Brian Leiter: Is ‘Diversity’ the Best Reason for Affirmative Action?

Academic Ethics: Is ‘Diversity’ the Best Reason for Affirmative Action?

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 1978 Bakke case — in which the court invalidated the racial quotas on admission at the medical school of the University of California at Davis — "diversity" has dominated American higher education’s thinking about affirmative action.

Ironically, the opinion that gave diversity that canonical status was supported by just one Justice, the late Lewis Powell, whose vote decided the case. While strict racial quotas were not permissible, universities had, in Justice Powell’s view, a compelling interest in the diversity of their student population, since that contributed to the educational experience an institution offered.

In 1961, when President Kennedy called for "affirmative action" by military contractors to end racial discrimination, he was not thinking at all about the value of diversity for military contracting work. He was responding to flagrant racist discrimination against African-Americans and demanding that the huge industry supplying the military change its discriminatory practices.

As the sociologist Frank Dobbin documents in his important 2009 book, Inventing Equal Opportunity, the actual details of what it meant to eliminate discrimination — as well as to implement the commands of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — were left to human-resources personnel in major corporations, who crafted the procedures and rules to which courts soon began to defer. When affirmative action came under attack in the 1970s and 1980s, as Dobbin shows, "human-resources experts pointedly argued that diversity training and work-family programs were not affirmative-action measures at all, but were there to increase productivity."

In short, diversity was good for capitalism and, according to Justice Powell, also for education. Justice for the victims of discrimination, or their descendants, largely dropped out of the national dialogue.

Read more at The Chronicle of Higher Education