Is Race Really the Best Indicator of Diversity?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader, Athena Kifah, isn’t so sure:

“In the weird constitutional language of affirmative action,” writes Garrett Epps in The Atlantic today, “no one is allowed to say what they really mean.”

Past judicial rulings have allowed for a holistic approach in college admissions based on the abstract idea that a diverse learning community is in the interest of all students. But this is not how many people view affirmative action; they see it as compensatory, a necessary step towards erasing systemic and historical disadvantages that have prevented minority individuals—in particular, Black and African-Americans and Native Americans—from achieving the same levels of monetary success as their White counterparts.

But while this idea of atoning for past sins through affirmative action is logical and appealing in theory, its implementation would be problematic. How does one determine which minorities have been systemically or historically disadvantaged? Would this exclude any Black individual who has immigrated to the U.S. since ... when? After slavery? After Jim Crow? After the Civil Rights era? Where do we draw the divide in our timeline to establish who has faced enough generations of discrimination to be owed something by the U.S.? And how would such a lineage, if specified, ever be proven? By this metric, virtually no new immigrants would meet the criteria to be a recipient of affirmative action.

I agree, as I venture most would, that increasing the range of perspectives within any learning space is beneficial to learning. But what does that mean? How is that being achieved? Is the highest metric of “diversity” strictly racial? Experiences within race can be extremely varied, in both White and non-White communities. There are ranges of privilege, wealth, and educational attainment within each community, metrics that also contribute significantly to what “diversity” a student might bring to the table.

I believe it is also worth noting, particularly in this political climate, that Middle Eastern and North African people are all census designated as White.

As a result, they are largely forced to self-identify as White on college applications. The same Syrian refugees being banned by multiple governors, the same Muslims whom Donald Trump would like to ban, the same “rag heads” and “sand niggers” and “terrorists” who are widely distrusted and even hated, are also just White.

Is their experience not a valid one in a conversation about diversity? Do their voices not contribute anything valuable at an institution of higher learning? How can we entertain a notion that ostensibly encourages the amplification of minority voices while simultaneously silencing some of those voices that are most vilified? To claim that there is no distinction between a “White” student whose family owned plantations and a “White” student who is a first generation Middle Eastern American is an extremely limiting perspective, and one that cannot be overlooked in this national conversation about diversity.

Another reader is on the same page:

Somehow Jews, Italians, Irish, and English and Argentinians can all be considered white. I’m not sure how such disparate groups can be all grouped together, and even with those “groups,” there is so much diversity and difference. I understand the concerns with not seeing race, but has the pendulum perhaps swung too far, where race is the dominant focus in all interactions—be it policing, college admissions, job interviews, incarceration rates, and many others? Are we really saying race is the causal factor in all these disparities and results?

And if we are, what do we mean by race? Skin color? And if so, what gradient qualifies one for one race or another? Gender, socioeconomic factors, family history, mental health history, migration patterns, economic patterns … are we excluding all these factors or just using race as a shorthand for those factors? If it is a shorthand reference, then it seems less useful as something to base policy decisions on.

I say this as someone from a mixed family, and as someone who has lived overseas for many years in countries where I was a minority. At times, it is dispiriting to see the great wrongs committed in this country and then the opportunities to right these wrongs turned into echo chambers of talking points.

I realize I will catch flak for this. I think our conversations about race have become too simplistic and reactive. I don’t think anyone ends up persuading anyone anymore. There is no room to be wrong on either side. And that makes it harder to find out what is right.

Contribute your own thoughts via