It’s tempting to snicker at snowflake culture, with its noisy campus gauntlet of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and in-your-face privilege-checking—but transpiring quietly off-stage at academia’s administrative levels is a far more sinister phenomenon undertaken in the name of one of society’s more theoretically desirable goals: diversity.
Here a disclaimer seems in order. Regardless of political affiliation, fair-minded observers will concede that educational facilities for minorities have remained decidedly separate, and in no way equal, in the several generations since 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. Such inequities naturally show up in college enrollment and performance: minority students who are products of inferior grade-school systems find it harder to negotiate the realm of higher education, in terms of both gaining entry and keeping up once they’re there. Accordingly, colleges have implemented various programs and protocols designed to boost campus diversity and help at-risk students feel more at home.
Now, reasonable people can differ about whether academia, as the ancestral home of white guilt, has been overzealous at micromanaging outcomes. Significant race-based preferences remain widespread, and lawsuits continue to be filed by white and Asian students who feel they bore the brunt of academia’s attempt to realize its vision of a utopian society in which minorities are represented at demographically correct levels. Eyebrows also raise at the way in which black students may be acculturated upon their arrival: ironically, some colleges “ghetto-ize” incoming minorities by creating for them separate advising systems, housing, academic tracks, and even graduation ceremonies. Still, it’s hard to dispute the wholesomeness of the mindset from which such tokens of affirmative action spring.
And yet wholesome is not the word that comes to mind when one assesses the newest wrinkle in academia’s attempt to balance the scales: an all-out, unapologetic assault on ‘whiteness’ itself. Today’s college administrators increasingly frame diversity and inclusion as lessons that must be learned by whites alone—and they’re lessons that too often unfold as interventions that force whites to regard themselves less as full partners in diversity than an obstacle to be overcome so that other constituencies might thrive. (This flows from another favored academic trope, the concept of the zero-sum society, wherein white success necessarily comes at the expense of non-white failure.) Colleges require the injection of units—if not whole introductory courses—on diversity in major subject areas “from physics to forestry,” as the Atlantic put it, and syllabi confirm the prevailing view of whiteness as something of an anachronistic disease that, like cholera, has no place in modern life.
A tale of two coasts: New York’s Hunter College promotes coursework for poli-sci majors in “the abolition of whiteness.” Stanford examines “abolishing whiteness as a cultural identity.” Elsewhere, to cite just a few examples, classes at Grinnell and UW-Madison confront “the problem of whiteness.” Moreover, academic theorists crusade to purge whiteness from STEM courses, because critical thinking and research are regarded as tools of “white hegemony.” Engineering students at Purdue must contend with the school’s indictment of “racist and colonialist projects in science,” while a UC-Irvine professor condemns even “technical prowess” as a white male construct. A Linfield college Gender Studies professor even condemns her peers for putting “stellar” colleagues in leadership roles, because stellar individuals, she notes, tend to be white and thus have benefited unfairly from “a logic of meritocracy that is built on this racist assumption that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.” UCLA pays students a stipend to act as professional social justice activists who will diagnose, expose, and combat “whiteness” and “the patriarchy” in all campus manifestations.
Most of these initiatives surfaced within the past few semesters, so a Geiger reading on fallout is premature, but the message and predictable effects are worrisome. Aside from simple issues of fairness, academe’s crusade is almost guaranteed to backfire. Today’s white college students have little to do with the active bigotry of the past; treating them as if they arrive on campus with some endemic moral deficit is almost certain to foment a stronger sense of racial identity among students who deem the attacks unwarranted. (77 percent of today’s freshmen describe themselves as somewhere between liberal and middle-of-the-road.) No matter how erudite the packaging, labeling a race “depraved” is the textbook definition of bigotry (if not, some might argue, an institutionally sanctioned hate crime).
Consider, too, the implications for black self-reliance. It seems unhelpful to suggest to blacks that resolving the gap in minority performance remains a problem that somehow falls to whites; this undercutting of black agency subliminally echoes the very paternalism that colleges decry. For that matter, what is the message to non-whites of identifying such concepts as excellence, prowess, and stellar performance with whiteness?
On the meta level, these campaigns reinforce the legitimacy of racist thinking itself: if it is permissible to link whiteness and depravity, why is it not permissible to link blackness and criminality? This is the antithesis of the mindset that true diversity should foster. All students should be encouraged to conceive themselves as individuals united by some overarching lingua franca.
Most egregiously, in writing such positions into its canon, academia abdicates its commitment to both critical thinking and political neutrality. The philosophical question of whether orchestrated diversity is preferable to pure meritocracy remains a topic of heated disagreement between liberals and conservatives; for colleges to summarily “settle the matter” internally forecloses debate on numerous corollary issues and abrogates the rights of those who may differ for reasons that have nothing to do with racism. (Foolhardy indeed is the professor who takes a position against the academic concept of diversity. I may be foolhardy in merely making that point.) Similarly, to teach that black failure is a function of white malfeasance—the key underpinning of the “white toxicity” narrative—is to endorse a foundational talking point in radical leftist demagogy. Likewise, the contention that “mass incarceration” is a stealthy way for white America to disenfranchise blacks and maintain its loathsome “hegemony.” Such beliefs have no place as stipulated truths in higher education. They are political platforms.
Suggestion for my academic colleagues: ensure that opportunity exists for all, then allow diversity to occur organically on its own. It may take longer and never quite come to imagined fruition, but it will be genuine, and will not stigmatize an entire group of people in the guise of eliminating racial stigmas. You can commit to this truer diversity or you can allow your campus to devolve into a Balkanized chaos-sphere that not only perpetuates ancient grievances but stands in direct reproach to the mission of higher education.
You cannot do both.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that New Mexico’s St. John’s College offered a class on the “depravity of whiteness”. While a student reading group was offered on the “depravity of whiteness” it did not garner enough interest to continue meeting. St. John’s College affirm that they are one of the few remaining classical liberal colleges in America, and their curriculum, called The Program, is almost unchanged since its founding in 1937.
Steve Salerno is a widely published essayist and professor of journalism. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the self-improvement industry’s wider footprint in society. You can follow him on Twitter @iwrotesham