Is diversity still a priority?

A recent Supreme Court case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, upheld a 2006 Michigan ballot initiative that banned sex and race preferences at public universities and schools.

Proponents of such programs often argue that diversity justifies these preferences. What’s more, diversity is all the rage in academia. The interesting thing here is that the case for the value of diversity is weakening, whether in Academia or outside it. I should note that this column includes ideas from philosopher extraordinaire Neil Feit.

The issue is whether diversity makes students better off than they would have been without it. Consider first those who are not preferred: white and Asian-American students. There is no clear evidence that more-diverse campuses better educate them. Evidence on improved test scores for whites in diverse settings is mixed. Whites benefit in math from more diverse settings, but in other areas it is less clear. Informational (idea) diversity can improve group performance, but this diversity is distinct from racial diversity and the interest here is on individual, not group, performance.

The mixed outcome is in line with common sense. Imagine that a random 10 percent of students in a classroom are replaced with students who are, on average, much weaker than everyone else. It is unsurprising that in some cases this would worsen the performance of better students who remain in the class. Less talented peers could well likely drag down the discussion and the speed at which the class moves.

Outside of academia, there is evidence that diversity is inversely correlated with many of the things that we value in a community. Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam argues that people in diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, distrust their neighbors (regardless of the color of their skin), withdraw from even close friends, expect the worst from their community and its leaders, volunteer less, give less to charity, and work on community projects less often. In his words, they tend to “huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

A similar pattern is true of marriage. David Poponue of The National Marriage Project points out that marriages are more likely to be successful when the couple is similar. Specifically, they are more likely successful when couples have similar values, backgrounds, life goals, and social networks. For both communal life and marriage, then, homogeneity tends to make things go better.

A similar pattern holds in K-12 schools. Some parents value diversity in schools as a way of teaching their children how to interact with people from different racial and ethnic groups. In “Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children,” P.O. Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out that the more diverse the high school, the more students self-segregate by race within the school and the fewer interracial friends they have. In schools, diversity leads to division.

Consider the effects of race preferences on minorities. UCLA law professor Richard Sander argues that in law schools, dropping standards for black students creates a mismatch between minorities who receive preferential admission and their peers. Like a river that cascades downward, minority students are mismatched down the line from more selective to less selective colleges. This, he argues, damages black students at almost every level. On Sander’s analysis, about half of black students end up in the bottom 10 percent of their class and this increases their drop-out rates. He argues that if affirmative action were abolished, the number of black attorneys emerging from the class of 2004 would be larger.

Linda Chavez, chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, points out that after California banned race preferences, black and Hispanic students’ enrollment at top state schools dropped, but their overall enrollment increased and they are far more likely to graduate. This is exactly what you would expect. Imagine trying to compete at a top school, when you are outgunned by your peers and both you and your peers know it. Imagine how frustrating it would be to compete against others in marathon running or ballroom dancing if everyone around is much better.

Even the quickest observation of a lunch room or church indicates that people prefer to be around those like them. Similar preferences make coordination easier, whether at work or play. Consider, for example, the different norms about dating, humor, and music between Orthodox Jews and Dominican-Americans in New York City. Homogeneity in a community allows for clearer expectations and more effective social rewards for those who behave well and sanctions for those who don’t. It’s time to call into question the notion that diversity is good or that it justifies preferences.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com