The Diversity Bargain: An interview with Natasha Warikoo

03/30/2017 11:01 am ET

For as long as there have been institutional efforts to increase racial diversity on American college campuses, there have been counter-efforts to shut them down. And while there has been extensive media coverage about the lawsuits and policy that have sought to thwart affirmative action, much less has been written about how students themselves feel about admissions policies that take race into account.

An important new book, The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, takes a closer look at students’ views about diversity, merit, and race on selective college campuses in the U.S. and the U.K. I sat down with the book’s author, my colleague Natasha Warikoo, an Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for the following interview.

Q: What is the diversity bargain, in a nutshell?

A: The diversity bargain is related to students’ expectations for college admissions and diversity. Privileged students in both the United States and Britain express views that ultimately maintain their own advantages, rather than promote access and equity in admissions. They do this in different ways.

In the United States, when most white students on college campuses are asked whether admissions officers should consider race or ethnicity in admissions, they say yes. Their justification, though, is a self-serving one: affirmative action ensures a diverse learning environment, essential to a meaningful college experience for themselves. So the American diversity bargain is white students accepting affirmative action in exchange for advantages to themselves.

At Oxford, most British students do not support considerations of race or class in admissions. They want admission to be based solely on exam grades and evaluations of “potential” in campus interviews, even if those grades and evaluations are shaped by unequal educational opportunities. This leads them to accept the few minority students on campus as capable and deserving of an Oxford education. In exchange, they hold little vision for expanding access to Oxford. This is the British diversity bargain.

Q: Why is the American diversity bargain problematic?

A: In the United States, the diversity bargain is based on three expectations that follow from justifying affirmative action only by its contribution to a diverse learning environment. First, white students expect minority peers to integrate into white spaces. They object to forms of within-group clustering, whether informal like a table of black students in the cafeteria or formal at the Black Students’ Association.

Second, white students expect black and Latino students on campus—all of whom are assumed to have benefited from affirmative action—to have had a particular life experience that will contribute to the diverse learning environment. So, a Latino peer from a wealthy Mexican family or the African American daughter of a physician who grew up in a predominantly white suburb are not seen as contributing to the diverse learning environment.

Lastly, they expect that affirmative action does not go “too far.” Many students answered questions about whether admissions officers should consider race or ethnicity in admissions with “yes, but…” They don’t want it to mean that they will miss out on that coveted summer internship or the position in the highly competitive Teach for America. This anxiety surfaced for many students. And, it means that affirmative action is an easy scapegoat when competitive processes do not go their way. So, the diversity bargain is white students supporting affirmative action in exchange for their peers of color ensuring that whites will also benefit.

The diversity bargain makes invisible the roots of racial inequality in the United States, and as a result sets up a tension between white and underrepresented minority students on campus that impedes the inter-racial dialogue that many students say they look forward to on campus. It erases the histories of legal segregation, ongoing residential segregation, a racist criminal justice system, and new evidence of microaggressions (subtle instances of prejudice in daily life) that continue to impact social life in the United States.

Q: Why is the British diversity bargain problematic?

A: British students’ rejection of any consideration of privilege or disadvantage in college admissions provides little vision for how to increase equity in admissions. Students had little interest in promoting greater diversity, whether by class or by race, among the student body. They feared that any attempt to broaden the student body would negatively affect academics at Oxford. One student told us that Oxford should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions because, “Oxford has to maintain the highest standards it can. There is so much competition academically from American universities, that if they make allowances…then Oxford would lose prestige as an institution itself.”

Q: Why are British and American students so different in the ways they think about affirmative action?

A: In many ways, British and American universities see themselves as playing different roles in society. In the United States, historically we have envisioned higher education as playing a civic role in society. We have long-standing professional schools of education, business, and government in elite universities that aim to improve the work that we do. Most university missions speak of a desire to impact the world.

In contrast, elite British universities have historically perceived themselves as bastions of elite excellence to be protected from the quotidian concerns of society.

Americans also have a stronger faith in meritocracy than do Britons. This faith in equal opportunity based on merit means that universities need to work harder to demonstrate that they are distributing opportunities equitably, whereas in Britain that concern is not as strong.

Q: Do students of color buy into the diversity bargain?

A: Students of color in the US appreciate the racial diversity on their campuses, but they do not see it as their role on campus to enlighten their white peers. And when asked to do so as, for example, the sole black student in a class on urban poverty, they are understandably frustrated.

Students of color at Oxford were largely satisfied with an admissions system that ultimately leads to small numbers of students of color on campus, though some expressed frustration with their peers’ lack of willingness to engage in discussions of racism on campus.

Q: What is a better way for universities to address racism and interracial dialogue on campus?

A: Colleges on both sides of the pond need to move beyond talking about race only in terms of the positive contributions of diversity to students’ learning. While a wide-ranging body of research demonstrates that racial diversity is good for just about everyone on campus, that is not the whole story.

When we exclusively focus on those benefits we ignore the historical roots of diversity talk, the ways racial inequity continues to affect minorities, and inter-racial dynamics on campus. Universities need to acknowledge the inequality that led to policies of affirmative action. Campuses should find ways to help students understand how seemingly race-neutral social policies such as the GI Bill, first-time homeowner loans, and even social security systematically excluded African Americans. Then, students might be less fazed by arguments for affirmative action based on restorative justice, especially for African Americans.

Second, while many students are eager to engage in cross-racial dialogue, in the United States anxieties over appearing racist or overly sensitive often prevent these exchanges. Universities need to move beyond one-off discussions that do not support the kind of engagement necessary for minds to shift. Extended, ongoing facilitated discussions, such as those done through University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations, are the kind that will truly promote a deeper engagement with race and racial division in American society. We need this kind of exchange, across political lines as well, now more than ever.

When it comes to British institutions of higher education, there has been considerable attention to “widening participation,” in part because the government has required it. However, less attention has been paid to ensuring that students admitted from non-elite backgrounds thrive and succeed on campus. This is important for the small number of working class and minority students on campus, and it will become even more apparent as their numbers grow.

Q: How can parents better prepare their children for life on a diverse residential campus?

A: Parents can help prepare all children by openly talking about race, inequality, privilege, and difference, starting at a young age. These are topics that children inevitably notice, whether we acknowledge them or not. Families of color tend to find this much easier, because the impacts of race and racism are much more obvious in their lives.

Parents in the United States can make sure that children have learned about twentieth century American history, beyond the triumphant story of the Civil Rights Movement. This includes books that illuminate how racial disparities in our housing, criminal justice, welfare and education systems emerged out of deliberate social policies masked as race-neutral.

In Britain, parents taking seriously minority expressions of exclusion and marginalization, whether on university campuses or in everyday life, will validate these concerns to their children. And, attention to the history of British colonialism and its ongoing impact on race relations in Britain will illuminate how blackness has been excluded in British society.

All parents need to remind children that they should expect that some conversations, especially across lines of difference, will be uncomfortable. Sometimes they will be offended, and at others, they will be surprised to find their peers offended.

Without this discomfort, deeper understanding and engagement rarely happens. Engage with humility and respect, and ask for forgiveness when the inevitable mistake, offense, or other words or regrettable behavior surfaces.

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