The New Politics of Diversity

Affirmative action in higher education is almost certainly on its way back to the Supreme Court in the wake of contradictory appellate decisions about racial preferences in admissions. Ten years ago it seemed that the Court might strike down affirmative action altogether in public universities. While that conceivably could still happen, the political context has substantially changed, and the outcome is now more likely to be an adjustment of policies in support of diversity rather than their abrupt reversal. And for that blessing we have to thank the interplay of demography and politics and a subtle shift in American ideals.

Demographic change is a slow force that typically works beneath the surface of politics, only occasionally breaking into view. The rise of the Hispanic population is the most conspicuous example of the process today. Though they were only 7 percent of the electorate in 2000 (when Gore enjoyed a 36-point edge among them), Hispanics are certain to gain power at the polls as they grow to a projected one-sixth of the nation's population by 2020 and one-fourth by mid-century. In Texas, where Hispanics will make up a majority by 2030, their rising numbers pose a formidable challenge to Republicans' ability to win statewide office.

And thus the new politics of diversity in higher education. Instead of simply opposing affirmative action, Republicans have had to devise an alternative that would allow them to appeal to Hispanic (and other minority) voters while seeming to accede to conservative demands to abolish racial preferences. This was the political logic behind George W. Bush's plan in Texas to guarantee admission to the state university system to the top 10 percent of high-school classes. The policy has plain drawbacks, evident especially to students just below the 10 percent line in more competitive schools. Nonetheless, Florida and California have since adopted similar programs -- testimony to the political staying power of diversity in an age of rising Hispanic power.

Demographic change may also contribute to support for diversity in another way that has been less widely appreciated. Racial identities in America no longer fit within a simple black-and-white polarity; they have become more complex and ambiguous, and many people find themselves in situations that bridge the old divides. In this connection, one of the most intriguing developments is the growth of racial diversity within extended families as a result of intermarriage and transracial adoption. (Extended families would include such near kin as uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews.) According to estimates by my Princeton colleague Joshua R. Goldstein, one in every six American families is multiracial, and the proportion is growing as intermarriage increases.

Diversity within families varies sharply from one group to another, chiefly because a given number of intermarriages yields more diversity among a smaller group than a larger one. Goldstein puts the rate of multiracial families at about 10 percent among whites, 30 percent among blacks, 82 percent among Asians, and 97 percent among Native Americans. (If his research had included ties between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, all the numbers would be higher.)

Surprisingly, even a low rate of intermarriage yields a high rate of multiracial kinship: Half of whites would have multiracial extended families at an intermarriage rate of only 4.7 percent. My wife's large Irish Catholic family illustrates the high multiplier of a single intermarriage. When one of her eight brothers married a black woman and later had four children, the entire extended family became multiracial; my wife and her siblings have a black sister-in-law and black nephews and nieces, and their 22 white children have black cousins -- all still close to one another. My wife insists, in fact, that the only real mixed marriage in her family occurred when her youngest brother married a Republican.

Unfortunately no study has yet attempted to measure the effect of multiracial kinship on values and political opinions. Some research suggests that civic associations help to cultivate mutual respect when they create social ties across racial and other lines, or what Robert Putnam calls "bridging social capital." Bridges within families ought to serve a similar function, perhaps even more powerfully.

Affirmative action first emerged during the 1960s as a means of achieving equality; only later did the policy's advocates begin to emphasize diversity, and diversity now dominates the argument. This shift is symptomatic of a broader trend in the relative strength of moral ideals in America. Unfortunately equality -- especially economic equality -- no longer impresses many of us as an urgent concern. But as Americans have watched other countries torn by ethnic and racial strife, we have come to see ever more clearly the blessings of our own civil peace and to acknowledge diversity in our institutions not just as desirable but as imperative. When the Supreme Court takes up affirmative action again, I don't think the justices will be able to ignore that. But even if they do, diversity will not die.

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