The Word 'Diversity' Is Almost Useless

It often obscures more than it clarifies, and ought to be avoided

In a letter urging US News & World Report to alter the formula it uses to rank law schools, The State Bar of California offers this argument:

There is a broad consensus among law school deans and professors that diversity greatly enhances the educational experiences of law students. Exposure to and an understanding of diversity better prepares students to practice in an increasingly diverse setting and to respond to the needs of the global economy, making it even more important that diversity be included as a factor in the rankings.

Set aside your stance on this issue. Is anyone else put off by the excerpted argument's slipperiness?

It's as if the author is trying hide something. Were the word "diversity" struck from the paragraph, he would be forced think hard about his precise claims and how to back them up. (Try a re-write yourself.) As drafted, however, he can't even commit to a single meaning for the word: it shape-shifts several times in the space of two sentences. A bit farther along, we're told that "among the challenges we face as a nation is the impact of our increasingly diverse population."

What does that even mean?

The letter is somewhat clearer about its goals. The State Bar Of California wants "diversity" to count for 15 percent of the overall score that determines where law schools place in the US News & World Report rankings. Currently, the magazine publishes a standalone diversity ranking, but critics say that's insufficient: in fact, it allegedly "trivializes the importance of diversity and presents a misleading picture of diversity as not integral to a student's learning experience."

I can't bring myself to care whether or not the egregiously misleading, wildly influential ranking system is tweaked. I also lack a settled opinion about whether it benefits top law students to be surrounded by marginally more black and Latino graduates of elite colleges who scored highly on the LSAT. Nor do I know if affirmative action helps its recipients in law schools, or hurts them as some studies claim.

What I do care about is clear language and useful public debates about subjects including "diversity" - and if we're going to productively wrestle with all the subjects that term is used to encompass, we'd be better off eschewing it.

It's long since become an ideologically fraught buzz word, one that obscures more than it clarifies. If we're going to talk about the racial composition of a law school as a metric of its quality, or the educational benefit of people with different ethnic backgrounds learning torts together, or the desirability of foreign students, or the impact on the legal system of having it staffed by people almost entirely from the upper-middle class, or the importance of LSAT scores relative to all those things, let's have the conversations... and stop talking about diversity.    

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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