Racial Diversity Reconsidered

By Rothman, Stanley; Lipset, Seymour Martin et al. | The Public Interest, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Racial Diversity Reconsidered


Rothman, Stanley, Lipset, Seymour Martin, Nevitte, Neil, The Public Interest


IN recent years, the value of diversity has been proclaimed across the entire spectrum of American opinion. Nowhere is this more true than in our educational institutions. In defending his school's embattled affirmative-action admissions program, former University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger recently offered a ringing endorsement of diversity:

Diversity is not merely a desirable addition to a well-run education. It is as essential as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare. For our students to better understand the diverse country and world they inhabit, they must be immersed in a campus culture that allows them to study with, argue with and become friends with students who may be different from them. It broadens the mind and the intellect--essential goals of education.

President George W. Bush has in somewhat more prosaic terms endorsed this position: "I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education.... A college education should teach respect and understanding and goodwill. And these values are strengthened when students live and learn with people from many backgrounds."

It is an article of faith among American elites that a diverse environment enhances mutual understanding among students of different backgrounds and enriches the educational experience for all. Generally, it is only the means of attaining diversity, particularly racial diversity, that stirs controversy, with some supporting quotas or quota-like measures and others arguing for more informal mechanisms of outreach. Almost no one poses the question: Does diversity work? Specifically, does racial diversity on American college campuses actually produce the benefits that are claimed for it?

Of course, this question is hardly hypothetical. The question of whether racial diversity enriches the educational experience for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds is at the heart of the twin lawsuits against the University of Michigan that will be reviewed by the Supreme Court this spring. At the University of Michigan, minorities that are considered underrepresented--blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans-are given a 20-point bonus in a point system that rates undergraduate applicants on a scale ranging from a low of 47 points to a high of 150. Thus the 20 points awarded for minority status represent almost 20 percent of the possible variation in scores. The University of Michigan's law school employs a similar system to ensure sufficient diversity. In 1997, two white applicants, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, each filed suit after being denied admission to Michigan's undergraduate program. Another rejected white applicant, Barbara Grutter, filed a similar suit against the law school. All three argued that a dual-track admissions process violated their constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The diversity principle

Not since its review of California v. Bakke in 1978 has the Supreme Court taken up the issue of affirmative action. Then, the Court ruled five to four that the University of California Medical School at Davis could not employ a quota system that reserved 16 to 100 places each year for minority applicants. Such systems had grown out of the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s that aimed at desegregating educational institutions. By the 1970s, the federal government required universities to account for minority enrollment, and the quickest and simplest way to boost minorities on campus was to establish quotas or quota-like policies.

But the U.C.-Davis special admissions program was challenged by a 38-year-old white engineer, Allan Bakke, who was rejected by the medical school in 1973 and 1974, despite having admissions test scores higher than many of the minority applicants who were accepted. In stating the opinion of the Supreme Court, Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.

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