“Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects Elude Labels,” reported The Washington Post headline last week. The headline was wishful thinking because, as the first paragraph recognized, several labels could apply to the Tsarnaev brothers.
For instance, they were Caucasian in the most literal sense: from the Caucusus. They were immigrants. And they were Muslim.
That last fact has dismayed much of the Muslim community. After the bombing, but before the perpetrators’ identities were known, many hoped they would not be Muslim. They hoped so because, as the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham put it, if the perpetrator “is a Muslim, thousands will be called upon to answer, by association and stereotype, for his actions.”
No kidding. A mere hour after the bombing Fox News contributor Eric Rush wrote that Muslims were “evil. Let’s kill them all.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) received hate mail such as this: “When it is proven to be a Muslim we will remove all of you vermin from our country. YOU are the disease.......WE are the cure.” And while he didn’t stoop to depths as vile as that, former Rep. Joe Walsh suggested last week it is time to start “profiling. . . our enemy,” namely “young Muslim men.”
Walsh’s view is shared by many, including the NYPD – which infiltrated mosques and Muslim communities after 9/11. In so doing, the AP reported, the police “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity.”
The assumption behind Rush’s hate, Walsh’s assertion and the NYPD’s spying is that we can know something important about people based on nothing more than their membership in a demographic category. The same assumption has informed the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, in which officers overwhelmingly single out black and Hispanic individuals for pat-down searches.
Progressives, libertarians, and civil-liberties advocates all dispute that assumption – and rightly so. Lumping vastly different people into crude categories and then judging them based only on those labels is the worst sort of reductionism.
Social scientists have done good work exposing the degree to which such brutish tribalism still taints American society. For instance, researchers from MIT and the University of Chicago have found that otherwise equivalent résumés produced a 50 percent higher chance of getting an interview when the applicant’s name sounded white (Emily, Brendan) than when the name sounded black (Lakisha, Jamal).
This is deplorable and disheartening. We all know it is wrong to judge individuals according to such superficial characteristics.
Except, evidently, when it comes to diversity. Diversity, as the term is meant in higher education and the workplace, embraces precisely the same assumption employed by Fox’s Rush, Walsh, the NYPD, and unconsciously racist employers: that superficial traits tell us something important about an individual’s essential nature.
In fact, in defense of that assumption, a number of Ivy League universities have submitted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case about the use of racial preferences in college admissions. Harvard, Yale, Brown, et al. want the court to let them “take account of race and ethnicity.” Indeed, they contend this is not merely permissible, but that it is driven by a “compelling governmental interest.” They go so far as to insist that color-blind admissions would be “fundamentally incompatible with [our] educational missions.”
Why? Because, as another amicus brief by two Harvard law professors puts it, race is “a salient aspect of identity” – in some cases “urgently salient.” And so is religion: “It almost certainly would be mutually beneficial for students raised in Catholic schools and Yeshivas to encounter one another, because each will come away with an enlarged perspective on the law and on themselves.”
“Almost certainly.” The professors reach this conclusion about the hypothetical students based on nothing more than two small data points: their presumptively Catholic and Jewish backgrounds. But if we can know something important about someone merely because she is Catholic, then equally we can know something important about someone merely because he is Muslim. Former Rep. Walsh would certainly agree.
Perhaps, to a very limited degree, we can. Religion consists of a set of beliefs – and beliefs can influence behavior in ways race cannot. It is not irredeemably bigoted to assume, for instance, that – all other things being equal – a Muslim would be more likely than a Mormon to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But universities do not want diversity of faith alone. They want to weight judgments about admissions by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.
The universities will say they are counting such traits as only one factor among many. But by the same token, a New York police officer could credibly claim he is doing precisely the same when he stops a Hispanic male wearing certain clothing. Like the Ivies claim to be doing, he is making an “individualized” assessment based partly on the individual’s membership in a collective class.
Perhaps they all should heed the advice of Juliette Kayyem. “The thirst for a quick and easy explanation,” she wrote in The Boston Globe the day after the bombing, “leads everyone astray.”
This article originally appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.