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“Diversity within diversity” — a path too far

I wrote here about the oral argument in the Fisher case, a challenge to the University of Texas’s use of race to admit Black and Hispanic undergraduate applicants who otherwise would be rejected under its standard admissions criteria. In this post, I want to explore one important aspect of that case.

The University of Texas ensures the admission of a reasonably large numbers of minorities by guaranteeing entrance to anyone who finishes in the top ten percent of his or her Texas high school class. Because there are many minority-dominated high schools in Texas, the university achieves a substantial amount of diversity through its normal criteria, which are not challenged in the Fisher litigation.

Fisher challenges the university’s policy of admitting additional minority students through the use of racial preferences, as opposed to the facially neutral “top ten percent” policy. The university defends its use of racial preferences on the grounds that the “top ten percent” policy wasn’t fully meeting its diversity needs.

An important element of this argument is the university’s claim that it needs “diversity within diversity.” To understand this argument, realize that the “top ten percent” policy tends to result in the admission of Blacks and Hispanics from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is these minorities who tend to find themselves in minority-dominated high schools in which they aren’t competing with large numbers of White students.

The university thus found that, without overt racial preferences, it would admit few Blacks and Hispanics from affluent circumstances. For these minorities tend to find themselves in more competitive high schools and thus struggle to make the top 10 percent.

But why is this a problem? Aren’t racial preferences intended, at least in significant part, to help minorities whose inability to compete successfully for college admission results from their disadvantaged life circumstances? How then, in a situation where racial diversity has been achieved through the “ten percent rule,” does one justify giving preference to minorities who have not been disadvantaged?

The university’s answer is that true diversity in the college setting requires “diversity within diversity.” It isn’t enough for White students to be exposed to the viewpoints of a “critical mass” of Black students. They also need to be exposed to the viewpoints of relatively affluent Blacks. Or maybe it’s not so much their viewpoints as their existence. White students need to appreciate that not all Blacks are economically disadvantaged.

Got that?

Now, it may well be the case that White students can learn from interacting with an affluent Black of no particular academic distinction. But then, White students (and Black ones) can learn from interacting with a one-legged oboe player from Bulgaria.

The issue for purposes of constitutional adjudication is whether the benefits of interacting with affluent Blacks of no particular academic distinction provide the compelling interest the state needs to engage in the normally odious practice of classifying people according to their race. The question, I think, answers itself.

The “diversity within diversity” argument also casts the diversity interest in a particularly unsavory light. It is always problematic for the state to argue that interaction with some Americans is preferable to interaction with others. But one can make sense out of an argument that there is a benefit to having a Black student in the hall of your dorm instead of another White. That sense dissolves when the state asserts the superiority of interacting with particular kinds of Blacks over particular kinds of Whites. The one-legged oboe player from Bulgaria isn’t just another White.

Neither is any White, once personal characteristics enter the picture. The vaunted “holistic” approach to evaluating applicants might sensibly take into account overcoming disadvantages, including racial-economic obstacles. But when this approach ends up rewarding well-off blacks who didn’t perform with distinction in high school, something is very wrong.

During oral argument in Fisher, the Justices seemed to sense this. Certainly Justice Alito, whose common sense quotient always impresses, was all over the “diversity within diversity” issue.

The racial preferences mongers have helped take the Supreme Court down some strange paths. I believe that “diversity within diversity” will prove a path too far. My hope is that, in so concluding, the Court will reconsider some of its earlier paths.

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