Race in Elite American Universities: Diversity as Distraction

By Katherine J. Wolfenden
2013, Vol. 5 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

From elite universities’ admissions publications and demographic data, an otherwise uninformed observer might conclude that race is now a problem of the past.1 And because these institutions are considered to be ‘gatekeepers’ of economic mobility and cultural capital, their multicolored compositions are often viewed as evidence of the equality of opportunity supposedly available in the United States. Unfortunately, if we dig a little deeper, we find that racism has not disappeared, but has simply taken on a new form. An analysis of higher education reveals a larger truth about race relations in the United States—under ‘the new racism,’ or ‘laissez-faire racism,’ institutional commitment to diversity is used to obscure and obstruct the fight against inequality.

The origins of affirmative action policies can be studied to understand the motivations behind them. It initially appears ironic that the same admissions system used by universities to admit racial minorities today was first created to keep Jewish students out. However, this first-flawed system was not repurposed to pursue equitable aims—the same motivations that fueled anti-Semitic admissions now inform affirmative action policies. In the 1920s, the Ivies fought the ‘Hebrew invasion’ to satisfy their benefactors. Even administrators with progressive personal convictions realized that their institutions depended upon rich Protestant men “for both material resources and social prestige.”2 This group insisted that the Ivies limit the number of ‘undesirables’ on its campus, and fearing ‘WASP flight,’ the schools’ directors did as they were told.3

"Under [laissez faire racism], blacks are still stereotyped and blamed as the architects of their own disadvantaged status. The deeply entrenched pattern of denying societal responsibility for conditions in many black communities continues to foster steadfast opposition to affirmative action and other social policies that might alleviate race-based inequalities. In short, a large number of white Americans have become comfortable with as much racial inequality and segregation as a putatively nondiscriminatory polity and free market economy can produce. Hence, the reproduction and, on some dimensions, the worsening of racial inequalities." (Bobo et al)
Affirmative action policies were also instituted to serve American elites’ interests. In the 1960s, the black power movement’s demands and demonstrations frightened both university administrators and the powerful people who influenced them. Those in charge of the Big Three astutely recognized that their institutions were “obvious and visible avenue[s] to special opportunity,’” and they understood that “the belief that this opportunity was not open to all constituted a threat to the legitimacy—and perhaps ultimately the survival—of the capitalist system itself.’”4 Instead of attempting to reduce the inequalities in reward, which they accepted as a necessary part of a capitalist economy, they hoped only to strengthen the promise of equal opportunity.5 They realized that if they could create the appearance of equality of opportunity, they could preserve a fundamentally unequal system.6

This solution is incredibly clever. It brings substantial benefits and requires little change, because instead of addressing the actual problem (structures that privilege some members of society at the expense of others), a new problem is invented and solved (homogeneity and bias). “The trick is to analyse inequality as a consequence of our prejudices rather than of our social system,” Walter Benn Michaels explains, “and thus replace the pain of giving up some of our money with the comparative pleasure of giving up (along with our classism) our racism, sexism, and homophobia.”7 Superficial inclusion obscures inequality by quelling tensions and then constructing red herring issues that are much simpler and more attractive to solve.

Universities can also capitalize on their supposed commitments to equality by using them as selling points for their schools. In the top colleges, non-white students are not quietly tolerated—their presence is constantly trumpeted. Although there is no consensus on the concrete effects of diversity, universities often tout their percentages of racial minorities and boast that this diversity fosters a richer learning environment.8 Given that all racial minorities are designated as ‘diverse’ in this rough calculation, it seems their ‘diversity’ is intended to improve the experiences of the normal, non-diverse (white) students. Lewis and Forman explain how this shapes interracial interactions and understandings: “Under far too many circumstances,” they write, “students of color on predominately White campuses are seen as filling a role—that is, as providing something that the university needs, namely, diversity—rather than as individual students seeking to receive an education.”9

