How Diversity Initiatives Could Increase Black Alienation

VCU student protest. Image credit:
VCU student protest. Image credit:

by James A. Bacon

Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim make a scary prediction: The expansion of diversity programs in response to racial protests in American universities will serve to isolate and alienate African-American students and increase racial tensions, the very opposite of their intended result.

Haidt and Jussim, professors at New York University and Rutgers University respectively, advance their argument in an important Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. Their argument is as germane here in Virginia as anywhere in the United States, where African-Americans students at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University have demanded that the universities enroll more blacks, hire more black professors, implement sensitivity “training” programs, and dedicate more funds to black cultural organizations.

“The existing research literature suggests that such reforms will fail to achieve their stated aims of reducing discrimination and inequality,” write the authors in “Hard Truths about Race on Campus.” “In fact, we think that they are likely to damage race relations and to make campus life more uncomfortable for everyone, particularly black students.”

What follows is essentially a Reader’s Digest summation of the Haidt-Jussim argument. I have done my best to avoid injecting my own perspectives into the narrative until the “bottom line” segment, although I readily concede that I agree whole-heartedly with the conclusions.

It is a trait of humankind to draw distinctions between “us” and “them,” and for people to discriminate in favor of in-group members. That does not mean that drawing distinctions based on race is inevitable, however. When groups face a common threat or challenge, enmity dissolves and a mindset of “one for all and all for one” emerges.

The problem is that the demands of black students on many college campuses would sharpen race-based distinctions.

A common demand is to admit more black students into college. In a world in which the K-12 pipeline of graduating high school students vary widely by race in their academic preparation, meeting that goal would require adopting different admission standards for applicants of different races. Even now, in the absence of such aggressive recruiting, Asian students enter with combined math/verbal SAT scores on the order of 80 points higher than white students and 200 points higher than black students.

If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other school are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.

Not only would such aggressive recruiting of black students perpetuate negative stereotypes, it would perpetuate segregation on campus. Students tend to befriend those who are similar to themselves in academic development. “If a school increases its affirmative action efforts in ways that expand those gaps, it is likely to end up with more self-segregation and fewer cross-race friendships, and therefore with even stronger feelings of alienation among black students.”

As minority students retreat into the ethnic enclaves enabled by increased funding for cultural organizations, the perception will increase that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling that they are victimized by virtue of their ethnicity. “If the goal is to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture on campus, the best current research suggests that the effort will backfire.”

Could such results be offset by diversity “training”? The limited literature on the subject suggests not. Such programs “often induce ironic negative effects (such as reactance or backlash) by implying that participants are at fault for current diversity challenges.”

How about “microaggression” training? That, too, will likely inflame racial tensions.

The term itself encourages moralistic responses to actions that are often unintentional and sometimes even well-meaning. Once something is labeled an act of aggression, it activates an oppressor-victim narrative, which calls out to members of the aggrieved group to rally around the victim. As the threshold for what counts as an offense falls ever lower, cross-racial interactions become more dangerous and conflict increases.

How would your behavior change if anything you said could be misinterpreted, taken out of context and then reported — anonymously and with no verification — to a central authority to punish you? Wouldn’t faculty and students of all races grow more anxious and guarded whenever students from other backgrounds were present?

Haidt and Jussim contrast higher ed with the experience of the U.S. Army, which is widely regarded as one of the most successfully integrated institutions in the country. Rather than compromise its standards, the Army invested more resources in training and mentoring black soldiers so they could meet rigorous promotion standards. “The Army also promoted cooperation and positive-sum thinking by emphasizing pride in the Arm and in America.”

The politics and programs that universities have pursued over the past half-century don’t seem to be working, at least as judged by the recent campus unrest, so reflexively expanding them probably isn’t the answer. The time might be right for a bold college president to propose a different approach, one based on the available evidence about what works and what doesn’t.

Bacon’s bottom line:

 One encouraging sign is that both UVa and VCU have strong track records of narrowing the gap between black and white graduation rates — a response designed to narrow differences between the races and work against negative stereotypes. Whether that will reduce black alienation is open to question, however, given that UVa and VCU are the two Virginia institutions listed by We the Protesters where black students have issued demands.

In my personal experience in the world outside the ivory tower, more interaction between people of different races is a good thing, whether it takes place in the workplace, neighborhoods or public settings like stores and churches. Only by interacting with one another can people of good will build interracial friendships. And only if hundreds of millions of Americans build such friendships can we ever hope to move to a post-racial society. Universities are places where such friendships could be readily forged. Sadly, as Haidt and Jussim observe, black activists are calling for measures that will further isolate, marginalize and alienate blacks on campus.

