Diversity and Its Malcontents | The Nation


Diversity and Its Malcontents

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Much of the book is an examination of how this messy principle might work in practice, as Schuck examines bilingual education, affirmative action and residential integration policy. Sometimes his argument is plain wrong. He contends, for instance, that private, but not public, universities should be allowed to admit students on the basis of race. Public institutions, as agents of the state, can't be color conscious--a nearly all-white Yale would assumedly be intolerable to Schuck, while a nearly all-Asian-and-white Berkeley might not trouble him. But this public-private distinction is artificial. Private universities depend on government loans for student aid; public universities, which now get less than a third of their funding from the states, rely increasingly on private money to keep running. One rule for all: The outcome of the Michigan affirmative action case will inevitably set the standard for admissions at Columbia.

David L. Kirp has chronicled the Mount Laurel, New Jersey, history in Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community (Princeton).

About the Author

David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

Also by the Author

Are MOOCs—massive open online courses—the utopia of affordable higher education, or just the latest fad?

Resistance is growing, and with good reason—test mania delivers few benefits and often harms the students it’s meant to help. 

In general, Schuck's analyses are provocative and complex. Consider his approach to the vexed question of suburban integration. For thirty years, the poor black residents of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, fought for affordable housing in their home town. The principle they advanced, which was embraced by the New Jersey Supreme Court in a series of landmark rulings, emphasized class rather than race: Every community must accept its "fair share" of the burden of housing the poor. I spent half a decade chronicling those efforts to achieve simple justice. Peter Schuck devotes eight pages to trashing them.

The ethical premise of Schuck's argument is deeply troubling. While racial discrimination is intolerable, he asserts, "classism is not only descriptive but normative as well; in a capitalist society it seems like the natural order of things. Government has no business inserting people who have not climbed the ladder in the customary neighborhood they cannot afford." Yet as it turns out, Schuck doesn't really buy his own argument. He favors residential integration achieved on the QT, through housing vouchers--boosts up that "ladder" with public funds--that tenants can use to negotiate with landlords. Perhaps poor families wouldn't have wound up living in Mount Laurel, which prohibited the construction of apartments, but they would have a better opportunity to live in decent housing, most likely in more diverse neighborhoods than where they'd been living.

Is that fair? Some years ago, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, NYU law professor Derrick Bell advanced a Swiftian proposal: Let businesses that want to discriminate buy licenses to do so, and distribute the fees to African-Americans victimized by the discrimination. After all, Bell argued, tongue only partly in cheek, the bigots were going to discriminate anyway; why not let blacks get something out of it?

If racist (or classist) suburbs had the option of buying their way out of their responsibilities to the commonwealth, would black and poor families really be better off? Mount Laurel's taxpayers spent over $1 million fighting the court's decree, and it wasn't until 2001, thirty years after the lawsuit was filed, that the first affordable housing units were built in that town. Across New Jersey fewer than 30,000 such units have been constructed because of the decision, most of them occupied by the twentysomething children and the sixtysomething parents of suburban homeowners. In a state where, during the 1990s, as many as 30,000 units of market-rate housing were being constructed each year, fewer than 2,000 low-income housing units have been built because of this decree. In Yonkers, New York, another celebrated case discussed by Schuck, a federal judge ordered that both public housing and public schools be integrated. The principle--securing nondiscrimination--is certainly right. But in Yonkers, as in Mount Laurel, the resistance was fierce and the results have been modest. As a pragmatic matter, it's hard to dispute Schuck's conclusion that a less adversarial approach would achieve more, in terms of concrete housing opportunities.

Not just in housing but across the social landscape, Schuck argues, "diversity's value to people depends on its perceived genuineness and lack of legal contrivance"--its "provenance." That's a bitter pill for a veteran of the civil rights wars to swallow. But the accumulated evidence of increased racial segregation in suburbs and schools, despite decades of litigation, as well as ceaseless resistance to other government initiatives aimed at promoting diversity, suggests that sometimes it's best to do good by stealth. Initiatives that are more freely chosen and less visible--reliance on civil society with a nudge, rather than a clout, from government--may achieve more enduring diversity than government can bring about on its own. That's the nub of the argument in Diversity in America, and it's a proposition that no one who thinks hard about diversity--not as a slogan but as something of value--can afford to ignore.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.