Diversity Discontent

Charles Geshekter


Ever since the Bakke v. University of California decision of 1978, university administrators, activists, students, and faculty have remained tenaciously committed to attaining proportional diversity on campus, mostly on the basis of dubious rationales. Justice Lewis Powell asserted—in Bakke—that achieving diversity was a compelling reason to justify “a properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race and ethnic origins.” He believed “educational pluralism” would promote a robust exchange of ideas in classrooms and across campuses.1 What began as affirmative action outreach in the 1960s hardened into demands for equality of outcomes. By the 1990s, diversity became synonymous with racial preferences, and referred to a growing list of groups that administrative elites identified as victims deserving special treatment. In their disdain for the concept of merit, diversity advocates produce illiberal justifications for their policies that undermine the norms of academic disciplines, and often reward mediocrity.2

In 2018, campuses in the University of California and the California State University systems mandated that faculty members pledge fealty to diversity through what amounts to a loyalty oath.3 Anyone hired, retained, or promoted as a faculty member must explicitly demonstrate in his dossier a commitment to advance diversity and equitable access in education. The new requirements are unsurprising; both university systems have spent twenty years trying to circumvent Proposition 209 (now Article 1, Section 31 of the California Constitution), which prohibits any consideration of race in public employment, public contracting, and public education. Nevertheless, in defiance of this statute in 2018, the San Diego State President and the Academic Senate approved new plans to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. The plans establish released time opportunities for current faculty to receive “hands-on training” concerning implicit bias, racial/gender micro aggressions, cultural competency, teaching practices for underserved students, and something called “collective sense making.”

This kind of double talk, it seems, enjoys a momentum all its own. Reviewing the latest diversity mandate for new hires and promotions, Northwestern Law Professor John McGinnis found the requirement “indicated how far the University of California is willing to sacrifice basic tenets of hiring and promotion in higher education to promote its ideological mission.”

Several authors have sharply criticized the incessant intrusions and ponderous busywork wrought by diversity requirements. But no matter how often they expose diversity’s perversities, academics eventually stop challenging its anti-intellectual pretensions and concentrate on the core responsibilities in their own specialized fields. Those who question diversity’s prevailing mantras are vilified as reactionaries or racists. Resistant to second thoughts, campus officials reflexively dismiss doubts or rebuttals about diversity as unworthy of discussion. Their operative consensus is a “closed absolutist theological and moral system.”4

Indeed, the consistently small number of diversity dissidents across academia constitutes a setback for the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Despite state chapters and the national office providing a stream of rebuttals to the claims of diversity preferences, the organization seems unable to change the minds of academics who support diversity’s core beliefs. Diversity advocates possess what Thomas Sowell might call an “unconstrained vision,” in which there is an ideal solution to every problem and damages to specific individuals are a small price to pay on the road to perfection.

Old Wine, New Bottles

The modern university should be an institution dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of knowledge through research, writing, reason, and public debate. All disciplines and subfields of knowledge are open to qualified individuals regardless of immutable characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity, or age. Those who deny such opportunities to students or place non-academic restraints on one’s access to them are consciously subverting the academy’s purpose.

The notion of “diversity appointments” arrived at my university (California State, Chico) in late 1993, when two careerist administrators (a new President and Vice Provost) announced that departments would qualify for a “diversity hire” if they found a candidate who met an ethnic, racial or gender diversity criterion, regardless of any specific curricular need. Their proposal was facially indefensible and their feeble claims and deceitful obfuscation aroused faculty anger.

One week into the spring 1994 semester, over forty percent of tenured CSU/Chico faculty signed a petition to the President strongly opposing his new policy. The petition used language similar to what became Proposition 209, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1996 and added to the California Constitution in 1997. The Chico State administrators were astonished by the widespread criticism, unable to fathom why faculty members strongly opposed their scheme. I wrote an op-ed in 1994 titled “Diversity Crusade: Another Kind of Racism.”5 Reading it today, I can’t change a word, except to add that diversity’s excesses are more deeply entrenched than ever.

Academic Profiling

Diversity defenders condemn group profiling among law enforcement officers, yet wholeheartedly accept racial or ethnic group profiling in student admissions and faculty hiring.

Racial profiling targets a person of a certain race on the basis of observed or assumed characteristics or behavior patterns of his group, rather than on suspicions specific to the individual. Its left-wing academic version, however, employs racist stereotypes of “white privilege” and “white fragility” in admissions or faculty hiring. Harvard faces a major lawsuit because its admissions officers were found lowering the scores of Asian American applicants based on highly subjective administrators’ perceptions of personal traits. According to reports, admissions officials at Harvard are disinclined to score Asian applicants as “an attractive person to be with . . . having a positive personality, and general likeability . . . helpfulness, courage, kindness.”6 This kind of profiling stems from precisely the kind of “implicit bias” diversity advocates say whites possess and that marginalizes blacks. It’s time to denounce this spurious group profiling.

