NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Opinion: Diversity Isn't A Good Argument For Preferences

February 6, 2001

Today, a federal court will begin hearing a case brought against the University of Michigan Law School by a white student denied admission despite having higher test scores than some African-American and Hispanic students who were admitted.

While a strong case can be made for correcting past and current injustices through such preferences or affirmative action, says Amitai Etzioni, the law school is making the relatively new argument that it is doing white students a favor by denying some of them admissions: it is creating a diverse education environment, and this diversity has educational benefits.

  • The law school acknowledges admitting minority students with lower scores; but it argues that grades, resumes, personal experience and letters of recommendation all count in admissions.
  • And the university says it has done nothing to violate the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke ruling, which outlawed racial quotas but allowed consideration of race in admissions.
  • "When we teach our students about difficult issues such as whether it's appropriate for police to be able to use race profiles...," explains Michigan Law School Dean Jeffrey Lehman, "the learning that takes place is better in a racially diverse classroom."

What's wrong with this thinking, according to Etzioni? First, it assumes that it is ethically appropriate to deny some fully qualified students admission in order to admit others to create diversity. But then, why not affirmative action for poor whites from Appalachia or students from Muslim nations -- if the aim is diversity?

Second, the diversity argument assumes a white person cannot argue powerfully about minority issues. If true, the law school would need homosexual students for a discussion of civil unions, mental patients to examine involuntary-commitment laws, and so on.

Michigan should stick to the old argument -- that preferences are needed to right past wrongs.

Source: Amitai Etzioni, "What makes for 'diverse educational environment'?" USA Today, February 6, 2001.

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