Diversity is not enough to fix equity

Appeals to “diversity” are everywhere. Politicians exhort us to reject bigotry and build multicultural and multiethnic communities. Universities take great pains to display their acceptance of students of all backgrounds. In the workplace, employees are encouraged to participate in “diversity training sessions” meant to develop the skills of “cultural awareness” and “inclusivity.” Certainly, these are all more-or-less commendable efforts — the opposite of diversity is homogeneity, established through the separation or suppression of difference. But diversity by itself cannot accomplish justice or remedy social inequalities. Too often, talk of diversity is substituted for frank discussions about equality. If the goal of progressive politics is to eliminate oppression and exploitation, we must aim for more than diversity. We must aim for equity.

The idea of diversity is rooted in the idea of tolerance. “Diverse communities” are supposedly absent of harmful conflicts that occur along the dividing lines of sex, race, culture or creed. While a “diverse college campus” might witness disagreements between its students, these are resolved peacefully, through dialogue and mutual respect. Tolerance allows dissimilar people to understand and coexist with one another. Diverse spaces are often styled as mosaics in which many unique parts contribute to the whole. But this metaphor is overly simplistic. Mosaics lack a perspective of depth that would reveal the inequalities that exist in diverse communities. The subtle operation of systemic prejudices — whether racial, sexual, cultural, and so on — remain untroubled. Unfortunately, even the most principled application of tolerance does nothing to correct the unequal distribution of material and social resources.

Economic inequality in America presents serious problems for narratives fixated on diversity. For every dollar made by a white household, black households made 59 cents, according to an October 2016 study from Penn Wharton’s Public Policy Initiative. In terms of hourly wages, black men took home 75 cents to white men’s dollar. Black women took 64 cents, and Hispanic women brought home 54 cents. The specter of housing discrimination continues to haunt communities of color, as owning a home “is the primary vehicle of wealth building in this country,” according to the same article. Such an uneven allocation of resources ultimately translates into an uneven allocation of opportunities and advantages in broader social life. Furthermore, extreme inequality exists within and between “identity communities.” Any wealthy individual generally has more power than a poor individual, regardless of their other characteristics. The median wealth of upper-income families is 70 times that of lower-income families, according to a 2014 Pew Research report. How can diversity confront these issues?

By locating the ills of society in intolerance — a problem of attitude — diversity tends to overlook the material bases of inequality. The enormous gaps in wealth between social groups continues to affect their members in all spheres of social existence — diverse or not. So while diverse communities might indeed include individuals of all backgrounds, these individuals often possess unequal means and opportunities. Meaningfully addressing these disparities requires resources to be redistributed and institutions to be changed. This is a costly and time-consuming enterprise. Because of this, cities, universities and workplaces often settle for the appearance of “diversity” in lieu of investing in programs meant to empower marginalized individuals. Programs exclusively focused on diversity are in constant danger of being trapped at a cosmetic level.

None of this is to say that diversity is not a worthy goal of progressive politics. However, diversity in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure equality and social justice. At the university level, calls for diversity must be followed by real investments in programs and institutions that facilitate the overcoming of social inequalities. Acknowledging LGBT students is therefore not enough — an LGBT resource center is needed, to materially counter the disadvantages faced by these students. Similarly, calls for multiculturalism must be married to the expansion of multicultural programs, creating outlets for the expressions of students from different backgrounds. Above all, universities must seek to make themselves accessible to everyone — via affirmative action policies and lower tuitions. A diverse university is desirable, but it is no substitute for an equitable one. We can and should push for better.