The duality of diversity

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Diversity is an idea at war with itself.

On one hand, it calls for Americans to see ourselves as one large multicultural community that happily celebrates its numerous parts. On the other hand, it fosters group grievances and bitter resentments. Diversity is both kumbaya and Black Lives Matter.

We are 37 years and four months into the era of “diversity” as a master political concept. The word in its current meaning traces to June 20, 1978, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell issued his opinion in Bakke v. The University of California. The Court majority ruled that Alan Bakke, an applicant to medical school who was white, had been improperly denied admission because of his race. Bakke had been a victim of what at the time was called “reverse discrimination,” because his spot in the medical school was taken by a less-qualified black applicant.

But Justice Powell didn’t want to leave it at that. He penned some additional remarks of his own that none of the other justices at the time accepted. Powell said that he would have voted in favor of the University if it had argued that the less-qualified black applicant would bring the advantages of viewpoint diversity to the medical school classroom. The trouble, in Powell’s view, was not racial discrimination itself but the official rationale for discriminating.

Decades of familiarity with the idea make it hard for Americans today to see how odd Powell’s notion of “diversity” really was. It didn’t please liberals on the Court or in the press, who wanted racial preferences as straight-out compensation for past racial injustice. It didn’t please conservatives who wanted a straight-out end to the government distributing favors by race.

Moreover, Powell’s idea of “diversity” required radical stereotyping. A single black student in a college classroom would be responsible for providing the “black” point of view. And the supposed benefit of “diversity” was not the opening of an educational opportunity for the black student, but the cultural enrichment of the class for all the other students who would benefit from the addition of that black viewpoint.

For a while, Powell’s brainchild was an orphan. Alan Bakke got into medical school and went on to have a distinguished career as an anesthesiologist. But within a few years, colleges and universities, fearful that the Supreme Court would further trim their use of racial preferences in selecting students, began to experiment with the “diversity” rationale. Some years ago, in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, I traced how the idea grew in 15 years from Powell’s eccentric opinion to mainstream popularity.

Eventually, the Supreme Court itself came round. In 2002, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor penned an opinion in Grutter v. University of Michigan which gave the “diversity” doctrine a seal of approval by a Court majority.

O’Connor’s long-delayed endorsement of Powell’s idea was a crucial step to making “diversity” such a pivotal political term today. But it is important to draw a distinction. What “diversity” means to the general public is worlds away from what the Supreme Court means. The Court gave the word legal authority, but the public gives it political force. For the Court, “diversity” is a special exception to the rule of “strict scrutiny” that sets up high barriers to the government handing out favors by race.

“Diversity” provides a special permission slip for colleges and universities to use racial preferences in their admissions policies, provided the preferences are suitably disguised as part of a well-rounded assessment of the individual candidate. The Court said no, for example, to quotas and to an outright award of admissions points for belonging to a racial minority.

For the public, however, “diversity” means any and every policy that increases the presence of minority groups in contexts where they would otherwise be “underrepresented.” This means we worry about diversity in the symphony orchestra, but not in the NBA. We look for policy solutions for minority enrollment in STEM fields, but not in social work. “Diversity” has likewise leaped beyond its original racial bounds, so that we now worry about sexual minorities, the handicapped, illegal immigrants — indeed any category that can present a plausible narrative of past or present oppression.

Which brings us back to the double-sidedness of the idea. Diversity is now about compensatory privilege based on claims that American society has to make up for the profound wrongs of the past and their continuing shadow over the present. In that sense, it is an aggressive doctrine with a hard cutting edge.

Many Americans reject the idea that they are responsible for slavery, Jim Crow, rough treatment of immigrants, discrimination against gays, or other acts of oppression. They also bridle at the notion of “collective” rights—that someone who identifies with a victim group should magically be awarded privileges that others are denied.

The number of us who reject the demands made in the name of diversity has grown large—large enough to have become a significant factor in American politics. The turmoil in the Republican race for the presidential nomination and the Speaker of the House testify to this emerging factor. “Diversity” as a code word for a lenient approach to existing illegal immigrants and a relaxed attitude towards border enforcement is one expression of this new battlefront. Concern about slackening law enforcement in the cities as a result of post-Ferguson protests over racially disparate arrest rates is another.

“Diversity,” in other words, has recently shifted from soft appeals to hard political demands, and the shift has crystallized an opposition that rejects the demands and is having second thoughts about the soft appeals too. If trying to get along with one’s neighbors brings only accusations and threats, why bother?

“Diversity” isn’t the only front in our nation’s growing cultural polarization, but it is one of the keys to identity politics. In recent years, politicians who have stoked group resentments gained some tactical advantages in the polling booths, but they also laid the groundwork for a populist majoritarian revolt.

“Diversity” turns out to be a far more disruptive concept than Justices Powell and O’Connor — both Republican appointees — ever dreamed.

Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars and the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept from Encounter Books.