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8 responses to “How Diversity Initiatives Could Increase Black Alienation”

  1. Acbar Avatar

    Your bottom line, “more interaction between people of different races is a good thing,” seems so obvious and basic, that you have to wonder why there’s any question about it. Yet plainly that’s what these “demands” seek to avoid.

  2. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    This piece reminds me of George Orwell in _The Road to Wigan Pier_: “Perhaps this class-breaking business isn’t so simple as it looked! On the contrary, it is a wild ride into the darkness, and it may be that at the end of it the smile will be on the face of the tiger. With loving though slightly patronizing smiles we set out to greet our proletarian brothers, and behold! our proletarian brothers — in so far as we understand them — are not asking for our greetings, they are asking us to commit suicide. When the bourgeois sees it in that form he takes to flight.” The intellectual climate of England in the 1930s that Orwell describes in this book and in other essays is similar to that of America today: A well-fed intelligentsia seeks the destruction of society, rather than its preservation.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Andrew –

      Not for the first time, you have hit the nail exactly on the head.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    there is no question that attempts to ‘represent’ diversity in the numbers for population rather than academic performance and ability is a bad deal.

    it actually works to undermine the ‘goal’ of equal opportunity because you cannot make ‘equal’ people who are -not- equal.

    and people know this and even those that might benefit from it should realize that ultimately it will divide people further.

    having said this – I do ask what we should do and NOT subscribe to the rest of the narrative from some including Jim – who seem to be implying that genes play a role at birth or that if Mom is illiterate, missing Dad, or just not a good Mom – that it’s “ok” for us to say that there is not much we can do with public education to help that child achieve what they are capable of if they are of normal IQ and capable of learning if taught in a different way – more tuned to their specific needs (of NOT having an educated parent to help them).

    Any child is entitled to a decent chance at “equal” opportunity.

    to wash our hands of this – and at the same time – say that we ALSO oppose any other approaches – just write off those folks

    is not only nor moral – it’s fiscally dumb because despite the wet-dreams of the ignorant hard right – we end up paying to provide food, shelter, health care to those that don’t earn enough to pay for it.

    Affirmative Action as a “solution” to our failure to provide a decent education is no better than the “it’s the bad genes Bell Curve” folks in many respects.

    both are equally bad because neither one actually deals substantively with the real issue which is we SHOULDN’T have the diversity in academic levels – on a race basis – EITHER.

    so count me as opposed to different academic standards at the college level but also count me just as opposed to our current failed k-12 approach to education of at-risk, disadvantaged kids.

    1. I’ve blogged frequently about what we “should” do, but you reject my ideas on how to help at-risk kids, which is fine, but then you pretend that I have none, which is not.

  4. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    ” who seem to be implying that genes play a role at birth”

    No implication…just scientific fact!

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      for you folks that really think this – why don’t you advocate for changes in the way we do education? It seems cowardly to me to profess you believe this but then stop short of how you would have us proceed different than now….

      how about it? what we “know” now days is what some folks “believe” and their criticisms of how we do things right now –

      fair enough

      but stopping there without putting on the table how we should proceed is not exactly anything more than .. just plain old ignorance and prejudice…

      at least Mr. Murray was willing to take a step: ” “You want to have a job training program for welfare mothers? You think that’s going to cure the welfare problem? Well, when you construct that job training program and try to decide what jobs they might qualify for, you had better keep in mind that the mean IQ of welfare mothers is somewhere in the 80s, which means that you have certain limitations in what you’re going to accomplish.”

      so for the folks that think like Mr Murray and HCJ and I presume Mr. Bacon, – what’s the way forward? What changes should we make in recognition of what you think is true?

  5. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    The root problem in most Black political expression is pride, of wanting to be “great”, and envy at Whites for not achieving this ambition. In spiritual teachings, the Church Fathers declaim against comparing ourselves with others, period. We should thank God for what we have, be content with it, but be glad if something more comes our way. We have to focus on our own failings, our own sins and not harboring a grudge against our brother. Blacks have many opportunities in this society, and they should avail themselves of them. Struggling is part of achievement and can strengthen us even when we fail. The glass is always “half empty” for this politics of grievance. Until Blacks collectively repent and reorient themselves away from their pride, envy and anger, then race relations will continue to be tense. Unfortunately, White Liberal politicians and elites are enablers and cultivators and “harvesters” of this destructive set of attitudes. Hopefully, an equally bitter “White Pride” will not grow up in imitation of this, but legitimate grievances alleviated.


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