DIVERSITY IS GREAT, BUT IT DOESN'T MAKE STUDENTS LEARN BETTER.

We have always known this, and if the Supremes take up racial preferences again soon, we need to start admitting it.

As the Supremes are about to consider taking up yet another racial preferences case – the one about whether Asian applicants are being discriminated against at Harvard in favor of black and brown ones -- we are in for the usual round of endless euphemism.

Wise heads will opine as if what we are talking about is administrators working with a pool of applicants of various races with dossiers of equal grades and test scores, hoping to assemble a class reflecting a rainbow of “diversity” from among them. The rub is supposedly that some doodooheads just think it’s plain “racist” to ever make such decisions with race in mind at all.

We will be led to think – or told to pretend to think – that somebody is opposed to there being too many black kids in a class, that they want whites to retain their “privilege” in admissions, that, well … it’s not always easy to glean just what people are trying to get across. But basically, doodooheads think we should just be color-blind, out of some principle hovering somewhere between naivete and bigotry.

We are to take from this that questioning how racial preferences work renders black applicants “unwelcome.”

Just why anyone would have a problem with racial preferences other than this coded bigotry is left gingerly unstated.

If it is acknowledged that racial preference policies entail admitting black students with a lowered cutoff of grades and test scores (italics deliberate – we will return to this) …

.. then it is implied that the lowering is slight, that admitting black students is a mere matter of putting a “thumb on the scale.”

That’s a lie of long standing. I wonder if there is room for an honest discussion of the issue.

* * *

I do not oppose Affirmative Action. I simply think it should be based on disadvantage, not melanin. It made sense – logical as well as moral – to adjust standards in the wake of the implacable oppression of black people until the mid-1960s.

When Affirmative Action began in the 1960s, largely with black people in mind, the overlap between blackness and disadvantage was so large that the racialized intent of the policy made sense. Most black people lived at or below the poverty line. Being black and middle class was, as one used to term it, “fortunate.” Plus, black people suffered open discrimination regardless of socioeconomic status, in ways for more concrete than microaggressions and things only identifiable via Implicit Association Testing and the like. In a sense, black people were all in the same boat.

Luckily, Affirmative Action worked. By the 1980s, it was no longer unusual or “fortunate” to be black and middle class. I would argue that by that time, it was time to reevaluate the idea that anyone black should be admitted to schools with lowered standards. I think Affirmative Action today should be robustly practiced -- but on the basis of socioeconomics.

A common objection is that this would help too many poor whites (as if that’s a bad thing?). But actually, brilliant and non-partisan persons have argued that basing preferences on socioeconomics would actually bring numbers of black people into the net that almost anyone would be satisfied with.

I’m no odd duck on my sense that Affirmative Action being about race had passed its sell-by date after about a generation. At this very time, it had become clear, to anyone really looking, that the black people benefitting from Affirmative Action were no longer mostly poor – as well as that simply plopping truly poor black people into college who had gone to awful schools had tended not to work out anyway. It was no accident that in 1978 came the Bakke decision, where Justice Lewis Powell inaugurated the new idea that Affirmative Action would serve to foster “diversity,” the idea being that diversity in the classroom made for better learning.

I highly suspect that most people have always had to make a slight mental adjustment to get comfortable with this idea, as standard as it now is in enlightened discussion. Do students in classes with a certain mixture of races learn better? Really? Not that there might not be benefits to students of different races being together for other reasons. But does diversity make for better learning? Has that been proven?

As you might expect, it has not – and in fact the idea has been disproven, again and again. No one will tell you this when the next round of opining on racial preferences comes about. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

* * *

Now, of course, diversity in a classroom has certain advantages. Depending on the subject, it can enhance the quality of discussion. At Columbia I have taught our Core Curriculum class on philosophy and political science, required of all sophomores. I would dread teaching a version of this intense, two-semester class with 23 white kids from Scarsdale – without the mix of races and even classes, all of us would learn less from one another.

But this alone does not decide the diversity issue. As almost anyone quietly thinks when hearing about things like this, what about, well, most other classes? Justice John Roberts has asked how diversity would improve discussion in a class on physics. This is not an obnoxious question; it’s a valid and urgent one. I am unaware of how diversity affects kids learning Spanish irregular verbs or about systolic pressure or about – let’s face it – most of what school is. Most of what school is.

Of late, we hear that when standards are “adjusted” to be more “holistic” (ahem) to get more black law students editing law schools’ law review journals, the journals’ articles are cited more widely – i.e. that diversity among the editors creates a better publication. This is a weird result but we must accept it – while still asking whether even this justifies basing Affirmative Action on “diversity” overall. Law review editorship is but one thing. How will diversity enhance learning how to do differential quotients or mastering the mechanics of immunology?

Our question is whether diversity is important enough, to enough classes, to justify lowering standards for black kids. To never really ask that question is terribly, terribly fake, and is much of why the nation never comes to any real conclusion about Affirmative Action despite endless starry-eyed perorations about diversity.

