The Value of Diversity, Or, Lessons of a Canadian Folksinger to the US Supreme Court.

The Surpreme Court has now ruled by 5-4 that school districts cannot use race as a means of determining placement to maintain integrated class rooms. Unsurprisingly, the four of the Court’s “Conservative” wing (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito) believe that any race conscious consideration by government is intrinsically harmful and would overturn the 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger that upheld the use of race as one of several factors to promote diversity in higher education. (Technically, Roberts only goes so far as narrowing Grutter‘s holding to higher education, but it amounts to the same thing.) Kennedy, the eternal swing vote, still affirms that diversity (including racial and gender diversity) is an important value that the government can support, without really indicating how the school systems can do so.

Reflections on the fallacy of “color blindness,” and how a completely unrelated folksong by the Canadian folksinger Heather Dale makes the point about the need for diversity and role models more eloquently than I ever could, below…

Unlike many others, I do not attribute the decision of the majority to outright racism. It is the far more subtle and pernicious problem of refusal/inability to understand a life outside your own. Roberts, et al. live in a world where anything is achievable, merit (and blind fortune) are the ultimate arbiters of one’s fate, and government efforts to recognize disparties and alter them inevitably create a worse result for some individual somewhere. That the failure to take action has disparate impact on some more than others, or weakens us as a society overall, is regarded as at best misguided and at worst elitist. Either way, these five believe, it is dangerous folly that threatens true eqaulity for the law to engage in “social engineering.”

This is in particular raised with regard to race. Whatever value may lie in trying to equalize things between “neutral” factors such as rural v. urban, or wealthy v. poor (permissible criteria for educational diversity), these five believe deeply that categorization by race for purposes of achieving visual diversity is pernicious and self-defeating. They argue that it encourages the stereotype that all people of a particular race see things in a specific way way or have a specific perspective. “How racist,” says the majority. “How much better if we all just pretended color did not matter. Wouldn’t that be a far more equal world?”

There are many reasons why I answer the above question “no.” But for the moment, I will stick to one that the majority in Grutter discussed. In determining that Michigan Law School’s goal of achieving a racially diverse student body was permissible, the Grutter majority wrote:

In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training. As we have recognized, law schools “cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts.” See Sweatt v. Painter, supra, at 634, 70 S.Ct. 848. (emphasis added)

An often under appreciated fact is how much we look for people like ourselves to help us define what we can and cannot do. Yes, there are the trailblazers, the contrarians, the celebrated few who feel compelled for whatever reason to buck tradition, break down stereotype, and prove that he/she can do what no man/woman/white person/black person/whatever person traditionally doesn’t/does. Our movies and television show are a never ending celebration of the bravery and commitment of the maverick who does what he/she isn’t supposed to do and ultimately teaches us that what matters is what’s inside, not what’s outside. Whether it’s the poor son of an Appalachian coal miner being the first in his family to go to college, the first woman proving she can “cut it” in a traditionally man’s profession, the African American determined to show that he can be successful in the all white corporate boardroom. We love to celebrate the crusader whose personal bravery, sacrifice and determination ultimately triumph and open doors for the rest of us.

True enough. But 99% of the rest of us follow the path of expectation and look to see people like us when we chose a career or social setting or even a hobby. There’s a reason for the cliche of “___? Is that really something for a nice Jewish boy/girl?” Human beings are, by and large, social creatures who seek the comfort of confirmation that we are behaving in a socially acceptable way. That includes seeing people like yourself in situations you are thinking about trying.

When you’re in the majority, it is trivially easy to forget this, because you see people like yourself everywhere. Please note that the term “majority” is slippery and rather hard to define. Ask Evangelicals what they think of TV portrayals of religious characters, for instance, and you will understand why so many Southern Conservatives believe in the evil Liberal Hollywood conspiracy. Ask stay at home Dads who have tried to join “Mother and Me” groups about their experiences. I myself wince whenever I watch “Magic School Bus” and see the wonderfully diverse crowd of children, which includes the hyper-intelligent physically cowardly Jew-boy and his greedy, grasping uber competitive Jewish female cousin. Because writers who wouldn’t dream of making the Italian kid’s father a Mafiosa don’t have a problem writing Jewish charaters that mirror the likes of Woody Allen and Northern Exposure’s Joel Fleischman.

So visual representation of diversity matters a lot, both to people outside the mainstream aspiring to different things, and to whoever is the majority of the moment to come into contact with the “other”. Because, absent real world contact with people different from us, human beings do what human beings generally do — don’t think about what’s not in front of us and rely on very surface generalizations (which, with regard to our fellow human beings, we call “stereotypes).