Some faculty want to eliminate admissions tests, insisting that “merit” is somehow a biased concept that ignores an uneven playing field for non-whites. But if white privilege stacks the deck against non-whites, what explains the success of multiple Asian subgroups relative to whites? Do similar misunderstandings about merit exist in other areas of modern life, such as one’s performance as a concert violinist, an accountant, a surgeon, an actuary, a marksman, an airplane pilot, or a baseball batter? Does anyone seriously advocate for racial or gender preferences in these activities?

Against Identity Politics

Professor Frank Furedi explains how the “claim that different cultures had different ways of knowing effectively fossilized national identities. In doing so, it served as the cultural antecedent to the racial typologies that influenced Western thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”7 Nowadays, identity based groups focus on a culture of images and representations claiming to show that suffering, marginalization, and victimization are fundamental features of their identity. Even misbehavior of individual members of groups are said to be responses to marginalization. Demands for racial parity in K-12 school discipline and racial balance in suspension rates ignore cultural differences in attitudes toward school, authority, and conformity to social norms—“some kids go to school to learn, while others go to generate disorder.”8

Moreover, there is scant evidence to support Justice Powell’s claim of the curricular values of diversity’s educational pluralism. Defenders of diversity contend that knowledge is the property of groups, not individuals. But the insistence that racial diversity necessarily enhances the production of knowledge is an explicit rejection of the Enlightenment conceit that reason makes the whole of the human experience available to anyone who seeks it. The diversity advocates instead argue that true cultural understanding can only come from members of the various identity groups, such as they are. Thus, they would say, a significant black presence on campus is needed to gain true insight into the black experience. But sociologist Georg Simmel long ago saw that outside observers are often the sharpest interpreters of groups they don’t belong to. For Simmel, the stranger to a society may attain a state of detachment and objectivity “because he is not bound by roots to the particular constituents and partisan dispositions of the group.” Thus, the outsider often “receives the most surprising revelations and confidences . . . about matters which are kept hidden from everybody with whom one is close” in the social group.9

The case of the 1983 novel Famous All Over Town by Danny Santiago proves Simmel’s point. Considered a classic of the Chicano urban experience, Famous All Over Town provides a vivid representation of life for a family struggling with poverty, rival gangs, and intergenerational tensions. Unaware that Danny Santiago was a pseudonym, the New York Times described the book as “an honest novel that presents some hard cultural realities.”

Critics widely praised the book and assumed its author came from the ethnic group he was writing about. Although touted as an insider’s memoir, its author was an outsider Daniel James, a 72-year-old white man from Kansas City who’d worked in east L.A. for twenty years. Deeply versed in Chicano culture, he conveyed an accurate and compelling portrait. But because he was not a Chicano, his work was later dismissed as a hoax that diversity proponents are reluctant to discuss. James considered himself so close to the Hispanic community—Simmel’s veritable outsider—that he felt he wrote as a Chicano insider. His teenaged hero Chato sought to escape from the barrio and, contrary to political correctness, often made “fun of his relatives for their adherence to premodern ways.”10

Diversity and Me

The Danny Santiago case and others like it demonstrate in the most obvious way that reason and empathy can endow any earnest observer with access to the cultural experience of others. But diversity advocates remain unbowed. So integral is cultural impermeability to their sustenance that they have continued, as they have since Powell’s singular 1978 opinion, to extoll diversity’s educational benefits. When I confronted diversity activists about this in public debates over Proposition 209, I realized their intellectual muscles had atrophied. Their devotion to numerical group representation as a guiding principle when selecting faculty or students is an affront to higher education. It’s imperative for those who value liberal education to challenge their archaic notions that people think with their blood, write from their ethnicity, or reason from their genitalia as academic feminists would have us believe. One is reminded of novelist Ralph Ellison’s contention that his literary ancestors were Tolstoy, Hemingway, Marx, T.S. Eliot, Pound, and Andre Malraux, more so even then Richard Wright.

Anyone who challenges bean counting diversity or repudiates its incessant classroom impositions will be dismissed with mind-numbing culture war clichés. When I condemned the divisive racial preferences and obsessive gender double standards I witnessed on faculty hiring committees at CSU/Chico, I was denounced as an “enemy of diversity.” That label was rich in unintended irony because I’d considered myself an example of diversity.

