THE BLOG
09/14/2015 03:44 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2016

Stuck on Simple: The Challenge of Moving Beyond Diversity to Inclusion

Tom Williams via Getty Images

This fall, the United States Supreme Court will, for the second time, hear a challenge to the University of Texas at Austin's race-conscious admissions program in Fisher v. University of Texas. In the earlier case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities could continue to consider race or ethnicity as one of several factors in an admissions policy that seeks to achieve broad diversity goals. But, advocates for a white woman denied admission to the University of Texas continue to question the value of diversity and the constitutionality of allowing colleges and universities to consider race or ethnicity in creating diverse classrooms and institutions.

When it comes to affirmative action, we remain stuck on simple. This is part of a national trend where we keep debating seemingly straightforward, and long-resolved, questions and therefore are unable to tackle the harder questions that could bring us closer to true equality. We are still discussing whether the confederate flag is a symbol of racism or whether a government official can refuse to recognize a fundamental right because of her personal beliefs. Debates about the confederate flag prevent us from moving on to addressing structural racism and implicit bias. Debates about whether a Kentucky clerk must follow the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality prevent us from moving on to addressing employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, discrimination which remains legal in much of the country.

Similarly, in the battle over race-conscious admissions programs, the Court and nation continue to debate whether the doors to opportunity should be equally open to all, whether diversity brings value to an institution, and whether race and ethnicity are relevant factors when trying to increase racial and ethnic diversity. The answer to these questions is a clear and resounding yes. Yet, diversity cannot be the goal in and of itself. But, because we are forced to continue to fight for these basic principles, we are stalled in our ability to attain the true goal -- genuine inclusion.

With diversity, we are often focused on numbers. With inclusion, we are focused on quality: the quality of interactions between people of different races, ethnicities or gender; the quality of programs designed to ensure that all members of the community are treated equitably; the quality of supports that allow every member of the community to contribute fully; and the quality of programs that harness the transformative power of diverse perspectives. Diversity of people and viewpoints is not the same as engagement among those people and viewpoints. Inclusion is about transforming culture, practices, and relationships.

We understand the many benefits that flow from a truly inclusive environment. In education, the benefits of inclusive institutions and classrooms include the promotion of cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial stereotypes, preparing students to excel in a multi-racial and multi-cultural workforce, opening doors to leadership and cultivating the next generation of leaders. The benefits of race-conscious admissions programs designed to improve diversity are substantial. But, many of us mistakenly believe that the benefits of inclusion automatically flow once you have achieved a diverse student body or work force. They do not. Instead, we have to work to unleash the power and potential of diversity. Yes, diversity can help to alleviate racial isolation. But, a school can be diverse yet plagued by stereotyping, structural inequality, and implicit bias.

It is not a coincidence that the opponents of equity and inclusion are forcing us to keep fighting the same old tired fights. By forcing the proponents of equity to play defense on issue after issue, they prevent us from playing offense in the fight for justice. Students of color, women and low-income students often feel as if they are dropped into seemingly diverse environments in which they are not encouraged or supported, and are instead set up to fail. It takes hard work to transform institutions structured for white men into inclusive communities. When can we finally stop debating the simple questions and move on?