Today’s Washington Times carries this review by Phillip Gold of a book called Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture. The title of the book, and Gold’s largely favorable review, has me thinking again about the University of Michigan cases and the Bush Administration briefs.
In the briefs, two possible justifications for race-preferences in college admissions mingle. One is “experiential diversity,” through which white students learn from exposure to African-Americans. The other is ensuring access for a sizeable number of African-Americans to the best public universities, access defined here as ability to gain admission, rather than just a fair chance of being admitted. I do not intend to discuss again where the Bush Administration comes out on whether, or to what extent, these interests ultimately justify race-based preferences or race-conscious programs. Rather, I want to compare and contrast the two interests.
The second interest — access — seems like a substantial one. Given all that African-Americans have suffered, one would be hard-pressed to deny that the de facto exclusion, or even the significant underrepresentation, of blacks at public universities would be unfortunate. This is not to say that the interest in avoiding that result justifies discrimination against whites, but I can understand why some might think that it does.
The diversity interest, by contrast, seems light-weight at best for reasons I have tried to articulate in past blogs and perhaps for additional reasons brought to mind by the above-cited book review. The book is about the yearning and ability of white Americans “to acquire and/or consume blackness.” The title suggests that whites, or at least whites of college age, are able, in today’s culture, to acquire and consume “everything but the burden” of blackness. If so, this phenomenon undercuts the notion that white kids enter college needing to mingle with blacks in order to be exposed black culture and perspectives. But what about “the burden”? I would suggest that here too the need for experiential diversity is insubstantial. If the experience of my daughters is at all indicative, white kids in public schools learn about the suffering of African-Americans before they learn about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They learn about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King before they learn about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This occurs because their first exposure to American history (indeed, their first three or four exposures) is through the yearly Black History Month. This starts in the first grade, whereas American History is usually not taught until the fourth or fifth grade (and even then usually begins with the oppression of the American Indian and the evils perpetrated by Columbus). The drum-beat continues throughout middle school and high school (where it is reinforced in literature classes) and, of course, into college where the mainstream liberal perspective is essentially indistinguishable from what proponents of diversity call the black perspective. The blacks admitted through preference programs are typically middle-class kids who (if my daughter’s experiences with her African-American roommate and her friends are indicative) don’t seem terribly “burdened.”
I’ll conclude with a story based on my experience in law school. Prior to entering, I heard someone cite as en example of the value of a racially diverse student body the idea that blacks could make a special contribution in criminal law classes due to their first-hand knowledge of police racism and brutality. But the black students in my criminal law classes had no more experience with the police than I did (less actually, but that’s another story). Fortunately, our white criminal procedure professor filled the void. And that, I suspect, is what happens on college campuses today.
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