And it won’t do to pretend that standards are not lowered, and far beyond a mere “thumb on the scale.” Beyond the Ivies and a few other tippy-top schools (although now, witness the news from Harvard), the reality has been demonstrated so often and so conclusively that I will not take up space here enumerating the cases, which have included UC Berkeley, the University of Texas, the University of Georgia, Rutgers University, and the University of Michigan. The significantly altered standards are fact, pure and simple. The question is whether they are justified by the diversity rationale.

* * *

People have actually studied the issue. The results have been quite different from what we are led to think (or not to).

Students themselves do not seem to find diversity terribly important to their classroom experience. Minority graduates of the University of Michigan law school from 1970 to 1996 were surveyed as to what aspects of their education they most valued. Of the seven aspects given as choices, “ethnic diversity of classmates” was at the bottom. Mitchell J. Chang examined whether diversity affected GPA, social self-image, intellectual self-image, likelihood of graduating, general satisfaction, whether one talked about race, and whether one spent time with people of different races. Surprise – only the last two mattered. The first five are the kind of thing diversity is supposedly so good for – but this study showed that they apparently aren’t. Stanley Rothman, Seymour Lipset and Neil Nevitte showed that on 140 campuses, the more diversity there was, the less satisfied students were with their college experience.

So maybe the idea is that these students are just naïve, or closet racists, or closet self-haters if black, and we must impose diversity upon them as a kind of medicine because it makes them learn better? But the thing is, it does not seem to. Alexander Astin compared degree of racial diversity with grades, test scores, graduation rates and admission to graduate programs at 184 schools. Diversity had no effect on these things.

Or, remember when the University of Michigan was on the griddle about racial preferences for undergraduates and in its law school twenty years ago? You might recall a certain “Gurin Report” that supposedly proved that diversity enhances learning. There was an Amen chord on the soundtrack whenever this Gurin Report was brought up. But did you ever actually read the thing? It was, frankly, a joke.

It asked students whether they exhibited 11 traits which, in fact, no sentient member of human society would disavow having -- such as whether they thought about the influence of society on other people, whether they thought they had a greater desire to achieve than the average person their age, etc. Patricia Gurin scored positive answers as evidence that “diversity” had made the subjects “better students.”

The National Association of Scholars rightly answered:

Nowhere in society – not in graduate school admissions, college rankings, job recruitment – do we measure a student’s academic success by asking him how much he personally values artistic works or whether he enjoys guessing the reason for people’s behavor. Very few parents would be likely to accept a transcript that reported not grades but their child’s self-rating of his abilities and drive to achieve.

And finally, black undergrads regularly bridle at the idea that they are on campus to be “diverse.” I recall a good line in an undergrad-penned Black Guide to Life at Harvard a generation ago -- “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world.” Yes, that was a while ago, but black students’ feelings about this have not changed about who we might now call Chloe and Jacob.

* * *

So, to review – I favor adjusting standards in acknowledgment of (i.e. “Affirming” my awareness of) disadvantage. However, I think it is obsolete to adjust standards for middle-class and affluent black kids. It made sense for about twenty years but it was a strategy that should have been applied like chemotherapy, which does massive harm amidst what it does right. Open-ended preferences on the basis of skin color are condescending. (And yes, even amidst the lingering of systemic racist inequities.) They make it less urgent for those kids to master getting the tippy-top grades and scores other kids do, because they don’t have to. They will always seem unfair to white and Asian onlookers no matter how crafty the justifications are (How do I know this? From the fact that it’s been that way for 40 years. What better arguments are there going to be?).

It happens nationwide every spring. The white seniors start getting acceptances from a few of the top universities they applied to; their black friends are ardently courted by all of the ones they applied to. That’s been standard now for decades, and it’s time to stop blinking a little and looking off into the distance about it and mumbling that it’s “complicated,” or mouthing that it’s okay because middle class and affluent black kids are valuable in how “diverse” they are.

“Diversity” has become one of those magic words. When the Harvard case comes up, we will watch endless people in business clothes talking about the value of diversity, with the word hitting our brain in the same way with the same narcotic warmth as blueberry muffin, love, and Hill Street Blues. But the reality is that there is no self-standing argument that diversity makes people learn better – just as most of us have always suspected. Diversity matters some – such that it should be considered when assembling a class from among cohorts with truly equal qualifications. But as a rationale for lowering standards for black and Latino kids, it’s time to let it go.

If the Supremes reject the diversity argument this time, the good-thinking response will be that they are rejecting black people. But know that this will be based on the pretense that fostering diversity has only been a matter of a thumb on the scale. Or, wait -- a novel variation among the hipper writers will be that they are rejecting “blackness.” As if to submit grades and test scores equal to whites is, for black students, beside the point, inauthentic (too precise, on time, exact, I guess). On that, my readers may know that I have done some posts here about that notion.

Incidentally, on almost any race issue that faces us today, there is a book or two that almost no one on the “good-thinking” side ever acknowledges, that never really gets around because it goes against the gospel. On black teens thinking of school as “white,” something very real that most black journalists indignantly dismiss as a myth, that book is this one. On the diversity rationale, it is impossible to read this one by Larry Purdy and come away maintaining the idea that diversity is a sacrosanct justification for racial preferences.