Which brings me, at last, to Canadian folk singer Heather Dale and her song ”One of Us.“ (Reproduced below with permission, sound clip and other info available here.) Like me, Heather also participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a living history group that has its own form of tournament fighting. The SCA is a modern organization and one not overly devoted to historical accuracy (the unofficial slogan of the org is ”The Middle Ages As They Should Have Been“ or ”Middle Ages: The Good Stuff Version.“ This is why the SCA has rather a bad reputation in academic circles, but it still provides a lot of educational value and fun). So tournament fighting is open to anyone, male or female. Nevertheless, as Heather writes in her song, men dominate the tourney sport. One reason, I suppose, is that more men than women find it attractive to strap on heavy armor and hit each other real hard with wooden sticks in the blazing sun.

I love Heather’s song because it maes the point about the need for visual diversity and the importance of role models beautifully, without getting all angry and therefore puting people on the defenisve. And the grand scheme of thing, participation in a sport as part of a broader hobby is minor. But it is precisely by focusing on these ”little things“ that we can achieve greater understanding of the bigger issues where the complexity and passion make it hard to pick the pieces apart. The weightier questions of social justice that naturally append to the diversity debate in education and elsewhere make it much harder to capture the simple point that most people look for people like themselves when deciding what to do with their lives and what is the scope of the achievable. Whether it is a woman deciding if she wants to try fake medieval tournaments, or a Latino teenager chosing a career, or an Orthodox Jewish family deciding where to live, we look for examples of others ”like us“ — and their presence or absences weighs in our calculus of how we direct our lives.

So read the song below, check out the Heather’s website, and buy her music (since I happent o really love it and think Heather is cool.) And after the next time you debate ”diversity,“ whether it perpetuates stereotypes or ”punishes white people“ or compensates for past and current injustice, listen to ”one of us“ and consider the value of visual diversity of all kinds in its own right.

And to Heather and all my brothers and sisters in the progressive public policy shieldwall, I lift my sword in salute.

Stay tuned . . . .
Written and performed by Heather Dale, from her CD ”The Hidden Path“.
Visit for sound clips and info.
(copyright Amphisbaena Music 1999)

Before I got to fighting, or when fighting got to me,
I looked to find examples on the field of chivalry.
I saw mighty arms, much stronger than my arms would ever be
And I thought perhaps the field was not for me.

But I stayed and watched the fighting ’til one figure stood apart
In armour newly fashioned, and a helm more pot than art,
But each blow was thrown with honour and a lightness of the heart
So I took the step that soon became a start.

She was not the biggest fighter, nor one to make a fuss,
But I remember being proud that she was one of us.
We might never stand together in the shieldwall side by side,
But because of her I lift my sword with pride.

She was ladylike and lively, not ”the type you would expect”
With a braver heart than many and a slot-shot to respect.
I guess she’d once decided this was where she’d like to be
And I thought, if she could do it, why not me?

She was not ….

So now as I gather armour, bits and pieces here and there,
I think about examples: how you act, and what you dare.
‘Cause you never know who’s watching or how far the story goes
And where’er that Lady is, I hope she knows.

‘Cause she was not …..

We might never stand together in the shieldwall side by side,
But because of her I lift my sword with pride.


  1. It seems disingenuous to me to fight against the most direct fixes for discrimination. The folksy “plain and simple” argument is that we don’t redress a wrong with another wrong. The statement isn’t true, and I’m not sure it applies in any case.

    We do address wrong with wrong all the time. We send people to jail. We charge interest. We send folks to the back of the line. We forfeit the deposit. Our society wields wrongs like a club. So much so that we adults don’t even remember that these things are wrong. (Ask your nearest pre-schooler for a sanity check.) Regardless of whether there are better ways to behave, it seems just plain mean to me to suddenly say that positive action is out of bounds to redress racism or sexism. (And doubly so to then say it is ok to use “neutral” substitutes like geography and economics in order to unlock barriers that are these days imposed to begin with through “neutral” substitutes like geography and economics.)

    The abomination of prisons are accepted on the idea that, although slavery, violence, and deprivation may be wrong, we simply cannot have bad and dangerous people running around free. If there’s a better answer, great, but in the mean time we have to do a bad thing and put criminals in jail. Results matter, the feeling goes, and good intentions aside, we have to fix the immediate problem in the most direct way. OK. Maybe. (Maybe not, but that’s an argument for another day.) Well, on the same lines, I feel that lack of diversity is so bad – both for the individual victims and for society as a whole – that we simply cannot tolerate it. Results matter, and when there simply are very few women and minorities in some particular societally significant domain, we have to fix the immediate problem in the most direct way.

    Now, is this even bad? Does it cost someone else favor? I think there is a degree to which it does, which varies by situation. Let’s look at both extremes of the spectrum.

    At one end, we have situations in which there is no scarcity – where we are not playing a zero-sum game. Someone gets “in”, but no one is pushed out. At this extreme, there is no harm, no foul. What could possibly be wrong with setting another place at the table?

