to make structural changes.”
How did we get to this impasse around “diversity”? The term’s influence in the discourse grew in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to “affirmative action,” which suggested in part a post-Civil Rights approach to rectifying enduring inequality. However, over time, and perhaps through overuse, “diversity” has become a heavily loaded buzzword whose meaning depends very much on who is using it and how.
The feminist scholar Sara Ahmed points out that the term’s utility derives in part from its positive connotations. Using “diversity” instead of “rectifying racism,” for example, could be a tactic to bypass defensive reactions. As Ahmed puts it, diversity has the potential to be “‘feel good’ politics.”
Richard Thompson Ford, a law professor at Stanford University, echoed that thinking:
While the ideal of diversity has encouraged modest efforts to promote racial integration, the term ‘diversity’ has also become a lazy stand-in for any discussion of the generations of race-based exclusion and exploitation that make race-conscious hiring and college admissions necessary. In this way, ‘diversity’ has encouraged us to ignore and minimize past injustices and distorted our understanding of what justice requires today.
“‘Feel good’ politics” and “modest efforts” may have broadened political support for the concept of diversity and thus benefited a wide range of marginalized groups on campuses over the past couple decades. But that has come at the cost of making diversity objectives and meanings increasingly unclear.
Recent events — and academe’s reaction to them — illustrate the tangle colleges face around diversity. The toothlessness of diversity statements came under attack in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. At the same time, universities hired more Black faculty members and more presidents and chancellors of color than ever before.
On the one hand, a group of Asian Americans formed an alliance with conservative legal strategist Edward Blum to end affirmation action at Harvard University. On the other, a spike in anti-Asian harassment and violence after former President Donald J. Trump’s “China virus” tweet in 2020 led to some universities creating a task force to support Asian and Asian American students and scholars.
These are just the latest configurations of a historical pattern. In my recent book, Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion (New York University Press), I examine how Muslims became included in diversity programs over the last decade or so. After President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” universities issued statements against the travel ban, held townhalls, and offered response services to Muslim students on campus to counter bias incidents.
These instances are textbook “crisis diversity,” an event or series of events that produce a domino effect of responses affirming “diversity” as a core value. The chain reaction begins with an event like the travel ban, which targeted majority-Muslim nations. The public becomes aware of a longstanding problem (Islamophobia). People of the targeted identity group (Muslims and experts on Islam) are called upon to urgently educate the public and advise leaders on how to make changes. Media conglomerates, corporations, universities, and other entities issue statements or embark on new, short-term diversity projects. Then the moment passes, and the longstanding problem is ignored until the next crisis.
How much social change is accomplished through these crisis responses is varied and debatable. What isn’t debatable is that crisis has become the key motivator of diversity programs today.
At many campuses, they are not. The University of California’s Berkeley and Irvine campuses and Fordham University have all penalized student activists for advocating for Palestinian rights. This fall, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UC Berkeley, wrote in the Daily Beast that “all ideas and views are discussed” at the law school — except, apparently, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, which his essay gives short shrift to, seemingly because the university chancellor, Carol Christ, had dismissed it.
Some colleges are less overtly hostile, if no more inclusive.
I’ve watched closely as the administration of my former institution, the University of Michigan, has taken an all-inclusive approach, seeking to appease everyone — what I call a flexible approach to diversity. When Central Student Government at the University of Michigan passed a resolution in 2017 proposing that the university divest its investments in certain companies that hinder Palestinian human rights, the campus Hillel organization and other advocates claimed that such a resolution was anti-Semitic and asked the university to condemn it.
‘Diversity’ has become a kind of vague inclusivity that papers over power differentials.
The Board of Regents flat out condemned it, while university leadership stated that the university’s investment portfolio is designed to yield the largest possible returns and is not about politics — as if political neutrality were possible. University leadership expressed the feel-good platitude that Jewish, Arab, and Muslim students would be supported and that all students have a right to free speech. Despite the university’s promises, student activists for Palestinian rights were smeared as anti-Semitic, subjected to hate and death threats via social media, and left to deal with the repercussions on their own.
These students will remember the extent to which the university conveyed that they mattered. They might not have been penalized, but that’s a far cry from feeling supported, protected, and advocated for.
A similar unfolding took place at Arizona State University last fall, as the New York Times Magazine detailed in an article, “The Safe Space That Became a Viral Nightmare.” The institution created a multicultural lounge to support students of color. However, when a video went viral of two students of color confronting two white students in that space (one of whom had a Police Lives Matter laptop sticker), the students of color faced doxing, rape threats, and death threats. The university tried to stay neutral, then announced that it would investigate the two students of color for possible code-of-conduct violations. The multicultural lounge signaled belonging at the university, but these students faced the most extreme marginalization.
As the examples at Michigan and Arizona State show, universities operating with such “flexible diversity” models are unwilling to take the political stands (and political risks) needed to champion students from disadvantaged and historically marginalized backgrounds. The model is the product of a larger neoliberal trend that paints diversity as a beneficial resource to which all may lay equal claim, unmooring it from unequal distributions of power. Forget about rectifying the legacy of inequality and racial violence, this rationale suggests. Everyone is included, even if everyone is not equally marginalized.
Justice Thomas is right that we need to be clear about what diversity means. Diversity is addressing and rectifying centuries of inequality and exclusion. Diversity is an antiracist project seeking to create structures that include and support historically marginalized groups. It is not a free-for-all divorced from the enduring legacies of white supremacy.
Parts of this essay are adapted from Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion (NYU Press).