There are two major myths about diversity on college campuses, both of which have sadly become undisputed facts to most students and members of administration.

James Brennan

The first is that diversity should mainly be pursued for the “educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body” — a quote from the U.S. Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger. In this mindset — which, I should note, is the mindset taken up by U.S. courts — policies like affirmative action and recruiting from majority-minority school districts are about making the University better. A diverse student body will make the campus a breeding ground for intellectual exploration and cultural understanding, improving education for everyone.

This is completely logical, and if handled properly, will achieve its stated goals. This is not, however, the only reason for college campuses to pursue diversity, nor should it be the main reason.

Affirmative action and diversity-conscious programs take their basis in a series of executive orders and a 1965 speech by President Lyndon Johnson. To Johnson, the civil rights legislation of the ’60s was an “opening of the gate” for African Americans; policies like affirmative action were meant to allow everyone to get up and walk through that gate. The pursuit of diversity was about remedying past harms.

In 1977, this ideology began to change. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke the use of racial quotas in college admissions to be unconstitutional, but left the idea of affirmative action intact. The use of racial preferences in the pursuit of a diverse student body, the divided court argued, was legally sound — just not in that form. Bakke would be the precedent around which all future affirmative action cases were argued, with an oversized emphasis on educational benefits of “diversity.”

The second myth, which is built on Bakke and the idea of diversity for diversity’s sake, is that affirmative action is about white people.

This may not seem like a commonly held idea on campus, but that’s only because no one says it so bluntly. We hear it affirmed to us any number of ways, from white students who don’t want all-white classrooms, to administrators discussing the joys of open dialogues and understanding other people. We joke with each other about how we’re such a rich, white kid school, but put on our serious faces to bemoan how few poor people of color we get to interact with.

Diversity on campus isn’t about any of this.

Diversity isn’t about improving universities for their own sake or giving rich white kids a chance to talk with Black students who grew up 10 miles down the road. I’m not saying these things are bad, or that they don’t help with the problems we face. It is indisputable that when privilege gets to know oppression, privilege tends to take a step back; meeting and getting to know students from different backgrounds has helped immensely in recognizing my own racism and sexism. But diversity isn’t about me.

Diversity is about justice. It is about recognizing a failure in our society and in ourselves and taking action to reverse it. Building a diverse college campus has tons of benefits, but the reason we do it cannot be so white kids learn more. Yes, even our justification for pursuing diversity needs to be specified.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations,” he makes the point that simply having a national airing of grievances can benefit our pursuit of social and racial justice. We have to address problems of racism and inequality as issues that predominantly harm those who experience them. Those with racial blind spots need to learn their lesson, but our pursuit of diversity cannot be a campaign to teach white people how to have Black friends. Diversity being pursued for its own sake is surely beneficial, but not as beneficial as an overt crusade for justice.

Whether you agree with this line of reasoning or not, consider the following: In 2013, less than 5 percent of Michigan’s undergraduate student body identified as African American. Even fewer students identified as Hispanic. In the Ross School of Business, Blacks and Hispanics made up only 3.7 percent of undergraduates combined.

With those numbers in mind, let me shatter one final myth about diversity at the University: Whether the administration’s motivation is racial justice or admissions brochures displaying a human rainbow, they are not doing everything they can to build a diverse student body.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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