The Complexities of Discrimination and Diversity

United States


The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 19, 2007



To the Editor:

Richard A. Tapia’s "True Diversity Doesn’t Come From Abroad" (Diversity in Academe, September 28) contains troubling implications: that people of Asian descent cannot be real Americans, or that they do not face significant discrimination.

It is true that affirmative-action policies have changed significantly, in large part because of legal constraints. Rather than having remedial or redistributive purposes, the programs have come to emphasize diversity in an abstract sense. As a consequence, they have not only come to include racial groups other than African-Americans, for whom they were originally intended, but also people with other characteristics, such as physical disability.

And it is true that it is illogical, as well as inflammatory, to answer a claim that African-Americans and Latinos suffer disparities in higher education by observing that foreign nationals or Asian-Americans are well represented. … Academic leaders who make such observations appear to care only about superficial indicators of inclusion, not meaningful outreach.

Yet Richard Tapia’s essay conspicuously omits Asian-Americans from the list of domestic minorities deserving consideration. It thus implies that Asians must be aliens, that they face no serious challenges, or — worst of all — that they are foreigners who are wealthy. Such assumptions reflect racial stereotypes about Asian-Americans and are contrary to the facts. There are Asian-Americans who are native-born and whose families have been in the United States for five generations, but whose opportunities are limited by prejudice and who do not come from economically privileged backgrounds. There also are Asian immigrants, such as Pacific Islanders and refugees from Southeast Asia, whose incorporation into our nation is a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.

The cause of diversity is much more complex than popular slogans suggest. It also is advanced only if people from all communities are welcomed.

Frank H. Wu

Professor of Law


Law School

Wayne State University



To the Editor:

I was delighted to see your special report on diversity in higher education. I found Richard Tapia’s essay particularly intriguing.

Tapia is surely right to warn that the continued under representation of African-Americans and Latino Americans cannot be met by diversity, if that means simply bringing in international scholars — even those from Latin America or Africa — with no experience of racism. However, I am not certain how much his warning is based in reality: Have institutions of higher education used their mandate for diversity (since the Supreme Court has permitted them no other basis for action) primarily to expand their international populations? In the absence of clear contrary evidence from Tapia, I would be inclined to think that they have more often worked to increase African-American and Latino student and faculty populations.

Admittedly, such programs are somewhat blunt instruments for achieving the goal of ending race-based exclusion, but then limiting diversity programs to U.S. citizens is no guarantee that underserved populations get help. Henry Louis Gates Jr. famously pointed out in 2004 that two-thirds of Harvard’s black students, who presumably benefited from affirmative-action provisions, were descended from Caribbean blacks or mixed-race marriages, and were not simply the descendants of those who had suffered under slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the Unit
ed States. …

At the same time, Tapia’s argument could and should be taken further. Notably, he does not mention Asian-Americans or Native Americans as facing the same problems as African-Americans and Latinos. In fact, the extreme under representation of disadvantaged Asian-American groups — Americans of Filipino, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander ancestry — fits closely with Tapia’s argument. The continuing racially based obstacles faced by these groups get masked by other Asian-American groups, such as Japanese-Americans, that have managed to surmount discrimination. …

I agree that we need to take a hard look at the impact of affirmative-action programs based on diversity to make sure they meet the goal of assisting underserved populations. In doing so, however, we should recognize that citizenship and racial-group status are not absolute or objective categories and can confuse the issue of minority representation.

Greg Robinson

Associate Professor of History

Université du Québec






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