The ambiguous term “diversity” is de rigueur at college admissions offices around the country. On the Stanford admissions FAQ page, a response to whether Stanford practices affirmative action cryptically opens with the statement, “Stanford has a strong commitment to admitting and enrolling a student body that is both highly qualified and diverse.” The response never mentions race explicitly.
This emphasis on diversity is not indefensible. It is important for colleges to admit a diverse student body that reflects the heterogeneity of American society. A diversity of opinions, worldviews, and yes — even complexions — can benefit students. There are also practical reasons for colleges to practice affirmative action. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in 2003, colleges and universities “represent the training ground for…our Nation’s leaders”. Accordingly, these leaders must have legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenry in order to lead effectively. Surely a racially diverse elite can govern more effectively than an elite dominated by one racial group. The recent unrest in Ferguson, MO — which demonstrated the crisis of legitimacy in Ferguson engendered by the racial incongruity between the police force and citizenry — poignantly illustrates Justice O’Connor’s rationale.
The unrest in Ferguson demonstrates, among other things, the pressing need for all facets of American society to diversify and integrate. Indeed, affirmative action was originally instituted to achieve the goal of spawning representative institutions. But affirmative action, as it is currently practiced in university admissions, produces a student body that only ostensibly reflects the racial makeup of American society, and certainly does not reflect the dire economic condition of many minority citizens.
Under the guise of “diversity” and the obscure blanket of “holistic” admissions, officers siphon a narrow and unrepresentative set of the minority population, all while unabashedly congratulating themselves for achieving a “diverse” freshman class.
Consider that a sizable number of minority students on modern elite university campuses are the children upper-middle class parents. According to one study, close to 90% of African Americans on selective campuses come from these households. These students should of course aspire to an elite education. After all, well-to-do Americans of any color are as deserving of a college education as Americans with more underprivileged backgrounds. But there is no reason for these students to receive — nor accept — significant boosts to their applications because of their race. In the zero-sum game of college admissions, it is unjust to grant, not just a small boost, but unconscionably large preferences to students who would be considered privileged had they been white or Asian.
Even more disconcerting is the way in which, when speaking about their diversity programs, universities dissemble the inspiring narrative of underprivileged overcomers as if most of their beneficiaries fit that bill. This opens the door for their murky deployment of racial preferences as a purportedly sufficient proxy for disadvantage.
Now, if colleges are claiming to use racial preferences as a corrective, to compensate for the economic disadvantages faced by black and Hispanic students, then the preferences given to upper-middle class students are most likely a generation too late. But as far as most universities’ public relations and fundraising offices are concerned, it does not matter; the perception of disadvantage is more important than its reality. As a result, many universities are becoming increasingly aristocratic, composed of high-income students of all races.
Much less discussed, yet also obscured in the rhetoric of diversity is the unwarranted and large preference granted to children of recent immigrants under the current affirmative action regime. Children of Caribbean and African immigrants constitute about 25 percent of the black student body on modern selective campuses — and more than 40 percent in the Ivy league — despite only making up 13 percent of America’s black population.
The presence of these students undoubtedly enhances the diversity of perspectives and opinions in and outside the classroom. Moreover, the sacrifices that their parents have made and the political, racial, or economic persecution they have had to overcome in the process of immigrating to the United States should certainly be consummated through their children’s successful educational and professional attainment. But it does not follow that they be granted any special preferences not afforded to other recent immigrants, including Asian Americans.
At best, universities could make the plausible case that by admitting a disproportionate number of students from African immigrant families they are redressing injustices many immigrants suffered in their former countries — but this is a problem affirmative action was not intended to rectify. At worst, universities are perpetuating the injustice they purport to be redressing by discriminating against non-minorities on the basis of their race without doing enough to help black Americans whose families suffered under slavery and Jim Crow.
Universities have shrewdly exploited an American public and student body, which are too busy to notice the nuances in their admissions practices, and they have deceived their beneficiaries who are too comfortable to speak up against the shoddy, cosmetic diversity on their campuses.
There is no denying the importance of diversity for American institutions in general, and colleges and universities in particular. But we must demand a diversity that is both racially and economically representative of our communities.