This phenomenon is not limited to higher education, however. Robert McRuer’s study of disability and queerness shows how this co-option of potentially threatening subcultures operates on a larger scale. He explains that in “a discursive climate of tolerance, which values and profits from ‘diversity,’” this nebulous quality is exploited in many different ways; it can be used as a strategy to sell products to previously untapped markets, or as a selling point for products associated with it.10 Using the television show Queer Eye for The Straight Guy as an example, McRuer shows how differences can be commodified and used to sell products. One could argue that just as the ‘queer eyes’ show us what to buy at Urban Outfitters, affirmative action policies are touted as selling points for academic institutions. But under all circumstances, traditional hierarchies are reinforced—minorities appear on screen or are admitted to universities to improve the lives of ‘normal’ (straight, white, able-bodied) folk. “According to the flexible logic of neoliberalism, all varieties of queer­ness—and, for that matter, all disabilities—are essentially temporary, ap­pearing only when, and as long as, they are necessary,” McRuer writes. “As long as we agree that gay men and straight men are distinct, and—incidentally—as long as we're look­ing at the straight guy, supposedly, we can all get along.”11 In universities, television shows, and corporate boardrooms alike, minorities are tolerated, even celebrated, so long as they can be made useful and so long as they agree to stay in their place.

The use of ‘diversity’ does not seem to necessitate that universities address the needs and desires of non-white students once they accept their admissions offers. As a Georgetown employee said in an interview about the way in which the university’s administration views minority students, “They don’t care about making them happy once they’re here. They just want to get them here and then if they hate it, fine.”12 At other schools, minority students report that their white peers want to hear stories about the barrio and see them to dance ‘the MC Hammer,’ but they then refuse to talk or think about the serious issues surrounding race. “They want us to be White and not have to deal with us being Black,” one black female student in Lewis and Forman’s study said.13

Blackness was okay when it meant that students would perform a dance, one might point out, but once it threatened to question or complicate white students’ ideology, they were no longer interested in continuing the conversation. As Beverly Tatum explains, “For those readers who are in the dominant racial category, it may sometimes be difficult to take in what is being said by and about those who are targeted by racism. When the perspective of the subordinate is shared directly, an image is reflected to members of the dominant group that is disconcerting.”14 Walter Benn Michaels writes, “If we compare the obligations related to diversity (everyone must be nice to everyone) with those required by equality (some people must give up their wealth), it is easy to understand how commitment to diversity has transformed the policies of the American left into a programme that aims to make rich people with different skin colours or sexual orientations feel ‘comfortable’ without touching the one thing that makes them feel most ‘comfortable’—money.” Diversity is meant to be an easy and relatively painless fix that elites can use to avoid addressing inequality or analyzing the structure of racial privilege and oppression.

This careful, selective employment of race does two important things: it essentializes race, but it then also denies its structural effects. University applicants are expected to check one racial category, which largely defines them in the admissions process. Race is understood as a proxy for socioeconomic background and cultural ties; with just that classification, a student is prized or devalued. If and when they attend universities, minority students are then called upon to embody that classification to suit the students around them. As Omi and Winant explain in their assessment of American ideologies, “we expect people to act out their apparent racial identities; indeed we become disoriented when they do not.”15 The pressures to fulfill racial stereotypes are then further complicated by white students’ aversion to talking about race. Lewis and Forman found that minority students are “expected by their White peers to be representatives of their racial/ethnic group and to embody certain racial/ethnic stereotypes,” but “at the same
time, Whites question why they emphasize recognition of their own and others’ race/ethnicity, and why they will not just assimilate or ‘blend in.’”16

The invisibility of race informs the way in which affirmative action policies are received. Despite the fact that racial identity is only one factor used to give desired applicants an edge in the college admissions process, affirmative action is a contentious issue while preferences given to legacies or athletes are far less frequently discussed. In fact, the same subjective admissions system was initially praised by white students, because at first they benefitted from it. When Yale first implemented the new admissions policy, the student-authored editorial in the Yale Daily News urged the school to include “more consideration of the character, personality, promise and background of the individual in question.”17 Affirmative action does not offend white students simply because it privileges some by taking subjective qualities into account. The “resentment, hostility, and sense of victimhood” that Lewis and Forman’s minority students witnessed from their white peers stems from the fact that they now feel disadvantaged.18

