Ten months after President Obama’s inauguration, Americans have grown accustomed to having a black President. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity aside, race has slipped quite a few notches on the list of characteristics we associate with “that one.” Health care reformer and Nobel laureate both come to mind ahead of African-American.
We move ever closer to evaluating the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Politics as usual subsumes identity politics.
In a sense, this outcome is ideal for advocates of racial equality. Doors will open wider for minorities; society will veer closer to meritocracy. At the same time, certain questions once confined to theory become more immediate. In particular, social progressives need now to think more rigorously about the intrinsic value they ascribe to diversity. Why exactly did we want a black man as commander-in-chief? Weren’t there reasons above the glass ceiling?
Copious ink has been spilt on the subject of racial and socioeconomic diversity in higher education. Regardless of their stances on affirmative action, college admissions offices almost universally profess a desire to attract historically underrepresented students. The American Council on Education reports that between 1994 and 2004, minority student enrollment at institutions of higher education increased by 49 percent.
Yet schools rarely articulate the specific advantages they see in racially and socioeconomically progressive policies. Part of their interest is fairness — the desire to provide equal opportunity to all individuals. In addition, colleges have incentive to explore the largely untapped intellectual potential of disadvantaged communities.
The rhetoric surrounding race and class, however, often implies a further, more profound advantage: that the quality of the institution itself benefits directly from diversity. Students from unusual or unfamiliar backgrounds contribute not only their intellectual capabilities and creativity but also a different way of seeing the world.
But the reality of college experience often fails to match these priorities. Upon arrival, these students find few provisions made for them. This was certainly the case when Yale embraced gender diversity in 1969. Deborah Rhode ’74 LAW ’77, in her essay “The Woman Question,” observes that, “for two centuries, women had been excluded from institutions like Yale on the assumption that they were different. But once they were admitted, the assumption seemed to be that they were the same, and that few adjustments would be necessary to accommodate their presence.”
In fact, while Yale public relations devoted airtime to feminist principles, internally, the most influential argument for the inclusion of women at Yale held that coeducation would work to the advantage of male students. Gaddis Smith ’54 was recently quoted in the News as saying that, by admitting women, then-University President Kingman Brewster was trying “to make Yale more attractive to men by having women present.” Yale sought diversity not primarily for the sake of fairness, but in the interest of maintaining its own relevance in a changing world.
Yale now proudly welcomes students of all races, religions, nationalities and economic strata. We even support outreach programs — perhaps insufficient, but well-intentioned — which encourage students from all manner of demographic origins to consider a Yale education. As a result, Yale is now the most culturally diverse community many undergraduates have ever experienced.
My own perceptions of friends and classmates emphasize race, class and culture less than they did three years ago. Other qualities — intelligence, kindness, creativity — have eclipsed the significance of background. I suspect, however, that this transformation stems less from newly enlightened awareness than from a tendency toward the mean.
Despite concerns about parochial micro-communities of race or sexuality within Yale, it is primarily in such communities that true diversity continues to flourish. Isolation of these respective communities hinders the free exchange of perspective among diverse individuals, but total permeability destroys the intrinsic value of diversity itself.
Just as I think of Obama as being a Democrat before being an African-American, I tend to think of my friends as Yalies first, Muslim — or Brooklynite, or rich, or gay — second. This blindness is possible in a large part because behavior in a community as interconnected as ours favors homogeneity.
As wide-ranging as Yale undergraduates’ academic, social and extracurricular activities may be, being comfortable on campus requires appropriating extensive cultural common ground. We come to share much of the same music, the same videos, the same parties, the same food and the same aspirations. Like women in 1969, minorities receive few provisions for their comfort; thus assimilation, not identity, becomes the path to happiness. Of course some of these commonalities are natural products of Yale’s selection process; some of them are essential to achieving equality and acceptance. Others, however, arise from the mere convenience of similarity. Love diversity as we might, we nevertheless fear it.
The value I would like to derive from diversity is intrinsic, not instrumental — the value of exposure to as broad a range of experience as possible. I want my Russian friends to be proudly Russian, not culturally American. I want my wealthy friends to tell me about their unique opportunities, not hide behind the ambivalent veil of being “upper-middle-class” and therefore deeply normal. I want Obama to speak about race as only a black man can.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.