It’s orientation week on American college campuses, and that means that students across the country are being subjected to a battery of elaborate diversity-training seminars providing detailed instructions as to what is and isn’t offensive. The New York Times has a remarkable report on this new bureaucratic higher education initiation ritual. An excerpt:
A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”
The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”
The exchange was included in Ms. Marlowe’s presentation to recently arriving first-year students focusing on subtle “microaggressions,” part of a new campus vocabulary that also includes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” […]
Among her other tips: Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation.
The Times also notes that colleges have been on a hiring spree for “chief diversity officers”—bureaucrats whose whose jobs include designing micro-aggression training courses, creating materials like Harvard’s “social justice placemat,” and determining what kind of political speech is acceptable and what kind is punished by Title IX investigations. (Who says there aren’t jobs for humanities majors?)
Joking aside, it’s important to note that the types of programs the Times describes are very, very unlikely to have their intended effect—if the intent is really to reduce campus racial and ethnic tensions. As the social psychologist Chris Martin has noted, the proliferation of these courses courses is a testament “to the success of the diversity industry in marketing itself, not their ability to produce results.” And the sale is easy to make to campus administrations where left-of-center ideology is almost completely dominant.
What little research we do have on diversity programs suggest that if they have any effect, it is to inflame racial tensions. As the Harvard Business Review reported earlier this year, “laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.”
Similarly, major studies show that self-segregation into “ethnic enclaves” on college campuses—a practice diversity courses often encourage—increases inter-group hostility and mistrust. That’s one reason white nationalists and others on the alt-right tend to join with the campus left in supporting racial consciousness-raising.
If colleges were interested in making their student populations more racially harmonious, according to Martin, they would cut back on heavy-handed diversity courses and pivot instead toward programming that fosters a sense of common identity and social interaction among students of different backgrounds. Sadly, the reality is that some of the diversity programs the Times describes are likely aimed more at transferring resources to powerful political constituencies than at actually promoting cross-cultural respect.