Millennium Falcon: The Bias Birds of Prey

Ashley Thorne

A thousand years ago, Genghis Khan fed his army of Mongols with game brought in from trained falcons. Now, diversiphiles are looking to feed a hungry movement. They swoop down to look for “unconscious bias,” seeking to capture students’ belief structures and supply fodder for their next diversity program.

On Tuesday at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting in California, three researchers from the University of Arizona presented findings from the Millennial Student Project, a four-year study on students’ attitudes toward diversity. Their study sought to answer the question, “What are Millennial students’ perceptions and attitudes toward diversity, social distance, and prejudice?” The Millennial generation, also known as generation Y, is comprised of those born in 1982 or later.

This generation is the first one to enter college never knowing a time without diversity education. Dr. Melissa Ousley and her research team working on the Millennial Student Project realize this. They want to know: What’s next for a generation who has already gone through the standard diversity curriculum? How do we take diversity education to the next level? What gaps remain in their understanding of power, privilege, and oppression?

Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge that Dr. Ousley generously permitted me to read and to quote from her and her colleagues’ unpublished paper 1 She did this without knowing my perspective or questioning how I would use the material. Although I strongly disagree with her stance, I admire her openness, which is all too rare in the contemporary university.

The project follows a class of students from their freshman year to their 2009 graduation.

Its early finding was that students are generally open to diversity because they have grown up hearing about it, but that, numbed as they are by over-exposure to political correctness, diversity isn’t important enough to them to change the way they actually live:

Students have been exposed to such politically correct messages throughout their formative years, and these values have become ingrained in their ideologies. However, for the most part, students have not critically examined these values nor have their unconscious biases been challenged. Thus these ingrained values do not always translate to students’ commitment to social justice in the campus community.

This is an interesting way to look at a student’s attitude about diversity. If it doesn’t change you and make you want to change the world, then it is worthless. Substitute Christianity for diversity here, and you have a sermon about complacency admonishing those who grew up going to Sunday school.

To help rekindle diversity-saturated students’ enthusiasm, the UA research team came up with this project:

Because student bodies are more diverse and their exposure to diversity is greater than past generations, higher education must reshape diversity programming and policies to accommodate these increasing differences. To inform the direction that programming must now take, it is critical to understand students' behaviors and perceptions toward diversity.

Here we go.


Colorblind, Complacent, Critical

But why do diversity programming in the first place? The researchers say it is the duty of higher education to play “an integral role in our globalized society by investing in diversity.” And according to Patricia Gurin, the architect of the Program on Intergroup Relations, diversity has educational benefits (Her report asserting that students learn better in a diverse racial environment was the basis for the University of Michigan’s argument in Gratz and Grutter. Tom Wood and Malcolm Sherman wrote a thorough, NAS-commissioned rebuttal to the Gurin report.) Furthermore, said the researchers, “critical” thinking promotes “a supportive climate for students of marginalized groups and equity for all students.”

The critical word here is critical, the code word of the Millennial Student Project. Ousley and her co-authors Deborah Levine-Donnerstein and Jessie Antonellis set out their theoretical model, which presumes that students have one of three positions on diversity: meritocracy, postmodernism, or critical postmodernism (CPM). These perspectives are “socially constructed, with multiple facets, and are shaped by issues of privilege and power.” A student who believes in meritocracy favors color-blind admissions based on academic ability. Although for appearances they sometimes adopt politically correct language, that language will never “actually change their belief system” (implied: diversity education is supposed to change people’s belief systems.) As the authors put it, “They will likely not recognize the inequity of power and privilege.”

The postmodern attitude, which the study found to be predominant among participants, describes the outlook of students who have been fed a lifetime of diversity jargon. It is familiar and comfortable to them to hear about it, but they lack passion for social justice issues and their “unconscious biases” have not been challenged.

Finally there’s critical postmodernism (CPM). A student who embraces CPM “articulates the specific and relative importance of each element that defines diversity,” and possesses a critical consciousness of how language perpetuates oppression. This is clearly the goal the surveyors want students to reach. Of the three perspectives, they describe CPM as the most fluent, authentic, enlightened state of mind.

