SORRY -- M.I.T. DOES NOT UNDERSTAND DIVERSITY

I don’t know when the Supreme Court is going to issue its decision in Fisher v. Texas, but if it rules against the use of racial preferences by public institutions of higher education, there will be immense consternation in the Diversity Above All camp.

A revealing example of the thinking of people in that camp is an editorial published on February 5 in The Tech, M.I.T.’s student newspaper. The piece was entitled “Understanding diversity,” and the writers argued that “Affirmative action is actually incredibly fair and integral to the success of any merit-based institution….”

So “affirmative action” isn’t merely fair, but “incredibly” so. That’s quite a claim! What’s the argument for it? We are next told, “Affirmative action is recognizing that there are still people who are prejudiced. It is understanding that discrimination still exists and has a real impact on people and their lives. It is taking a holistic view of admissions and faculty searches and considering individuals in their respective contexts.”

It is perfectly possible to recognize that there are still people who are prejudiced and not be in favor of “affirmative action,” though. Let’s agree that there are some Americans who still harbor racial and ethnic prejudices against blacks, against Hispanics, against Japanese, against Jews, and other groups. The question is how that premise could lead to the conclusion the writers draw, namely that it’s good for MIT to use a “holistic” admission process that favors some applicants over others simply on account of their ancestry.

Does it in some way eliminate or even marginally diminish existing prejudices held by some Americans when MIT decides not to admit Student A, despite his or her strong academic background, so that it can instead admit Student B, who happens to be from a racial or ethnic group the admissions office regards as “underrepresented”?

No. The two things are completely independent. Prejudiced people won’t know anything about the admissions process at MIT and wouldn’t change their views even if they did. The existence of prejudice in society is used merely as a pretext for a policy that discriminates against some individuals because the school thinks, “We already have enough people of your kind.”

But if the school didn’t do that, wouldn’t it wind up lacking in “diversity”?

That’s not the case unless you think that people are only “diverse” with regard to ancestry. Two students who happen to have Asian ancestry may be wildly different in every other respect. Conversely, a student whose forebears came from, say, Scotland might be largely indistinguishable from a student whose forebears came from Africa, except for skin color.

I understand the motive behind the quest for “diversity.” People want to think they are helping make society more fair and just by trying to make sure that groups are not “under-represented.” The trouble is that it’s merely wishful thinking. Nothing changes when a few students get into MIT who wouldn’t otherwise have been accepted because administrators feel better when they have met their unspoken quota for this or that group.

Well, that’s not quite right. Something does change: we move away from the ideal that individuals ought to be judged on the basis of their accomplishments and not on the basis of immutable characteristics.

Posted by: George Leef

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