Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Diversity Rationale and the Problem of Subjectification

Reacting to the recent school resegregation case, Jill of Feministe remarks on the staying power of the "diversity rationale" for affirmative action and desegregation.
The underlying rationale in the diversity argument is that AA (and desegregation policies) are important because they make things more interesting for white people. Just look at how diversity is framed: It allows the majority population to come into contact with people of different races, cultures and backgrounds; it widens our horizens; it prepares us for a life of interaction with people unlike ourselves. In other words, diversity is good because the presence of minorities help the majority. It’s kind of like the argument that racism is bad because it hurts all of us — which isn’t exactly true. Racism hurts particular classes of people far worse than others, and it maintains a system wherein a certain class is in power. I don’t like racism and I would like to see racism obliterated, but as a white person racism most certainly does benefit me.

The fact that the diversity argument is the one that still (kind of) flies with the Court is pretty indicative of just how far we haven’t come — arguments for desegregation policies still must be premised on the grounds that they’re good for white people. That in itself should indicate that we aren’t living in a colorblind society, and shouldn’t pretend that we are.

A few preliminary notes before I hit the main substance of the post. First, I'm not sure I agree with the degree with which Jill dismisses the "racism hurts all of us" argument. Yes, it hurts some people far worse than others, and that's important to keep in mind when White folks get on the "I'm the real victim here" kick. But nonetheless, we construct our own interests, and it is perfectly rational for a White person to say that racism hurts her, both tangibly ("I'm hurt when I'm prevented from interacting on equal terms with the absolute best and brightest people out there") and intangibly ("My immortal soul is in danger when I'm a player in an evil system of domination"). Second, I think (and Jill is welcome to correct me here) that Jill is not suggesting we let the perfect be the enemy of the good: Affirmative action is important, and if the only way to preserve it is to invoke the diversity rationale, we got to grit our teeth and do it. She's merely arguing that it would be preferable if we were willing to enact Affirmative Action for reasons that weren't so nakedly self-interested.

I've heard versions of Jill's argument before, and it has some power. My understanding of it is that--aside from the fact that it lets us preserve programs important to racial justice, like AA--the diversity rationale has no intrinsic anti-racism force. The argument itself does nothing to dismantle racial hierarchy, only the programs that flow out of it do. But I think there are reasons why the diversity rationale has intrinsic anti-racist weight (as opposed to only end-point effects). In other words, I think that the invocation of "diversity" accomplishes anti-racism goals beyond that it might convince the Supreme Court to allow affirmative action.

There are two reasons this might work. The first is the inversion of the "diversity lets White people figure out how the other half lives" argument. That's self-interested, but the reverse has great egalitarian potential.
If anything, we should send poor students to elite schools so they can learn how to take advantage of the rich kids. They should figure out what persona they can adopt to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and then work the connections they make with the rich kids paying full tuition to their benefit. Room with some blueblood and start a business out of the dorm together with his capital! Marry rich! Meet parents who could give you a job! Find out about careers and sectors of the economy that you never dreamed existed! If the perspective of rich students is narrow, circumstances often make those of poor students even narrower.

This is a class-based argument, but it works as well--if not better--for race. In a society that is a) racially segregated and b) dominated by Whites, the diversity argument exposes minority students to the people who they're going to have to grapple with if they want to win their share of power and affluence in society. A White person justifying AA based on a diversity-desire to "expand my horizons" is self-interested. A Black person justifying AA based on a diversity-desire to "get a foothold among the ruling class" is making an important stride in breaking down racial caste systems.

But yet, I'm uncomfortable with this argument by itself. The reason is it treats minorities as if they are "missing" something that only Whites can give them. In this manner, it has the tenor of replicating racist hierarchies rather than dismantling them. But this explains why I think the traditional "diversity" argument also has anti-racism force. Simply put, it very explicitly places value on minority students vis-a-vis White students. It tells Whites that they are incomplete without a minority perspective. The very idea that White people might not be the complete and universal is radical in of itself.