Race: Human

UA’s mixed-methods project consists of an online survey, focus groups, and a documentary film to be released this year, featuring seven multi-racial Millennial students. Ousley, Levine-Donnerstein, and Antonellis presented some of the survey results at the AERA meeting. 1,459 students participated; they were divided into four classifications: white males, white females, minority males (“male students of color”) and minority females (“female students of color”). The authors noted a surprising trend of reticence in specifying a race/ethnicity; 46 students declined to provide an ethnic classification and instead gave answers such as “American” and “human.”

The survey used two main scales, progressive and conservative. In a slideshow presentation given last May, the two scales were depicted in a “Dynamic Diversity Paradigm Continuum,” with the colors ranging from red (high conservative) to yellow (low conservative/low progressive) to green (high progressive). “Progressive” here denotes a “stronger orientation toward a social justice mindset and recognition of inequality in existing social structures.” The conservative scale measures a student’s level of belief in a “color-blind approach to resource distribution.”

Student responses to the survey were predictable. Fewer white students reported observing prejudice than “students of color.” Ousley and the others remarked that this makes sense, because these students were the ones “experiencing the most privilege and power in higher education...and most invested in maintaining the status quo.” It might make sense in other ways too. The diversity movement creates an incentive system for members of minority groups to see prejudice even when it is not there.

Minority females outstripped the other groups in rating “The extent to which different university standards are acceptable to create equity for students who did not have equal opportunities in high school.”

But white males stood out in their agreement with the statement, “University admission policies should be based on students’ academic skills.” The researchers jumped on this result. Under “Implications for Higher Education,” they resolved that diversity programming for “merit-focused students (such as our group of White male students)” should encourage them to shift their perspective “from self-centered to ‘society-centered.’” 

On the other hand, minority students already understand how to be “society-centered.” They are ready to put their knowledge into action:

Social justice-oriented students: (such as our group of female students of color, as well as the male students of color to a lesser extent), are beyond the need for programming focused on educating students about social justice. Diversity programming intended for these groups would be most effective if it were focused on action and advocacy. These students would be well-served by opportunities to see social justice in action, as well as opportunities to support such initiatives.

Wait, don’t students already have every opportunity for “action and advocacy”?

From Self-Centered to Society-Centered

In the new generation diversity programming, this study looks to be the rationale for labeling white students self-centered and praising minority students for their passion for social justice. Part of their version of society-centeredness apparently means giving up free speech and personal beliefs:

Prejudiced speech related to different religious beliefs may be perceived as exercising one’s right to free speech, with the idea that there is no law against this and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.

Ah, ignorant, deluded students. They think there is no law against exercising one’s right to free speech. They think everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Obviously this shows that they are unconsciously biased. The time is right, say the UA diversiphiles, to cut out bias. Students already know the basic diversity principles; now it’s time they go from doggy paddling to swimming the butterfly: 

Historically, educators had to both convince students that diversity was desirable and educate students on critical diversity issues.

[Had to? The imperative is odd. Why did educators have to convince students that diversity was desirable? Why did they have to educate students on critical diversity issues?]

If students are coming to college with basic openness and knowledge, educators can move beyond the need to persuade and speak to deeper social justice issues with the goal of mitigating unconscious biases.

In her opinion in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court case, Justice O’Connor wrote, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Aside from the flawed premise of this statement, we wonder if diversity “educators” ever thought something similar about the need for diversity programming. But they aren’t saying, “We’ve done our job; we can go home now.”  

What will the new generation of diversity programming look like? The Millennial Student Project provides some clues. It will be much like previous programs, except more invasive. It will divide students by race and gender instead of uniting them. It will directly seek to change students’ beliefs and even their “unconscious” thoughts. It will aim to make diversity a moral code that punishes and shames dissenters. And if all this merely sounds like the current system, stay alert. The diversiphiles are stepping up their game.

1. Levine-Donnerstein, D., Ousley, M., & Antonellis, J. (2009). Differences in students' perspectives on diversity and social distance. Paper presentation at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,  San Diego, CA.

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