I’d taught classes in African history for forty years at CSU/Chico. Raised in an orthodox Jewish home in west Baltimore, I graduated from the University of Richmond (founded by Southern Baptists), completed my M.A. at Howard University (the country’s preeminent historically black college), earned my Ph.D. in history at UCLA, then taught at a modest liberal arts college. As a Jewish American historian of Africa, I specialized in Somalia, an Arab League country that’s 99 percent Muslim. I visited Somalia ten times between 1973-2001, conducting field research, producing a documentary for PBS, and teaching at the National University in Mogadishu. Although I was a consummate outsider, Somalis welcomed me with hospitality and collegiality, especially eager to debate their history with an outsider. Although all my students at the Somali National University were Somalis, serious diversity of opinions was always evident when discussing clan histories, nationalist figures, and the roles of women in political activities. But back in California, I would not qualify as a diversity “change agent.”

Counting and mingling students and professors by race, ethnicity or gender is supposed to broaden perspectives and enhance classroom learning. Maybe that’s true in a few academic departments built on identity politics. What about in the rest of the university? The purported educational benefits of “perspectivism” in undergraduate classrooms are a diversity cornerstone deserving serious scrutiny.

A perspective is the way you see things in the world. Its Latin root means "look through" or "perceive," and derives from a person’s viewpoint based on personal values, readings, and life experiences. Since one’s perspectives are shaped by familiarities and prior assumptions, any personal point of view may not be the same as reality.11

For example, what novel perspective does a black academic bring to microbiology, civil engineering, or the study of African resistance to European imperialism that a white scholar cannot? What distinctive viewpoint does a female Hispanic professor offer to explain the rise of the Land Freedom Army/Mau Mau in 1950s Kenya or delineate the roots of orthodox Christianity in pre-1400 Ethiopia that a black instructor cannot? What’s a lesbian perspective on the collapse of the Somali state? Who can enunciate an Asian perspective on the Salem witch trials? Is there a Hispanic viewpoint on the rise of Islam in western Arabia? Did Danny Santiago offer an insider’s or outsider’s interpretation of contemporary Mexican-American life? What should matter most in a humanities or social science class is having students encounter starkly different perspectives—held in abundant supply by students and scholars independently of racial or gender categories— to help them determine, with the teacher’s aide, which is the most compelling or the least persuasive and why. Under the constricted diversity rubric, only members of group X can properly teach about or are allowed to criticize members of Group X.

A corollary belief among identitarian and diversity acolytes is that one’s ancestry provides keen insights that others cannot have. My maternal Russian heritage gives me neither special insight nor even interest in Peter the Great, Gogol and Tolstoy, or the collapse of Soviet communism. Knowledge and understanding about history derive from careful study, wide reading and travel, plus broad communication with individuals who agree and disagree with you. One’s surname, gender, or racial mixture is never a substitute.12

The diversity orthodoxy insists that the presence of students from underrepresented minorities brings novel viewpoints and makes a vital contribution to higher education. A former president of CSU/Chico assured me that simply having a variety of students clustered by race or ethnicity contributes to a “livelier mix” in classes that’s essential for higher learning.

This view is appallingly mistaken. One’s ancestry or skin color bestows no special knowledge. There is neither a black perspective on chemistry nor a Hispanic perspective on statistics. Even in courses that pertain to the social sciences, few undergraduates know enough about the subject matter to contribute new viewpoints in class.

After four decades of teaching African history, including more than 6,500 individual class sessions, I recall few undergraduates (except for military veterans and evangelical Christians) who brought unique perspectives to any historical subject. My course topics ranged from different interpretations of linguistic evidence to suggest the origins of the Bantu language family, to identifying the Dutch settler and British colonial origins of racism in South Africa. Most students had little previous knowledge of African history, regardless of their skin color or ethnic background. At the start of each semester, I asked the class how many students (aside from those who had traveled in Africa) could name two African languages? Almost none could. How could they enunciate any perspective unavailable to their classmates? The assumption that their mere presence would somehow make a classroom livelier is groundless.

Organizers of a 1997 conference sponsored by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project admitted that research on the educational value of diversity showed little positive effect. No matter how passionately proponents believed diversity was morally right, they could not ignore the stipulation that having a diverse student body was no longer a compelling reason to give preferences and were thus disheartened by being “confronted for the first time with the need to justify a concept they believed in implicitly.”13

Diversity and the Mentality of Taboo

Demands for campus diversity have become a closed-feedback system of dubious claims and untested assumptions. Advocates react furiously when the illegalities and emptiness of their assertions are exposed or challenged in court, as with the current lawsuit against Harvard for its anti-Asian bias and ethnic profiling in the admissions process.

Dwelling on one’s marginalization, underrepresentation, or lack of respect are fundamental to identity politics.14 The constant slicing and dicing of Americans along lines of race, sex and gender by self-proclaimed progressives makes it difficult to talk about the common good, a shared way of life, a vision of what can be accomplished together, or even to recognize our national culture and its sense of common feelings among Americans.