This is important because a significant portion of modern White racism is based on the view that Black citizens are literally worthless and expendable. They have no value to society, they serve no useful purpose. Many left-commentators shy from taking this argument, because it feels like objectification. But here I'd borrow from Leslie Green's argument on objectification, because I think it illustrates a really important point:
Objectification does not...actually change the moral status of a person, for that is not a matter of social convention. To treat people as mere objects does not make them mere objects. Objectification says people are not the very things that they are: the whole possibility of insulting or degrading someone’s personhood begins on the footing that it embodies some kind of lie about her status. Our subjectivity is an un-won status, something we get for free, without effort, as is our objectivity. What has to be won is our awareness of our subjectivity—we need to see ourselves as the ends that we in fact are—and others respect for our subjectivity. However, and here is my main point, the same is true of our our objectivity.

Let me approach this idea through an example. Our instrumentality is one important part of our objectivity; it is the property of being of potential use to others who may direct us to their own purposes. This is not sufficient for our dignity as persons; but some who endorse a disembodied view of personhood would go further and say it is not necessary either. Interestingly, non-philosophers do not agree. Most people desperately want to be of use to others, and they come to understand themselves partly through those uses, actual and potential. Of course, they do not want only that, and they want to be of use and used subject to certain constraints—but the idea of being useful is in fact valued. Part of what is at stake when people age, when they are severely disabled, when they are chronically unemployed, is the fear that they are not, or they are no longer, useful. Others do not want them; they fulfill no valued role. They miss not only their diminished agency, but also their diminished objectivity. In dire cases people may no longer see themselves as something desired, wanted, or useful at all, even as they retain their standing as civic subjects, applicants, supplicants, users or consumers. They become, to coin a term, subjectified. [Leslie Green, "Pornographies," The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 1, Pp. 27-52 (2000), 45-46]

In the slave-era, Black Americans were objectified, seen as having no intrinsic worth while being "useful" as forced labor. Today, to a large extent, this perspective has been reversed. Now, conservative advocates for "color-blindness" couch their arguments in the form of protecting the intrinsic dignity of Black citizens, while being completely apathetic to the reality that the vast majority of Blacks are being hidden away in inner-city projects or locked away in jail cells. Perfectly willing to grant Blacks the technical status as "civic subjects, applicants, supplicants, users or consumers," the conservative model nonetheless gives no credit to their instrumentality--if every Black disappeared tomorrow, the world would spin as normal. This message has impressed itself on people of color. Cherrie Moraga, commenting on the role of women of color in the feminist movement, wrote "so often the women seem to feel no loss, no lack, no absence when women of color are not involved.... This has hurt me deeply." [Cherrie Moraga, "Refugees of a World on Fire," Forward to the 2nd ed. of This Bridge Called My Back (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1983), 33]

By sending a message that White people cannot do it alone, that all of us have intrinsic and instrumental worth, the diversity rationale can help reverse the damaging sentiment that Black don't matter, are worthless, and that their absence is not one at all. That White people benefit from diversity is merely part of a larger argument being made here--that all are reliant on all, and that, far from being a patronizing indulgence, our very lives and livelihoods are contingent on recognizing the Other.
[D]ifference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively ‘be’ in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are not charters. [Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” in Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, eds., This Bridge Called My Back (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981), 99.]

In this respect I think the diversity rationale has significant internal value, and in of itself has an important role to play in dismantling racial hierarchy. Though its deployment should be couched in language that makes clear that it values minority students as such, I do not think we must necessarily grit our teeth when utilizing it to preserve the programs necessary to keeping the dream of racial equality alive.

1 comment:

Rich Horton said...

There is another issue at play here other than how diversity policies are framed (which I realize is simplifying what you wrote about...but I needed some shorthand), is the sort of naievte that often goes along with such policies. They are treated as ends in themselves. As if were you to create a diverse "whatever" (a school, or workplace, neighborhood, etc.) then everything else will take care of itself. Well, how do we know the rest will take care of itself? The fact is we don't. And we are SO touchy about the subject that we don't even like to ask the questions invovled in evaluating diversity. It is so bad the Robert Putnam is afraid to release the findings of his study on diversity exactly because it shows that diversity doesn't "take care" of anything.

For too long we have been content to define the "diverse" as being "good" and "non-diverse" as being "bad". The truth of the matter may be that diversity is neutral, or a mixed bag, at best. You can have really fine diverse schools and really crappy diverse schools. Obviously it is NOT the diversity that is the determining factor. But "diversity" as the goal of education is accept in such an unquestioned fashion, we, as a society, ignore the things that DO determine the ultimate quality of a school.