Of course, upper class white students are still privileged in innumerable ways, but the new racism erases structure in favor of individualism.19 In both universities and the US as a whole, “whites’ ‘new racism’ asserts a kind of free market individualism in which they can imagine a colorblind world, where all should (and can) compete freely and equally.”20 The same neoliberalism that “values and profits from diversity” hides the structural disadvantages racial minorities face, making affirmative action appear to be an unfair intervention in an otherwise egalitarian institution.21 As Omi and Winant explain, “it is hard to perceive the tacit racial dimensions of everyday experience without a clear sense of the socially constructed meaning of race.”22 Through the essentialist conception of race in which the new racism and affirmative action are grounded, white students are encouraged to view themselves as normal students who earned their spots at school, while non-white students are stigmatized as the non-normal recipients of unfair advantages.23

Diversity initiatives in higher education admissions do not simply leave deeper, structural concerns—both in higher education and in the country—untouched. Although race is known to be a social construction, essentialist views are employed in the new ‘laissez-faire’ racism, which purports to uphold American ideals of equality and democracy while thwarting actual attempts to make these values a reality. Ultimately, a university’s purported commitments to diversity do not actually challenge or change racial essentialism or racial hierarchies—in fact, the conceptions of race used in affirmative action admissions policies rest upon and reinforce these ideologies. The ‘new racism’ may not explicitly discriminate against minorities, and
it can even take the form of superficial inclusion in institutions such as higher education, but it still supports the inequities and power imbalances that characterize American society.

If we were to truly take action to remedy the negative consequences of race, we would have to do more than ‘celebrate difference;’ we would have to demand inclusion and equity. In contrast to the definitions of diversity that elite universities ascribe to, David S. Owen argues, “diversity is not about helping those who face barriers because they do not fit the norm; it is fundamentally about restructuring the social system so that the barriers are eliminated.”24 Unfortunately, those barriers benefit those who are in the best position to eliminate them. Although many have been fooled by the surface-level changes in US universities, it is clear that America’s economic and political elites have maintained a great deal of control over these and other important institutions, which casts doubt on anyone’s ability to change the ways in which they operate and the ideologies that they spread.


Administrator, Anonymous. Personal Interview. 6 July 2011.

Bobo, Lawrence, Kluegel, James R. and Ryan A. Smith. "Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a 'Kindler, Gentler' Anti-black Ideology." Russell Sage Foundation: June 1996. http://epn.org/sage/rsbobo1.html.

Karabel, Jerome. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Lewis, Amanda E., Chesler, Mark and Tyrone A. Forman. “The Impact of ‘Colorblind’ Ideologies on Students of Color: Intergroup Relations at a Predominantly White University.” The Journal of Negro Education. Vol. 69, No. 1/2, Knocking at Freedom's Door: Race, Equity, and Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education (Winter - Spring, 2000), pp. 74-91.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “Respecting Diversity Isn't Enough - Deference to Other People's Cultures Costs Less than Paying Them a Living Wage.” Le Monde Diplomatique. 1 March 2009.

Tatum, Beverly. “Complexity of Identity.” "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the US: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Psychology Press, 1994.

Owen, David S. “Diversity Programs and Social Norms.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Letter to the Editor. 19 January 2007.

1.) In this paper, I am analyzing the American higher education system and its connection to the ‘new racism’ that affects American society as a whole. Many of the phenomena I describe occur in other countries, but I am only examining and making assertions about my home country, the United States.

2.) Karabel, 135.

3.) Karabel, 87.

4.) Karabel, 376.

5.) Karabel, 541.

6.) Karabel, 542.

7.) Michaels.

8.) The admissions pages of the Ivies all include references to their unique ability to give students this social and cultural education.

9.) Lewis and Forman, 83.

10.) McRuer, 18.

11.) McRuer, 29.

12.) Anonymous Administrator.

13.) Lewis, 82.

14.) Tatum, 13.

15.) Omi and Winant, 59.

16.) Lewis and Forman, 85.

17.) Karabel, 115.

18.) Lewis and Forman, 87.

19.) Bobo et al.

20.) Lewis and Forman, 87.

21.) McRuer 18.

22.) Omi and Winant, vii.

23.) Lewis and Forman, 87.

24.) Owen.

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