Affirmative Action and Higher Education: Why we focus on race   
By Professor Quincy Flagstaff, Huxley College

(1) Why should American higher education promote ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity? According to Mitchell J. Chang, it is because interactions between diverse groups improve education. It does this because dealing with unfamiliar points of view stimulates complex thinking when students are engaged with controversial issues. Colby College President William Adams recently agreed, saying, “It is a fundamental truth [that students] learn more and more powerfully in settings that include individuals from many different backgrounds and perspectives.”

(2) Is this small gain worth its huge cost? Yes, but not for the reasons you might expect.

(3) As Clarence Thomas argues, this activity requires stereotyping along racial lines. It assumes that everyone in one racial group has more or less the same view. And because we know that most African-Americans are disadvantaged, our diversity programs proceed on the assumption that all African-Americans are disadvantaged, and therefore will serve as spokespersons for a specific political and moral perspective. The actual truth, according to both Millery Polyne and Walter Benn Michaels, is that the vast majority of students at top colleges are from advantaged families. So it does not really matter if colleges admit more African-Americans. In the current system, they are mainly African-Americans from advantaged homes, and they represent the values of other well-to-do Americans more than they reflect those of disadvantaged members of their racial group. Basically, the current practice of affirmative action means that advantage white students are encouraged to interact with advantaged minority students, while at the same time the more conservative white students will stereotype the non-white students as not deserving of their place on campus. No one’s minds are really changed by this process.

(4) Therefore Chang is wrong to say that the current system does a good job at promoting all students’ learning and development. The truth is that the current use of affirmative actions generates one of two situations, both of them useless. Either the white and non-white students do not interact because the non-whites self-segregate, and then the whites will view the non-whites in terms of existing stereotypes. Or else the whites and non-whites will interact, but they will share very similar social backgrounds (middle class or rich), and so they won’t disagree enough to bring about the desired learning and development. So Chang is wrong. Useful diversity requires more than racial diversity. 

(5) Our current process for addressing diversity is primarily a distraction from a more serious issue that Americans are afraid to face: economic inequality. We love to address the problem of race -- we love identity -- because we are uncomfortable with divisions between social classes and economic classes. We love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don't but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever. A world where some of us don't have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it. A world where some of us are black and some of us are white -- or bi-racial or Native American or transgendered -- is a world where the differences between us present a solution: appreciating our diversity. Americans approve of this approach because “appreciating” others has no genuine economic costs. So we like to talk about the differences we can appreciate, and we don't like to talk about the ones we can't. Indeed, we don't even like to acknowledge that they exist. As survey after survey has shown, Americans are very reluctant to identify themselves as belonging to the lower class and even more reluctant to identify themselves as belonging to the upper class. The class we like is the middle class.

(6) Let’s face it: To make any real difference, we must address economic class. And while increasing the share of lower-class children who attend elite colleges is a nice ideal, national economic necessity doesn’t demand it and doesn’t want it.

(7) The main reason that colleges and universities do not want to deal with issues of economic class is that they are in the business of maintaining economic distinctions. It would be counter-productive for higher education to promote genuine social justice by enrolling a student body that reflects or even roughly approximates America’s class divisions. Although there are some fields where it would be valuable to produce more college graduates, we don’t want to increase the total number of college graduates, because then we will have an over-supply of people on the job market who are over-qualified for the available jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects no growth in jobs demanding college training in the near future. 72% of openings—for jobs like cashiers, janitors, home health aides, waiters, and waitresses—will require little formal education. So if we bring more lower class students into college as additions to the students who already attend, one result will be that a college degree will be worth less. To maintain the value of a college degree – which higher education will do its best to maintain – colleges will reduce admissions for middle class students. And the moment that higher education starts to benefit the lower class instead of the middle class, the middle class will stop supporting public higher education. To avoid this, higher education will keep raising its academic standards to limit access to higher education for the lower classes.

(8) Most Americans are middle class and their “fear of falling" into the lower classes justifies, for most of them, removing people of lower classes from the competition for the realization of the American Dream. According to Bruce Henwood, "failing to acknowledge the sizable material distress experienced by mid- and downscale whites typically makes the [political] right's job of pitting the working class against the poor ... much easier" (Henwood 1997, 178-79). The middle-class demand for higher education reflects their goals of improving their standards of living and working. But we’ve just seen that their pursuit of the American Dream puts them into ongoing competition with the lower classes. In other words, higher education has no reason to expand access to higher education for the lower classes. Instead, they’ll continue to support racial diversity, a diversity program that almost exclusively benefits non-whites who’ve already made it into the middle and upper class. The lower classes shouldn’t expect much change.