Diversity or Farce?

by Adil Ahmad | 11/4/03 6:00am

I was at a conference in Washington, D.C., recently and had the good fortune of sitting at a surprisingly diverse dinner table with eight other students -- two African Americans, two Asians, one Hispanic and the rest white, different sexes, and each from a different state. The table was described by someone as the epitome of diversity. After all, how often do you get such a diverse group of people to sit down at the same table to talk politics? But, there was a slight catch. All but one were liberal. All but one were Democrats and Howard Dean supporters. The table was diverse, indeed, but with only regards to race and gender.

Last May, an article in The Dartmouth stated that "The buzzword in recent years for higher education admissions has been diversity, and the Class of 2007 follows suit. The class is comprised of 32.4 percent students of color . . . The number of white students admitted declined for the second straight year." Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Karl Furstenberg, was quoted as saying that as "we are approaching 40 percent non-whites on campus" it "represents real progress." The '07 class, supposedly, represents a larger degree of geographical diversity than in previous years with a record number of international students and representation from more states than before. No mention was made of political or religious diversity, as usual.

A recent "New York Times" article by Kelly Crow also made a similar case for diversity. An ideally diverse team at an investment bank should consist of "two South Asians, three Hispanics, one African-American and four white women," it said. Diversity was defined as "a spectrum of faces and ages and ethnic backgrounds." Diversity councils have been created at large corporations to "advise on hirings and dismissals" so that companies can "embrace a definition of diversity that is much broader than the dictates of the law[and] make a social effort to be better" Crow does not even consider diversity of ideas, and religious and political persuasions. So, is diversity only about race and gender?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "diversity" as: "The condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied." The word "diverse" is further defined as "different in character or quality; not of the same kind; not alike in nature or qualities."

Diversity, by this definition, cannot be restricted to race and gender alone. "Not alike in nature or qualities" clearly encompasses differences in political and religious beliefs. At the dinner table above, how different is the African-American from the white? Both come from similar economic backgrounds, both go to similar colleges and both subscribe to the same religious and political beliefs. Both are really not very different from each other. Do they represent real diversity? I would think not.

Diversity, as I know it, should encourage an appreciation of differences, not mere tolerance. Diversity needs to be about encouraging expression of diverse beliefs, even if this expression includes criticism of other cultures or belief systems. It is only through criticism that we can encourage dialogue to better understand diverse cultures and ideas. If we were to accept everything without questioning it, we would be wasting precious human intellect.

Unfortunately, however, diversity has become another excuse for suppressing critical or differing opinions. Stanley Crouch in a recent article for the "New York Daily News" writes, "One of the problems with the way cultural relativism has fallen upon us in our time is that we are only supposed to be critical inward. Any criticisms of other cultures or other systems of belief or other modes of social conduct are dismissed as expressions of some sort of bigotry." It is a sad day indeed when I have to quote the xenophobic Crouch to make a point about diversity.

Anything that differs from the mainstream is being criticized for the sake of "diversity" nowadays. Organizations such as Tolerance.Org, the Anti Racist Action Network and others seek to suppress anything that they feel is racist or intolerant without providing arenas for dialogue to promote understanding. If we silence every critical voice, we cannot achieve diversity. All we will be doing is promoting conformity. Conformity is not diversity, despite what such groups might claim.

I do not support racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Neo-Nazi "World Church of the Creator" or the Black Supremacist "New Black Panther Party," but for sake of true diversity and freedom of expression these groups do have a right to exist and express themselves in peaceful ways. College campuses, such as Dartmouth, need to promote diversity based not only on ethnicity and sexual orientation, but also on political and religious beliefs. Disparate political beliefs should be given an open forum and opportunity for expression. Colleges should broaden their criteria of diversity in the admissions process to include diversity of ideas as well.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Accordingly, diversity based on race and gender alone while at the same time stifling different political and religious views is nothing but a farce.