Diversity and Justice

“Marketing or Progress? Diversity, justice and the academy”
Chip Gagnon, Dept of Politics

Published in Buzzsaw Haircut (Ithaca College), September 2005

Is “diversity” just a niche-marketing concept, meant to attract liberal white students to colleges? You might get that impression from the way that the goal of diversity is justified at US campuses.

Seventy-four percent of US colleges list “commitment to diversity” in their mission statement. Ithaca College’s own Institutional Plan includes “Diversity” as its second major goal. But why is diversity so important?

Diversity is usually justified as important because students should be exposed to people who are different. A diverse campus will benefit students, it will enrich their lives, it will increase the value of their education, it will improve their productivity in the post-college work environment, it will increase US economic competitiveness.

But let’s be honest. The students who are benefiting from diversity are white students. Perhaps it is important for every student to experience difference. But realistically, in the US, black students experience living in a white world every day of their lives, even if they go to black-majority schools or live in black-majority neighborhoods. The same cannot be said for most whites, who tend to live in overwhelmingly white environments.

In effect, this means that diversity is for the benefit of white students; it is white students who are better off for experiencing people of color, who are enriched and rendered more productive. Students of color are positioned — unconsciously perhaps — as objects to enrich whites’ experiences, to be valued and consumed by whites. The goal of diversity thus becomes a utilitarian, instrumental one, meant to benefit white students.

As Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage demonstrates in his book White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a multicultural society, this consumption approach to diversity — where people of color are positioned as objects of consumption by whites — is a very common way that liberal white people think about people of color.

On the one hand we could say that this kind of experience is indeed an important goal. For me personally, the change in how I thought about these issues (having grown up in an all-white area and gone to an all-white suburban high school outside of Syracuse) came when I lived in neighborhoods where white people were in the minority. My world view was fundamentally changed by coming into direct personal contact with people who were different than me.

But on the other hand, this kind of objectification of people of color, where they are in effect objects of consumption and a means to personal enrichment, is problematic because it actually reinforces racialized hierarchies and white hegemony.

This doesn’t mean rejecting the goal of diversity. Rather, we should think about diversity in a way that doesn’t objectify students of color.

An alternative approach would be one that argues for diversity on college campuses because our society is diverse and because in a just society all people should have access to higher education. In other words, diversity should not be approached in purely functional or utilitarian terms, but rather as a question of justice. A student body that reflects the make-up of the wider population is the right thing to do because it is a matter of justice, regardless of how much or how little it enriches “our” experiences.

This raises further questions though. Why aren’t more black students present on majority-white campuses? Why are blacks underrepresented on college campuses, especially at the most elite schools?

This question can’t be answered without looking at the public school system in this country. In particular, there is a direct correlation between property values and college attendance rates, in part because public schools are largely funded locally, through property taxes. Communities with higher property values and more affluent residents spend disproportionately more on public schools, while schools located in poor areas are much less likely to send their graduates to college. For specifics, see for example report by The Education Trust, “The Funding Gap”. [for an update on this ongoing issue see the Education Trust’s 2015 report: Funding Equity]  This disproportionately affects the chances for academic advancement of black students in particular.

But this is outside the purview of colleges. Or is it?

Because colleges tend to limit themselves to the goal of “diversity” for the utilitarian reasons listed above, they don’t really get to the heart of the problem. The goal of diversity almost becomes a diversion from the real issues. Because if a college is diverse enough, it’s done its job. But the problem is that colleges are competing for a limited pool of black students, recruiting high school students who are already the product of 11 or 12 years of the inequitable educational system, thereby ignoring those whose primary and secondary education leave them unable to get into college.

If colleges and universities really cared about these issues, they’d commit themselves to using their significant resources to create a more just K-12 public educational system in this country. They would, individually and collectively, be actively involved in restructuring and changing public education so it would be more just, so the quality of education didn’t depend on the income or property values of the neighborhoods where the schools are located. Colleges would have to get out of the “ivory tower” and get into society itself, actively involving themselves in the political fight for social justice in an area they all claim to see as a priority.