The late American polymath Albert Murray loved to pinpoint contradictions in human nature using controversial ideas.15 He had the guts to say what others silently thought. He synthesized American behavior as a broad mix of three basic elements: improvisation, frontier exploration, and resilience drawn from Native American, European settler, and African slave experiences. Would he be welcome in today’s university? In a New Yorker interview, Murray reminded Henry Louis Gates Jr. that while Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, “he also helped to establish a country whose founding creed was liberty . . . [so] every time I think about it,” mused Murray, “I want to wake him up and give him more slaves.”16 No white academic would dare voice such a counterfactual wish today. In 2002, Jesse Jackson dismissed the Founders, claiming that “democracy as we know it did not begin in Philadelphia, where a bunch of white men wrote the laws.”17 Pity we’ll never witness a live academic exchange between Murray and Jackson on this topic.

Why can’t adults intelligently debate the rationales for diversity, its alleged benefits and likely harms? Perhaps it’s because, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Blank Slate (2003), some academic debates “get so entwined with people’s moral identity that one despairs that they can ever be resolved by reason and evidence.” Akin to a religious calling, the diversity mindset is not open to serious challenge or rebuttal; those who write about it are either true believers or heretics. “The mentality of taboo is incompatible with open scholarship,” warned Pinker. “When beliefs become sacred, that mentality is on a collision course with the spirit of free inquiry.”18

The term “mentality of taboo” was developed by psychologist Philip Tetlock and others to describe an intellectual loop into which one enters, accepts its main propositions, and then finds it difficult to escape. Within the mentality of taboo “certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think about them.” To believe something with a “perfect faith and be incapable of apostasy is a sign of fidelity to a group and loyalty to the cause.” The ardent defenders of ethnic or racial diversity in classrooms are, to borrow Pinker’s language, “intuitively certain they are correct and that their opponents have ugly ulterior motives.” These censorious taboos stymy criticism of diversity and provide a useful defense mechanism among strident advocates of diversity.

Diversity double standards will never end as long as administrators make them a feature of faculty hiring. Given the strong support from Provosts and Presidents coupled with the weak resistance from most faculty members, maintaining warped double standards for faculty hiring policies appears inevitable. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor hoped in 2003 that by 2028 “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” Wishful thinking. As Furedi shows, “victim identity has come to be seen as almost sacred.”19


The time has passed when American universities might have embarked upon a new era of race and gender neutral academic programs. Instead, a progressive orthodoxy has permanently entrenched race, ethnicity, and gender as decisive factors throughout campus life. The progressives defend preferential standards for victim groups and deny the fact that the best thinkers, critics, writers, researchers, and teachers are not linked to any one group.

Universities that insist students are born into a protected, marginalized, or privileged group perpetuate racial or ethnic consciousness. The programs and vague policies extolled under the diversity rationale stoke tensions through the unfairness of a racial and ethnic spoils system that teaches students to label themselves as oppressed and disadvantaged or as privileged. In this intrinsically adversarial realm, there is no competition fiercer than the struggle over oppression credentials.

“Universities have a mandate to produce informed, educated, productive citizens,” Jordan Peterson reminds us. “They have been transformed, instead, into factories of ideology that mass-produce victims, certain in their oppression, searching everywhere for oppressors to blame and to punish.”20

Colleges and universities should educate students about cultures unlike their own, instill a love of critical thinking, foster appreciation for the scientific method, and recognize the richness of American culture and Western Civilization. Faculty are expected to help students develop mathematical competency, writing proficiency, analytical skills, and an improved vocabulary. Students need to be encouraged to devote time to the mastery of a subject, have a realistic sense of their goals, and criticize those who denigrate clear thinking and careful analysis. Students must learn to speak and write English well, and to believe that their own efforts will shape their future, not that the omnipresent force of bigotry stands in their way.

The core mission of a university must be the pursuit of learning by transmitting agreed upon truths, creating new knowledge, or critiquing older beliefs. Diversity should mean only one thing: increasing the numbers of students and faculty who can compete intellectually on a comparable basis, not choosing them based on skin color or surname and penalizing one generation ad infinitum for the sins of another.

As a scholar of African history and someone with a truly diverse background, I taught students without regard to their race, ethnicity, or gender, showing how the tenets of Western historiography provide the methodological tools to understand the latent and manifest forces of the African past. This hardly made me diversity’s enemy, no matter what groupthinking career administrators might imagine. As well-known theater critic, playwright, and professor at Harvard Robert Brustein replied when asked what it was like to be a tenured member of a university faculty, “it’s like having a lifetime pass to the theater of the absurd.”

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