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Cultural Diversity?

By Editorial Staff
Published April 3, 2008

By Linda Chavez

A Letter from Linda Chavez, former director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan and later joined the senior staff of the White House, to the editor of “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” 7/18/90.

“Cultural Diversity” has become the shibboleth of the 90’s on college campuses. Few critics are willing to challenge the values of diversity and pluralism lest they be branded reactionary, or worse, racist. The promoters of cultural diversity tell us that theirs is an ideology of inclusion. But the policies of cultural diversity as they are practiced on campus today have very little to do with inclusion or diversity.

My own experience with the promoters of this new ideology suggests that their real aim is to keep out certain ideas and certain people, to foreclose debate, to substitute their own catechism for the free inquiry usually associated with a university.

In May of this year, I was scheduled to be the commencement speaker at the University of Northern Colorado. The topic of my address to graduating seniors was to have been the movement toward democracy occurring in Eastern Europe and elsewhere and what special challenges this posed to those of us living in the United States, the world’s oldest Democracy. However, when word spread of my invitation to speak, a group of Hispanic students and community activists launched a protest.

They objected to my views on affirmative action and bilingual education – I am critical of both. They also objected to my past association with the Reagan Administration (I was director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan and later joined the senior staff of the White House). And they objected to my past affiliation with U.S. English, a public policy group that promotes laws to make English the official language of the United States.

At first, the university president, Robert Dickeson, held firm, stating the university’s commitment to honor its invitation. I offered to come to campus a day early and meet with the protesters – under any conditions they might choose – to discuss my views on affirmative action, bilingual education, or any other topic, even though these subjects had nothing to do with the speech I intended to give. Mr. Dickeson declined my offer but reiterated his commitment to have me speak.

Less than 10 days later, Mr. Dickeson rescinded the university’s invitation. He apparently changed his mind after a marathon listening session in the student lounge, where he heard from 95 of the university’s 9500 students. In revoking the invitation, he issued an extraordinary statement, which said in part:

“The intent of the university in inviting Linda Chavez to be the commencement speaker was to be sensitive to cultural diversity, and the committee making the decision intended to communicate the importance of cultural pluralism. It is clear that the decision was both uniformed and gave the appearance of being grossly insensitive.”

In trying to explain how my selection as a commencement speaker was inconsistent with the university’s commitment to cultural diversity and pluralism, Mr. Dickeson later wrote in an opinion piece for The Rocky Mountain News: “[T]he people who had selected Chavez honestly thought they were picking a positive role model for Hispanic women leaders, and that she would be received as such. They were obviously wrong.”

Cultural pluralists claim to want diversity, but the diversity they seek is certainly not in opinions different from their own. In the ideology of cultural pluralism, one’s world view is determined by race, ethnicity, gender, and class. To be black or Hispanic or female or working class is to think a certain way. In the cultural pluralists’ model, no one is really capable of escaping his or her cultural determinants.

In this view, getting beyond one’s own cultural reference point requires exposure to people who exemplify the thinking of other groups. Since blacks, Hispanics, and women differ so profoundly from white men, the ideology assumes, the products of black, Hispanic, and female thought must be added to the curriculum; universities must comprise sufficient numbers of such persons as students and faculty members; and such people must be presented as “role models” on ceremonial occasions.

The problem with the cultural pluralists’ model, or course, is that not all blacks, Hispanics, or women think alike. Neither do white males, for that matter. How could they? None of these groups is homogeneous. Among Hispanics, for example, are people who were born in the United States and speak barely a word of Spanish, as well as others born thousands of miles away who speak not a world of English. What does a Peruvian immigrant from Cusco have in common with a third-generation Mexican-American born in Chicago? Do we really expect these two to share a common world view because we define both as Hispanic?

Much as the cultural pluralists might regret it, right-mindedness is not passed along in the DNA. Not every black person embraces affirmative action, nor every Hispanic bilingual education. So the cultural pluralists think they must define which blacks, Hispanics, and women are acceptable role models – who among them may be heard, and under what circumstances. Thus the decision to bar me as a commencement speaker.

The trend is not only to limit which outsiders such as myself may speak in the university but, more important, to limit what those within academy may say and do. Several universities recently have adopted policies restricting what they see as racially or sexually offensive speech – Emory University, the University or Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, and Stanford University, to name a few.

At Stanford, a student apologist for the new “anti-harassment” restrictions on that campus said: “What we are proposing is not completely in line with the First Amendment. But I’m not sure it should be. We at Stanford are trying to set a different standard from what society at large is trying to accomplish.” Roger Kimball, in describing such restriction in his book Tenured Radicals (Harper and Row, 1990), asks: “But what does it mean that the university, traditionally a bastion of free speech and a place where controversial ideas may freely circulate, has begun to encroach even on these ideas in the name of a certain vision of political rectitude?”

Cultural pluralists may favor an environment where professors feel constrained from introducing “any sort of thing that might hurt a group,” as one of them admonished his colleagues at a Harvard seminar on racial insensitivity last year. But what kind of teaching can take place in such an environment? At a speech I gave recently at Grinnell College, a young black woman informed me that she was tired of reading about slavery in American history courses because it gave her white classmates the “wrong impression” about blacks and their contribution to this nation.

In the name of cultural diversity, should we revise our history books to remove painful lessons? And how will these new culturally sensitive institutions deal wit the growing numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and women who break ranks with the orthodoxies of their groups? Recently, Shelby Steele, associate professor of English at San Jose State University, wrote in the New York Times Magazine of his disillusionment with preferential employment and admission policies, which he feels stigmatize blacks.

Other black intellectuals have criticized at least some forms of racial preference; among them are Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, Walter Williams, Julius Lester, Randall Kennedy, and Stephen Carter. Will these men be driven from the academy for their heretical views? Or ostracized within it? The cultural pluralists have embarked on a dangerous course. Inevitably, however, the tide will begin to turn as more and more people resist their bullying tactics. In the meantime, those claiming to want diversity and pluralism will have done great damage to the liberal traditions of the university. Let’s hope that academic freedom can survive the assault.


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