A Princeton “Diversity” Parody

[NOTE: Cross-Posted on College Insurrection]

A few days ago Princeton President Shirley Tilghman put on another of what seem to be an endless series of parodies of “diversity” on college campuses these days. She didn’t intend it to be a parody, of course, and is no doubt unaware that it was one, but few readers of the Daily Princetonian‘s description of the panel she moderated on “Promoting Success in Diverse Environments,” part of “a daylong summit” celebrating “Diversity on Campus: Practices, Policies and Culture,” can fail to see its humor.

The “quintessential question,” insisted Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College, is “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” It’s not surprising President Tatum thinks this is the quintessential question about diversity, since her book on the subject is titled Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Her task on the Princeton panel, as in her book, was to explain why the self-segregation of the erstwhile “diversity”-providers does not detract from the “diversity” they were admitted to provide.

Tatum explained her opinion that affirming the identities of minority groups on campus is essential to building a united campus community.

“If the groups are aggregating along lines of affinity, then does that mean we’re not extracting the value of diversity? I would say it doesn’t mean that necessarily,” she said.

President Tatum’s view that the self-segregation of minorities is not necessarily detrimental to the extraction (like pulling a tooth?) of the value of “diversity” is not, believe it or not, unique. The same view was expressed in a New York Times article (discussed here) that noted, apparently without irony, that “many campuses are more diverse than ever…. But that does not mean that students connect across racial and ethnic lines.”

By the 1980′s, colleges had begun establishing diversity deans, ethnic studies courses and ethnic and racial affinity houses to help minority students feel more at home on campus.

The idea behind affinity houses — separate residences for different racial and ethnic groups — was that minorities needed places where they could learn about their cultures and relax and feel comfortable on campus.

“In other words,” as I’ve pointed out, “students imported to diversify campuses were assisted in segregating themselves so that they could learn about the cultures that they were admitted in large part to represent.”

Although President Tatum’s views are not unique, they do reveal some of the inconsistencies and contradictions of the “diversity” faith much better than others. According to one article about her, for example, although she “has championed racially diverse relationships for most of her life” and supports affirmative action in college to break the “cycle of segregation,” she is president of a college whose students are all women and are 97% black.

“I am often asked why I would choose to lead an institution as ‘homogeneous’ as Spelman College, ” she wrote in an article the Chronicle of Higher Education that I discussed in  “Diversity: Do Double Standard Lead To Doublespeak?” Why the scare quotes, you wonder? Because Spelman isn’t actually homogeneous, Tatum explains:

Although 97 percent of our students are racially categorized as “black,” the student body is, in fact, quite diverse. Spelman students come from all regions of the United States and many foreign countries, from white suburban and rural communities as well as urban black ones. All parts of the African diaspora are represented….

Whites, in other words, are deprived of the educationally essential extract of “diversity” if they are not exposed to a sufficient number of minorities — exposure, as we’ve seen, that can be effective even from distance — but blacks, being diverse among themselves, need no such exposure. Presumably that is because, as President Tatum told Yale freshmen, deans, faculty, and “ethnic counselors” in a 2007 keynote address,

Racism is a system of advantage based on race, a combination of racial prejudice and social power. Because they benefit from this arrangement, almost all white Americans — but not their black peers — can fairly be called racist.

President Tatum, however, was not the only contributor to the Princeton panel’s parody of diversity. Also doing a terrific job was David Thomas, dean and chair of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, who argued that “colleges should make it a priority to create a level playing field for students from high schools of varying quality.”

Colleges are often guilty of allowing “unearned privilege to create a false differentiation of talent,” Thomas said. He explained that students who come from lower-class socioeconomic backgrounds are disadvantaged compared to their peers.

“I think if we can get our hands around that, and figure out how we can fairly take that into consideration and talk about it, we can do a lot, I think, to create what, by the time a student graduates, will demonstrate that they’ve had a level playing field,” he said.

It’s always been hard for me to follow this “level playing field” metaphor. Since a large component of the disadvantage suffered by poor students is poor schools, for example, why is it “a false differentiation of talent” to believe that students from better schools are generally better prepared? How does lowering admission standards for disadvantaged students level the playing field? How will taking disadvantage “into consideration” level anything — certainly lowering it for blacks and Hispanics doesn’t level it for Asians. What actually “will demonstrate” that the playing field had somehow become level, whenever it did?

“To the best of my knowledge,” I wrote here, no one who argues that we have to take this or that into account until the playing field is level “has defined what he or she means by ‘level playing field’ and how we will know when it has become level.” Thus I’ve seen nothing from Dean Thomas or anyone else to lead me to revise my proposed definition of level playing field: “The political, social, and economic terrain that will ensure that two or more teams with different levels of ability, experience, equipment, interest, attitude, coaching, etc. always achieve equal scores and win the same number of games.”


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