    At the other extreme, we have a situation of strictly fixed resources. For everyone “in,” there is someone else who will never have a chance even remotely like it. The outsider is doomed. In this situation, it is clearly wrong for someone to not have an even chance on merit, and we regard any exceptions as a crime. Now, if we look at any such situations and find that there is not already a representative diverse membership, then indeed, there has been a crime! It must be addressed, and all those who have membership are accessories! They are guilty and must be punished – for example, by baring them from the activity in which they have wrongly profited. In the harsh reality of “this cannot be allowed,” we might be justified in throwing out everyone who has participated in this wrong by passing thus far. Let everyone compete anew. If the result not be free of discrimination, then let the results be thrown out again until the wrong is absent.

    Now, under either extreme, or in between: is not being mean so wrong that we cannot allow discrimination to be unrelieved?

    I think lack of diversity is a huge detriment to creating the greatest commong good for everyone, and for each of us individually. Except of course, for those of us who make their living from depriving others!

    I also think that discrimination is a key bellwether for a larger issue that American society is plauged with today — disenfranchisement. Because we failed to fight it over “there” (in the ghettos), we know find that we’re near to loosing the fight at home.

  2. So, I work hard and have the chance to buy a nice house in a relatively crime free neighborhood (and by the way there are folk of all different colors and ways of life in the neighborhood I refer to) and allow my child to walk to that school and for some unknown reason this innocent needs to be punished by putting her on a bus to take her miles from her home?

    That is your idea of justice?

    The federal and state governments started getting involved in education issues in the 70s and 80s and since then our schools have suffered. I also find it offensive to say that children of one area are automatically going to have problems. Where is the government when you need it? If a school cannot fulfill its purpose right there in the community, then measure should be taken to insure that it does.

    Further,I find it repulsive that you would equate doing something to someone who has done no wrong with a criminal who has gone out of their way to harm others. There is no equating those, your argument is false at its base.

    I would rather work to make all neighborhoods being filled with good, law abiding citizens, than busing folks around from one area to another. It is just putting a band-aid on a problem that is far larger than that.

  3. I do not recall speaking about justice, actually. And the false choice you propose does not actually match the facts on the ground in the Supreme Court case in question.

  4. I think Mr. Kostisin is taking issue with my comment. Harold’s point is simply that there is tremendous value in diversity. I found the point to be so well-made, that it inspired me to go further. Much further.

    On the one hand, I don’t want any dissatisfaction with my view to take anything away from Harold’s. But on the other hand, I think the issue is so important (see especially my last paragraph, typos aside), that I don’t think Harold will mind.

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to try to bring my rather abstract discussion down to earth on the specifics of Parents v. Seattle Schools or Grutter v. Bollinger. Go ahead and try to apply my logic to these cases and see if it applies. Maybe it doesn’t. But I don’t think that’s quite what Mr. Kostisin has achieved in his comments.

  5. First let me apologize for my not reading this thoroughly. I am a person who has been in a minority situation more often than you might believe. It never stopped me from doing what I wanted nor did it ever hold me back, only I have held me back.

    To be quite honest with you, while I certainly see how “One of Us” supports diversity, I do not believe that it favors ‘forced diversity’. Their are no quotas in the SCA. There is no one picking up the extra female weavers and forcing them spend time on the fighting field. No one is getting a ‘leg up’ to get started fighting. Marion had to pick up her armor in bits and pieces, just as I did.

    Folks are allowed to go and do what want and more important than that exceptions are not made. In armor it is very easy to be color blind and gender blind. There is a saying that started back about 20 years ago ‘plumbing doesn’t matter’. And it should not. Just as race should not matter nor anything else. What should matter is ones desire to do what one wants. “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” I apologize for not understanding in the least how quotas might help that.

  6. A suitable and frequently asked question. It goes to the heart of the question on what sort of diversity and in what context, and how do you achieve the needed diversity.

    Allow me to break it down somewhat differently. Colleges (particularly top tier colleges) have a huge number of things they look for when admitting students. I occasionally do interviews for my alumni assoc. I was speaking awhile ago with a fellow alum on what I could do to maximize my son’s chances for admission and the response was “move to Iowa.” Why? Because my alma matter gets many many more applicants from the Northeast than it does from Iowa. As a result, the same applicant with the same test scores but with an Iowa address has an edge, because my alma matter wants to maximize the diversity of its student body.

    There are other things that maximize diversity of students and therefore schools look for them. Study abroad, accomplished athlete, four years of drama club, or other outstanding activities. The opportunity to do these things or not is frequently as limited for the would be applicant as moving to Iowa. Yet few folks worry that this sort of diversity is somehow “unfair,” even though the ability to control it is — to a tremendous extent — beyond the control of the applicant.

    Is this type of diversity — despite its intrinsic unfairness — something appropriate for universities to consider? Should universities be prohibited from considering place of origin? Should they consider only standardized test scores? Is it wrong to penalize a top student from Maryland or California simply because many more qualified students apply from those states than apply from other states?

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