If you're a college student who has been steeped in the values of the modern academy, then you know two things with every fiber of your being: (1) diversity is good and (2) racism is bad. Most of the time, it's pretty easy to reconcile these two positions. A club that admits only white men as members, for instance, offends both of those principles.
From time to time, though, the values of diversity and non-racism collide—as they did recently at Stanford. Molly Horwitz, a Jewish student, was running for student government. She had an interview with the Students of Color Coalition, hoping to win its endorsement. During the course of the interview, she says, she was asked: "Given your Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment" from Israel?
Horwitz said she was shocked, and the head of the campus NAACP, Tianay Pulphus, denies that anyone asked such a question. But, as The New York Times noted in an article about the episode, "this is not the first time the roiling debate on college campuses over divestment from Israel has led to charges of anti-Semitism. Earlier this year, students at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a Jewish student who was a candidate for a campus judicial committee" if Rachel Beyda's Jewish identity would warp her perspective: "Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?"
In that UCLA case, the students who interrogated Beyda wrote a letter of apology to the student newspaper: "As individuals committed to social activism and advocating on behalf of underrepresented communities," they wrote, "we understand the importance and urgency of wearing our identities as a badge of honor. Integral to this is respecting and celebrating identities other than our own."
But here's the odd thing. While the questions put to Horwitz and Beyda sounded vaguely racist or anti-Semitic, they did not constitute a failure to live up to the values of diversity. The questions were perfectly consistent with those values.
After all: the entire premise behind diversity is that people's backgrounds color their perspectives. A deliberative body that lacks racial, gender, and religious diversity will, necessarily, lack a diversity of perspective. A committee with no women will fail to take women's interests into sufficient account; a board with no black members will be insensitive to black concerns. But this is far less likely to happen if the panel includes a black representative. Unless of course the black representative is Clarence Thomas; all good people know "Uncle Thomas" is the white man's lawn jockey. Hence Sen. Harry Reid's comment after the Hobby Lobby decision that women's lives were being "determined by virtue of five white men," one of whom was Thomas.
You see comments like that all the time. In January, after a subcommittee of the Virginia Senate voted to require mandatory reporting of sexual assault, a recent U.Va. graduate remarked, "What just happened was five older white men decided how Virginia's colleges and universities have to handle assault cases without hearing anything from their female colleagues or student representatives."
And there is the heart of the argument for diversity: Old white men think one way. Young black women think another way. LGBT Latinos think differently from the other two groups, and so on. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor famously said, a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
The student questioners at Stanford and UCLA got into hot water because their questions carried an obvious implication: All Jews think alike, don't they? Or, if not alike, at least in broadly similar ways, at least about certain topics. When you put it that way, it sounds—well, pretty baldly racist. You can put it in ways that sound nicer—"We need to make sure we have a representative from the African-American community"—but the different wording can't erase the sameness of the underlying rationale.
Another conundrum showed up three years ago in the debate over whether to appoint Tracy Thorne-Begland to a judgeship. Republicans in the General Assembly balked because Thorne-Begland is gay. Democrats were, quite properly, furious. "The only criteria legislators should apply when selecting judges are that person's ability to fairly and impartially weigh the law," as Sen. Donald McEachin put it, echoing many. It seems fair to say that he, and many others, would have made exactly the same argument if Republicans had rejected Thorne-Begland for being black, or an immigrant, or what have you.
But if merit is the only benchmark against which a candidate should be measured, then it cannot matter if a given body is composed of five old white men, five young Latino women, or any other homogenous cohort. It makes no sense to say an individual's demographic identity should always count for him but never against him.
And that's the dilemma advocates of diversity can't seem to reconcile. They want to treat people as indelibly marked by their demographic profile, but not be seen themselves as treating people that way. And that is rather hard to pull off.
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