‘Jewish’ is a ‘new minority label’ at the City University of New York (CUNY), the New York Post reported on 3 June, almost accurately. CUNY recently completed a ‘faculty diversity action plan’ that included among the usual identity-based focus groups a Caucasian/White/Jewish group, created in response to complaints that Caucasians/Whites/Jews were ‘not as monolithic as some believe and this lack of understanding is reflected in subtle stereotyping’.
Stop and think about this: stereotyping attributes to individuals the presumed characteristics of their demographic groups. Stereotypes treat people as members of groups instead of individuals. So, too, do diversity initiatives that organise people into identity groups. Logic suggests that CUNY faculty who feel victimised by stereotypes imposed on Caucasian/White/Jews should probably avoid Caucasian/White/Jewish groups (although by creating this group to fight stereotypes, they may have inadvertently undermined the stereotypical assumption that all Jews are smart).
I don’t mean to join CUNY in singling out some of its Jewish faculty, who are hardly alone in seeking group identities and affiliations in order to defend against stereotyping or ‘unwelcoming behaviours’. CUNY’s diversity programmes promote the perverse belief that identity groups undermine bias and stereotyping. They also implicitly endorse stereotyping, attributing particular ‘cognitive styles’ or ‘intellectual outlooks’ to particular groups. This is the essential incoherence at the heart of bureaucratic diversity initiatives: they combat stereotypes by relying on them.
I’m not denying that members of particular demographic groups sometimes share common problems and obstacles to advancement that require collective, not individual, action. Civil-rights laws have long responded to this need for categorical solutions to categorical discrimination against racial minorities, women and other historically disadvantaged groups. Affirmative action reflects the belief that these formal bans on discrimination don’t ensure equal opportunity (much less equal results) because so much discrimination is inchoate and informal.
Affirmative action requires a controversial balancing of inequities, since hiring and admissions decisions are zero-sum games. (Questions about its constitutionality are once again before the US Supreme Court.) But affirmative action was initially justified as an essential means of remedying generations of discrimination. It was arguably less unfair than a system without affirmative action, and it was supposed to be temporary.
Instead, at CUNY and other American universities, affirmative action is being transformed, expanded and institutionalised by a bureaucratic cult of diversity. It’s not aimed at righting historic wrongs, but at creating ‘inclusive’ and ‘nurturing’ environments for individuals, while giving universities like CUNY the benefits of ‘a multitude of skills, perspectives and experiences in order to better advance its mission of research, teaching and service’.
What’s wrong with this vision? It means ‘affirmative action for everyone’, as Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition observes, given the open-ended list of affinity groups that diversity initiatives often promote, regardless of discrimination. ‘Diversity denotes an understanding of difference that includes many dimensions’, the CUNY report explains, ‘including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, age, national origin, socioeconomic status and other characteristics of social identity’. CUNY apparently has this in common with kindergarten: it’s a place where everyone is special in his or her own special way.
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Striving to make grown-ups feel special, welcome, included and appreciated, CUNY also has much in common with the larger therapeutic culture. Diversity bureaucrats envision higher education, in part, as a form of therapy. They want to put everyone on the couch, to address their ‘unconscious biases’.
How are people made aware of these biases and how are they exorcised? On campus, sensitivity-training sessions, or what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rightly calls thought-reform programmes, are supposed to replace bad attitudes with good ones. The CUNY report recommends establishing an ‘Inclusive and Respectful Workplace’ training programme aimed at ‘understanding commonalities and differences of perspectives and experiences that may be affected by race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other social identities’.
Civil libertarians recoil at the intrusiveness of these programmes, but diversity advocates embrace their forays into amateur psychoanalysis. As the CUNY report advises: ‘Even people who have strong egalitarian values and believe that they are not biased may unconsciously behave in discriminatory ways… Becoming aware of unconscious assumptions and behaviours that influence interactions enables all faculty to minimise these beliefs and behaviours and derive maximum benefits from diversity.’
In other words, if you’re a CUNY faculty member, your unconscious is New York City’s business.
It’s good business for management consultants, as well as college and university administrators. CUNY worked with Cambridge Hill Partners, which offers such profound insights as ‘faculty compensation is a key factor related to retention’, along with the usual, soporific strategic planning and vision-statement rhetoric, in a 156-page report that seems righteously unaware of its own internal contradictions.
It suggests, for example, that under-represented groups (known as URGs) aren’t actually under-represented. ‘The University’s URG representation is good’, the report concedes. And while advising university administrators to move ‘beyond head counts of URG faculty’, the CUNY report is filled with detailed statistics, tables and pie charts tracing the university’s record in hiring or promoting various groups.
We learn, for example, that in 2005, ‘119 faculty were hired, of which one (0.8 per cent) was American Indian or Alaskan Native, 21 (17.6 per cent) were Asian, six (5.0 per cent) were Black/African-American, 12 (10.1 per cent) were Hispanic/Latino(a) (not including Puerto Rican), four (3.4 per cent) were Italian American, three (2.5 per cent) were Puerto Rican and 72 (60.5 per cent) were White/Caucasian’. We also learn about the rates at which members of these groups were promoted, down to a tenth of a percentage point. Apparently you have to engage in ‘head-counting’ to move beyond it.
Am I being insensitive? Perhaps. I would probably be expelled from sensitivity school. But diversity advocates who are painstakingly sensitive to what they imagine are the feelings of ‘under-represented groups’ and ‘under-represented minorities’ are often grossly insensitive to the rights of people who regard their unconscious attitudes and behaviours as their own business.
Put aside the idiocies of head-counting every demographic group along with every group distinguished by some ‘other characteristic of social identity’. Put aside the futility of engaging in stereotyping in order to defeat it. What’s arguably most troubling about the cult of diversity is its disregard for academic freedom. The influence of therapeutic ideals on higher education is not new, and it has proven quite repressive. For years now - in the interests of creating diverse, ‘inclusive’ and ‘nurturing’ environments for vulnerable students - college and university administrators have created hostile environments for free speech.
This lamentable phenomenon was entirely predictable. Intellectual development requires intellectual combat, and combat is not governed by a desire to help your adversaries feel good about themselves. ‘Diversity creates opportunities to engage in difficult dialogues about challenging issues’, the CUNY report claims. Not really.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) A version of this article was previously published at theAtlantic.com.
Letter from America