Affirmative Action by Another Name
By Peter Wood
Publisher: Encounter Books
Review Author: Patrick Rooney
When Peter Wood writes about diversity, pay attention, for the man knows of what he writes. A professor of anthropology at Boston University, Wood knows what real diversity is, and what it isn’t. Suffice it to say that the kind of “diversity” which seems to be pandemic these days is, in Wood’s view, an imposter.
“Diversity” is much more than a mere word. It is a contemporary concept, one that aims at nothing less than the total transformation of American society. Wood notes that the concept is nowhere to be found in our founding documents.
The new “diversity” commands “Do not judge.” But Wood rightly answers, “We learn by judging and by correcting our judgments when they prove faulty.”
Wood recounts the experience of David Denby, critic for the New Yorker, who took leave in 1994-95 to retake Columbia University’s “Literature, Humanities, and Contemporary Civilizations” courses. Denby explains that when a professor, James Shapiro, taught the Joseph Conrad classic Heart of Darkness to a class, he began his discussion by provocatively asking students, “Who comes from a savage race?” The class then read the story in the light of “diversity,” where no cultural judgments are made — except of course against evil Western man. Read thus, Conrad’s “story of a morally disastrous temptation to identify with the primitive ‘other’ disappears behind the story of a world corrupted by colonialism.”
Wood covers the influence of the “diversity” movement on all major areas of life. Business is one area that has swallowed the “diversity” concept hook, line, and sinker. He thinks that in some ways business has “domesticated” diversity, yet in other ways it has been “profiting in the fragmentation of the American identity.” Very true. Witness, for instance, the phony, pseudo-African holiday “Kwanzaa.”
But the Courts bear the most responsibility for legitimizing the modern “diversity” movement. Wood traces its beginning to the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978. It was here that Justice Lewis Powell of the U.S. Supreme Court issued his opinion, compromising between two factions of the Court. The case had to do with a white man, Allan Bakke, who had been denied admission to the School of Medicine at the University of California at Davis, despite his having much better credentials than those of some other applicants who were accepted. The school acknowledged that Bakke had been passed over in favor of less-qualified minority candidates, but claimed it had the right to do so as part of its affirmative action program.
Justice Powell, casting the deciding vote, was unwilling to either defend or reject reverse discrimination, and so introduced the concept of the need for “diversity” — which was essentially unknown at the time — as a compelling reason to promote one race over another in college admissions.
In 1996 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, essentially challenging the Supreme Court, ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that “diversity” was not the kind of compelling interest that could justify racial preferences in college admissions. However, in May 2002, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court in Grutter v. Bollinger found full justification in the “diversity” rationale for racial preferences in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School. The stage was set for a showdown, of which the author, Wood, was fully aware. In the book he anticipated that the Court might finally throw out the absurd compelling reason of “diversity.” It was not to be. After this book’s release, in June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case and upheld the U of M’s “diversity”-friendly Law School admissions policy.
Sadly, the Court’s coddling of racial groups is doing nothing to actually improve the performances of individuals. Says Wood, “Faced with tough academic challenges, some middle-class black and Hispanic students suddenly adopt the stance of the ethnic outsider who rejects academic standards, blames the system and acts too tough to care. Such actions, rooted in insecurity, offer no valid educational path; but within the culture of diversity, few in higher education dare resist minority students’ descent into a faux authenticity of street personae. Diversity legitimizes such destructive play-acting as a valid form of seeking one’s own identity.”
We might pause to re-examine the whole notion of “diversity” in light of 9/11. Have we been a bit too careful to make sure we pass no judgments on any cultural, ethnic, or religious group? Post-9/11, it was well known that the infamous hijacker-murderers were all Middle Eastern, but airport security guards were prevented from “profiling” them. Instead, notes Wood, “the nation’s airports have become snarled as the guards performed random searches of travelers who fit no known pattern of security threat.” So even the war on terrorism is — frighteningly — compromised by “diversity.”
Wood notes that “diversity” essentially stipulates that social differences should be recognized only for the purposes of dispensing contracts, awards, and government patronage, and for rooting out discrimination. But any other application of it is quickly denounced as motivated by hatred or bias.
The defining moment of the folly of “diversity” came when Northern Alliance forces captured John Walker Lindh, an American, who was fighting for the Taliban against his own country. It was subsequently learned that Lindh was from Marin County, California, the very epitome of “diversity.” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote of Lindh’s permissive parents: “Devout practitioners of the self-obsessed nonjudgmentalism for which the Bay Area is renowned, Lindh [the father] and Walker [the mother] appear never to have rebuked their son or criticized his choices. In their world, there were no absolutes, no fixed truths, no mandatory behavior, no thou-shalt-nots.”
“Diversity” therefore had become the perfect breeding ground for the quintessential 21st-century Benedict Arnold. The question is: How many other traitors is it breeding?
Probably the greatest danger of “diversity” is its apparent sweetness. It makes the ultimate appeal to cowards: “It liberates us from the hard work of judging moral and political perplexities and assures us that, in avoiding that work, we are really living up to a higher principle.”
Wood cuts up the relatively new concept of “diversity” like a trained fencer. Wood’s work is so graceful, and without a perceptible trace of malice, that you can almost hear him say “sorry” as he pulls the saber out of the heart of his opponent. Wood’s treatment has the right temper — serious with light relief. The research is there, and the good writing is there. It’s also a reference point, as Wood has zeroed in on the genesis of a movement and its growth into a behemoth. Less clear is his explanation of how society can extricate itself from a force that has firmly entrenched itself into our cultural, scholarly, and business landscape. Perhaps a future work by Wood will shed further light on that critical and necessary next step.
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