To get into the University, we all had to write an admissions essay explaining the importance of diversity in our lives. If you think back to that essay you wrote in high school, what’s your opinion of it? Because I’m willing to bet that most of you would now consider your essay crap, hyperbole, cliché or all of the above. And if you’re like me, it’s not because you are opposed to diversity. It’s because diversity has become an empty buzzword that’s too-often trumpeted. As a friend of mine put it, “If the University values diversity so much, why is everyone here white?”
Indeed, in the U.S. News and World Report Diversity index, the University scored a .43/1, with the highest-ranking school (Rutgers) scoring a .76. The “Diversity Matters at Michigan” page may boast about accepting students from 49 states, but information about the racial makeup of the University is limited.
Think of the diversity question as a backdrop to the question discussed on The New York Times Room for Debate Blog last Wednesday, “Under Obama, is America ‘Post-Racial?’” The academics on the blog seemed to agree that if “post-racial” is supposed to mean “racially equal,” the answer is a clear no. Among other indicators, black and Latino unemployment rates are 16 and 11 percent respectively — well above the national average of 9.1 percent.
But if the question is how the country’s public actors, most notably President Barack Obama, treat race issues, the term “post-racial” begins to make more sense. Obama and the University are similar in that they face huge political risks by promoting race-conscious policies. Rather, they advocate policies that are intended to help everyone in the hopes that disadvantaged minorities will also benefit. Economic stimulus is supposed to boost the economy for everyone, just as all students are supposed to benefit from a diverse campus.
Unfortunately, as shown above, these policies don’t benefit everyone equally. All indicators blatantly show that minorities are still at a severe disadvantage.
Yet, signs of a “post-racial” mindset pervade in many other ways. If you look at the primary issues covered by the political parties and media cycles, it’s difficult to tell that there are even racial issues in the country. Take discrimination for example. This summer, I worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington D.C., a government agency with the mission of ending employment discrimination in the United States. When I told people about the job, many expressed the belief that employment discrimination is no longer a major problem.
One might reach the same conclusion from seeing how the rest of Washington perceives the EEOC. My first red flag was that the EEOC offices are located in a building that was a warehouse no more than 15 years ago, far removed from the center of the city’s activity. More importantly, as any EEOC staffer will tell you, Congress gives the agency very little enforcement power. EEOC is allowed to offer recommendations on the employment practices of private companies and other government agencies but has no mechanism to make them oblige. Generally speaking, the prevailing view around the District was that anti-discrimination initiatives interfered with the presumably more important work of the rest of the agencies.
While such signs might lead one to believe that discrimination hardly occurs anymore, racial minorities are likely to say that, on the contrary, the problem is still very prevalent. And research shows that there is a large opinion gap between racial groups on the issue.
In one recent study done through the Association for Psychological Science entitled “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing,” professors Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers asked a nationwide sample to rate the seriousness of black discrimination on a one to 10 scale for each decade between 1950 and the present. While most respondents agreed on a rating of nine or 10 for the 1950s, white respondents gave an average rating of 3.5 for the present. Black respondents, on the other hand, gave the present an average rating of 6.
When it comes down to it, the term “post-racial” can really only apply to mindset and presentation. Even though many issues disproportionally affect minorities, public figures almost always handle these issues in race-neutral terms. And issues that only affect minorities tend to be forgotten altogether. To an average white citizen minimally invested in the news and political discourse, it may very well appear that racial problems in America have been solved for decades.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at email@example.com.