In several cases addressing the constitutionality of affirmative action admissions policies, the Supreme Court has recognized a compelling state interest in schools with diverse student populations. According to the Court and affirmative action proponents, the pursuit of diversity does not only benefit minority students who gain expanded access to elite institutions through affirmative action. Rather, diversity also benefits white students who grow through encounters with minority students, it contributes to social and intellectual life on campus, and it serves society at large by aiding the development of citizens equipped for employment and citizenship in an increasingly diverse country.
Recent scholarship has nevertheless thoughtfully examined the negative effect of the “diversity rationale”—the defense of affirmative action policies based on a compelling interest in diversity—on minority identity when that identity is traded on by majority-white institutions seeking to maximize the social and economic benefits that diversity brings. By contrast, little has been said about whether and how the diversity rationale impacts white identity. Consideration of how the diversity rationale influences white identity formation is particularly timely in light of the Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncement on affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
This Article begins to fill that gap, ultimately concluding that the diversity rationale reaffirms notions of racial superiority among Whites. Unlike the jurisprudence of seminal civil rights cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, that rejected old narratives about the legitimacy of subordinating Blacks, the diversity rationale does not promote progressive thinking about race and identity. Rather, it perpetuates an old story—a story about using black and brown bodies for white purposes on white terms, a story about the expendability of those bodies once they are no longer needed. Moreover, by reinforcing the “transparency” and “innocence” of white racial identity, as well as by emphasizing hyperindividualism, the diversity rationale stunts the development of antiracist white identity.
By cultivating white identities grounded in a sense of entitlement and victimhood relative to people of color, the diversity rationale, ironically, perpetuates the subordination of people of color by prompting the elimination of affirmative action programs. It also distracts Whites from addressing the ways in which their own presence at elite institutions of higher education is genuinely undermined, especially in the case of working-class Whites who are consistently underrepresented at such institutions. Given this reality, institutions of higher education committed to diversity must account for the diversity rationale’s effect on Whites through more honest and substantive explanations of the value placed on diversity in admissions.