The Perils of Saying "Diversity" in Public

Lucas Morel

May 1, 2003

Earlier this week Secretary of Education Rod Paige answered questions from the Miami Herald about the president’s approach to achieving racial diversity in higher education. On the whole, Paige gave a respectable defense of Bush’s critique of affirmative action. But one of his answers illustrates the problem with adopting the language of affirmative action’s defenders:

“It isn’t a question of whether or not we should have diversity. The question is, how do we attain this?”

It’s problematic to adopt the language of “diversity” when defending race-neutral measures of promoting access to education. Instead of government as the protector of individual rights, it becomes the grantor of entitlements to individuals depending on what group they are a member of. Government’s attention is directed toward our incidental differences instead of our fundamental equality as human beings.

It also suggests that equality of individual rights and opportunities should produce equality of results, i.e., the equal “representation” of race, sex, and other human characteristics in every human endeavor. Of course, this never happens when diverse human beings apply themselves in diverse ways to the diverse resources and options they have at hand. Do affirmative action proponents never get out to a ball game and see what their much-vaunted “level playing field” actually produces? Even those who enjoy a pitchers’ duel in baseball cheer for one side or the other to do better than—that is, perform unequally compared with–the other.

For starters, folks should re-read Federalist No. 10, which explains how the equal protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men” will ineluctably produce a diversity of results. This should be followed by a look at Aristotle’s Politics (Book 3, chapter 9, and Book 5, chapter 1, to be precise). There Aristotle discusses the nature of political justice and how factions form precisely around our differing notions of how to define justice. If Americans would only return to the language of the American founders, the language taught us by Washington and Jefferson and revivified by Lincoln and Douglass, we could be on our way to reuniting as “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

To his credit, Secretary Paige later observed: “Barriers are steeper for some than for others, so it’s not a level playing field. There are those who need a helping hand. But the whole point is that we want to make sure that the assistance that we offer does not come at the expense of another American.”

Now he’s talking like a true, red-white-and-blue American. The language of equality—which asks that government treat each individual as deserving of the same rights as everyone else—should trump the now conventional notion of diversity as the goal of American government. At bottom, equality of rights does not mean we all have the same skill, talent, character, initiative, or aspiration. It does mean we all have the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as the Declaration of Independence puts it. Therefore government should grant equal protection to our humanity, in all of its sameness and diversity.

We should retire the word “diversity” from our public discourse until we understand it correctly and are committed to its true, dignified manifestation in a free society: that is, until we recognize that diversity will follow naturally from the equal protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men.” This way we both preserve our individual liberty and ennoble our individual responsibility to think and act to the best of our abilities.

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center