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COLUMN RIGHT / GAIL HERIOT

Diversity Is More Than Skin Deep : Preferences promote conformity to a group entitlement 'ideal.'

July 14, 1996|GAIL HERIOT | Gail Heriot is a professor of law at the University of San Diego and cochair of the CCRI campaign

When Al Gore visited Southern California recently, he was asked about the California Civil Rights Initiative, which says, "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."

It should not surprise anyone to learn that he dodged the question. The CCRI is extremely popular, particularly in Southern California. In the most recent Times poll, 59% of the Los Angeles respondents favor it and only 22% oppose. Given the Clinton administration's official stand against the measure, Gore was making the best of a bad situation by declining to criticize the initiative directly. Instead, he admonished his audience to remember the importance of "diversity."

In a sense, Gore is right. Achieving diversity can be a legitimate goal of the state. He is profoundly confused, however, if he thinks that CCRI will stand in the way of appropriate consideration of diversity.

I am a faculty member at one of the many universities where "diversity" is often the catch-phrase used to justify raw racial and gender preferences, both in student admissions and faculty hiring. In some contexts, the argument is just plain silly. There is no such thing as a women's approach to mathematics or an African American approach to physics. On the other hand, there is something to the notion that a university should be home to people with differing backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints. All universities, state and private, should attempt to achieve some measure of true diversity. It enriches everyone's education.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 19, 1996 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 9 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
CCRI poll numbers: A commentary Sunday by Gail Heriot on the California Civil Rights Initiative incorrectly reported the percentage of Los Angeles respondents who favor the measure. In fact, 69% of the respondents favor CCRI, according to The Times Poll.

That being said, I know of no more effective engine for conformity--the very opposite of diversity--than the group entitlement mentality that racial and gender preferences have led to on campus. Each group that currently receives a preference knows that in order to maintain its entitlement, it needs people who are committed to the group entitlement ideal. They know that their claim to a "special perspective" is threatened by the existence of nonconformist members. Consequently, the black faculty candidate who doesn't believe in racial preferences is rejected. The conservative woman faculty member is told that she is not a real woman. The Asian student group lobbies against the admission of a Korean immigrant who is an Evangelical Christian. The Latino student group lobbies against a conservative Mexican American. Such people are thought to be not diverse in the "right" way, because they are not willing to toe the group line.

Racial and gender preferences act as a straitjacket to diversity, both on campus and in the work place. The tyranny of "keeping up the numbers" prevails. For example, there surely is something to the notion that state government should be concerned with hiring employees who can respond to the needs of its diverse population. But what would happen if a police department had a choice between hiring a white person who was brought up in a poor, African American neighborhood and speaks fluent Spanish, Portuguese and English and a Spanish-surnamed individual who speaks only English? If you think the answer is obvious--the multilingual applicant will get the job, all other things being equal--think again. The only kinds of diversity that the diversity police recognize are race and gender.

If we are really concerned about diversity, we need indicators more meaningful than the applicant's sex or skin color. Universities should indeed be looking for faculty members with differing perspectives and with experience and expertise in different cultures and ways of life. A good university will have liberals and conservatives, faculty members with expertise in the classics and in jazz. It will have anthropologists who have field experience in the Peace Corps in faraway parts of the world and theoretical physicists who seldom stray very far from their computers. But it shouldn't matter what sex an expert in women's history is, only how knowledgeable the expert is.

Similarly, police and fire departments should indeed have employees who can communicate effectively with all the city's residents. But, again, it shouldn't matter if a police officer speaks Spanish because she is Mexican American or because she learned Spanish in high school, so long as they both are equally fluent.

The California Civil Rights Initiative does not prevent the consideration of real diversity. The only bases for discrimination that it bans are race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. It leaves the state free to consider the rich variety of skills, perspectives and experiences for which Californians are known.

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