Most observers expect that later this year the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that race-conscious admissions programs at universities are unlawful. A ruling of this kind has the potential to clarify the tangled jurisprudence regarding affirmative action in higher education. It also has the potential to begin to reduce the concern and confusion about diversity besetting American institutions. In oral arguments last fall, Justice Clarence Thomas observed that he had heard the word “diversity” used many times, but he did not have a clue what it meant. Thomas is not alone. It often obfuscates more than it clarifies. Some of this is intentional, but much is the result of confusion about the nature of diversity itself.
The intentional confusion arises from U.S. racial history. Before Justice Lewis Powell Jr.’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, diversity played no role in policies to achieve racial justice in the United States. Powell latched on to diversity as a means of preserving a form of affirmative action without expressly permitting discrimination based on race. He concluded that the university could not use quotas to determine the number of Black students at UC Davis’ medical school, but it could use race as one of several factors to increase the diversity of its student body. Instead of remedying discrimination, the university just needed to promote intellectual enrichment.
As a result, diversity became the only permissible justification for a university — and by implication, other institutions — to make amends for the results of the United States’ legacy of discrimination against Blacks. According to his clerk at the time, Powell’s appeal to diversity was a deliberate effort to preserve racial discrimination despite precedents that explicitly forbade it. In other words, it was an obfuscation to permit racial discrimination for the purpose of making amends for the nation’s past sins, a ruse that has resulted in an almost Orwellian distortion of the meaning of diversity. What Powell was attempting to do was not to promote diversity, but to hide an effort to address racial harm.
Yet, diversity should not be regarded as an end in itself. No doubt in part because of the racial history of the term, we tend to conflate diversity with goodness or justice. A diverse student body is thought to be a good student body, the result of just policy. Likewise, a diverse workforce is thought to be a good workforce. The website for Yale University proclaims, “A diverse faculty is an excellent faculty.” But diversity proper is always pursued for the sake of some other end, whether goods such as beauty, goodness, and truth, or virtues such as prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love. Whether diversity is good or bad depends on the nature of its end and its effectiveness in furthering it.
This understanding of diversity was implicit in Powell’s opinion in Bakke and subsequent cases, but it is often overlooked in the general culture. Universities regarded diversity as a means of creating an intellectually rich environment for students. The belief that a racially diverse student body is necessary for a university has been traced to a 1957 book, The Open Universities in South Africa. It argued that racial diversity was “essential to the ideal of a university in a multi-racial society” because this diversity “contributes to the discovery of truth, for the truth is hammered out in discussion, in the clash of ideas.” In this way, universities presented racial diversity as part of academic freedom.
To be clear, diversity was not regarded as a good in itself. Rather, the good for the sake of which it was to be pursued was academic freedom and the discovery of truth. Of course, with apartheid in South Africa in 1957, multiracial diversity was likely to play a much different role in the discovery of truth than it would in the United States when Bakke was decided in 1978, and certainly in 2023 when the pending diversity cases are to be decided. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor admitted the importance of this context when she noted in the 2003 decision of Grutter v. Bollinger, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”
Since the Bakke decision, diversity has become the focus of much anxiety about the United States’ racial past. This anxiety is the force that has made calls for diversity almost synonymous with calls for justice in so much of American culture. By itself, overruling Bakke will neither eliminate this anxiety nor significantly diminish the pursuit of diversity, but it does offer the opportunity to distinguish between the pursuit of racial justice and the pursuit of diversity. The pursuit of justice means attempting to give each what he or she is due, which requires understanding and respecting others’ rights. In the context of a university or workplace, this would mean, among other things, evaluating others on the basis of some understanding of merit, not their race.
By contrast, the pursuit of diversity is an attempt to cultivate differences within a group in pursuit of some other end. This end might be the pursuit of truth in the case of the university or effectiveness in the case of the workplace. The two are not coterminous. The diverse workplace is not necessarily a just workplace, nor is a just workplace necessarily a diverse one. Separating the pursuit of diversity from the pursuit of racial justice should make it possible to focus on racial discrimination and its remedies, rather than just counting noses of different colors in our institutions.
This will mean a greater emphasis on precisely which institutions have historically engaged in this discrimination, the extent of the lasting effects of that discrimination, and the steps that can now be taken to address it. It will require judgments about the burdens those of us living today should bear for the acts of those long gone. It will also require these institutions to become clearer about the criteria for determining how discrimination can be remedied.
Implicit in much of the discussion today is the view that certain levels of diversity mean that justice has been achieved within a community. Severing the link between diversity and justice will require a more explicit focus on justice, that is, what the members of a community owe one another. These are difficult questions that will require careful consideration of empirical data and much practical wisdom. But once the distractions of diversity have been cleared, this is where our attention should be fixed.
Even once diversity has been separated from racial justice, it will still be sought after. In a democratic, pluralistic society like the United States, diversity of certain kinds will still be desirable, and a lack of diversity will continue to raise questions about whether discrimination has occurred. But diminishing diversity’s moral overtones should make it possible for leaders to become more discerning about the purposes for which diversity should be pursued and what kinds and amounts of diversity are likely to further those purposes. For example, if the purpose of diversity in higher education is to promote the discovery of truth, it is questionable whether diversity measured in terms of race and ethnicity is valuable.
At one time, racial and ethnic diversity might have seemed a good proxy for a diversity of viewpoints. But with the social and economic gains that members of racial and ethnic minorities have made and their ascent to leadership positions in society, it is no longer assured that merely being a member of these minority groups means enhanced diversity of views or backgrounds. A variety of institutions will need to evaluate the extent to which diversity furthers their missions. If the purpose of a symphony orchestra is to perform music beautifully, what kinds of diversity, if any, are likely to further it? Likewise, how does diversity enhance a law firm’s efforts to serve its clients and ensure justice?
Because of the conflation of diversity and remedying racial wrongs, many organizations have simply assumed that racial and ethnic diversity will make them better. Once appropriate distinctions are drawn, these organizations will be forced to think more critically about diversity’s role in pursuing their missions. Many are likely to view the Supreme Court’s ruling as a blow to efforts to achieve racial justice. But the opposite should be the case. By distinguishing between the pursuit of diversity and the pursuit of racial justice, such a decision can dispel confusion, bolster efforts to achieve racial justice, and clarify the kinds and degrees of diversity that are beneficial.
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