For all their talk of diversity in education, the leading Democratic presidential contenders did not practice it in their own young lives. Hillary Clinton went to all-female Wellesley, while Barack Obama was a member of the last all-male class at Columbia. Neither seems to have been much affected; the ladies love Obama, and whatever problems Clinton may encounter in reaching male voters are probably not traceable to her college years. Still, their experiences raise the question of exactly what diversity is meant to accomplish.
Clinton says being sheltered from men helped her learn to deal with them: “In so many ways this all women’s college prepared me to compete in the all boys club of presidential politics.” Obama is unlikely to praise Columbia’s all-male policy, which few at the time saw as anything but an anachronism, but he has been a strong supporter of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), recently introducing legislation to increase their federal funding. This may or may not stem from Obama’s experience with diversity at Columbia, where, according to his autobiography, the bathroom stalls were constantly “scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes.”
If diversity were truly vital “for the benefit of all students in higher education,” as Senator Clinton has stated, there would be no HBCUs. Not only do the 100 or so of them siphon off part of the already small pool of black college students, but they sometimes reduce diversity even beyond their gates. As the New York Timeswrote in 2001, “When black [athletic] recruits arrive at [Florida State University], which is predominantly white, they are quickly steered to the nearby [Florida A&M] campus with its pretty black coeds. It is not uncommon for black F.S.U. players to spend more of their free time at FAMU than at their own campus.”
Black and women’s colleges cater to students who want live among people like them — perhaps to avoid being marginalized, perhaps because they don’t feel like serving as diversity providers for their classmates, or perhaps just to increase the size of their dating pool. Many other examples could be found of liberation through segregation: Colleges with a specific religious or political orientation are common, and students at places like MIT and Caltech often say things like, “In high school I was an outcast, but here everyone’s a nerdy geek like me.”
So who needs diversity? Or, more precisely, why can’t college applicants choose how much diversity they want, instead of having it regulated by the government? It’s striking that American colleges, famously prickly about their independence and almost uniformly left-wing, submit tamely, even eagerly, to government regulation in this area. Indeed, college professors and administrators are among the greatest advocates of stronger mandates for “affirmative action.”
Clinton reveals part of the answer when she promises to “bring more women and minorities into the math, science, and engineering professions” and recalls how “for millions of Americans, affirmative action has knocked down the barriers of the past that prevented them from attending college.” Whether they were kept from “attending college” or merely the college of their choice, and whether it was affirmative action or simple desegregation that dismantled the barriers, are open to question. So is the notion that our lives will be improved if a sewage-treatment plant is designed by a woman instead of a man, or a Basque instead of an Anglo-Saxon. But passages like these make clear that the supposed personal growth that comes from living among people with assorted skin colors is a minor consideration. At bottom, affirmative action is about generating admissions slots and professional opportunities for members of certain groups — plus, of course, jobs for diversicrats to administer the programs. The more affirmative action, the more there will be of all these things, and that’s why no one must be allowed to opt out.
There are other reasons why collegiate types want diversity to be mandatory. If College A admits based on diversity while College B goes by merit, then B will soon surpass A. Most of all, though, requiring affirmative action simultaneously reinforces the idea that racism and sexism are omnipresent and inescapable, like original sin, and provides an easy path to salvation. Professors and administrators can say: “Even we, the enlightened few, unconsciously practice subtle but severe discrimination, which can only be remedied with the help of highly paid bureaucrats.” And the cure? Do exactly what they wanted to do anyway. It’s like giving up broccoli for Lent.
If colleges were free to admit whoever they pleased, the cause of diversity would be advanced immeasurably. Admissions offices wouldn’t be bothered by pesky types who insist that “discrimination on account of race or gender” means what it says, so they could rejigger entrance standards, count beans, and engineer students’ social lives to their hearts’ content. Students who prize diversity could have it, and those who, like Clinton and Obama, do not could choose a college on other grounds. But that would require politicians and faculty members to concede that racism and sexism are no longer all-encompassing and ubiquitous throughout American society — including universities. And even the most hybrid-driving, Kucinich-voting, peace-marching college administrator would have a hard time admitting that he or she isn’t, at heart, a racist. – Fred Schwarz is deputy managing editor of National Review