Skip to content

Rediscovering the Meaning of Diversity: Lessons from Generation X

Gen X is young enough to take civil rights and integration for granted—but old enough to appreciate how much progress America has made

· 10 min read
Rediscovering the Meaning of Diversity: Lessons from Generation X
Harvard Black Law Students Association group photo for 1990-91 academic year. The author appears in the third row, far left.

Amidst the tribalized culture-war rhetoric that pits Baby Boomers (born 1946–64) against much younger Millennials (1980–94) and members of Generation Z (1995–2012), my own cohort—Generation X (1965–79)—often gets sidelined. That’s too bad, because our unique historical vantage point could help the United States bridge its generational differences. 

The oldest among my fellow Gen Xers were born in the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement—the end of an era during which color not only defined one’s identity in America, but also did much to predetermine social class, access to education, and economic opportunity. Most of us were raised by parents who started families and careers in a Mad Men society that catered almost exclusively to White males, but then came of age as that world began to fade from view. 

For Gen Xers, who are now in their 40s and 50s, the state of race relations can seem mystifying. We were taught that everyone should be judged as unique individuals, irrespective of their immutable characteristics. Now we’re told that this kind of attitude is, itself, a form of racism. It’s as if we spent our youth climbing the mountain that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned the night before he was assassinated—then, just as the peak came into view, we tumbled backward. Quietly, we wonder: It seemed like we were heading in the right direction. What went wrong?

One factor that sent us tumbling down that mountain, in my view, is the generational schism in our understanding of what diversity should look like. 

Boomers, many of whom spent their formative lives in a segregated society, had modest expectations for diversity. Gen X, by contrast, came of age in an integrated society (for legal purposes, at least), and so embraced a more expansive view of what a diverse society should look like. Yet Gen X wasn’t so chronologically removed from the pre-Civil Rights era that its members lacked a sense of historical context: We could trace the arc of progress, and were optimistic that more progress was on the way. 

This latter aspect distinguishes us from Millennials and members of Generation Z, whose understanding of history is more limited. Rather than putting their faith in an arc of progress, they tend to immerse themselves in social media that encourages a totalizing fixation on the injustices of the moment. As a result, they tend to embrace radicalized social-justice ideas that present the status quo as a dystopian dead-end. 

Obviously, I’m partial, but I happen to think Gen X got the balance right: Our vision of diversity in America was advanced enough to reject the bigotries of the past, but not so unrooted from America’s historical reality as to lend itself to ideological extremes. 

I entered college six years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark 1978 case that legalized affirmative action and galvanized efforts to diversify schools and workplaces. As a Black girl growing up in the 1970s, my parents, who’d never earned more than high school diplomas, often reminded me how lucky I was. Opportunities would be available to me that had always been out of their reach. And they did everything they could to set me up for success.

I went to a prep school that my parents paid for by taking on high-interest loans (from a bank that eventually would be sued for predatory lending practices). My father, a deputy sheriff, worked overtime to make the monthly payments. It was a gruelling schedule that left him tired and cranky, but he pushed through because he saw a better America for me on the horizon.

It would be pointless for me to deny that I’m a beneficiary of affirmative action, because I am. But I’m not ashamed of it. The lives and careers of millions of men and women—many of whom, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, have shaped the course of American history—were products of affirmative action. 

It’s easy to forget that the America in which Bakke was decided was very different from the America of 2024. Affirmative action wasn’t an attempt to tilt the playing field in favor of non-White people, so much as it was an effort to level it at a time when discrimination was still egregious and rampant. Twenty-four years earlier, the Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education had outlawed public-school segregation. But Bakke took things a step further by allowing public institutions to take diversity into account when admitting students or recruiting employees. 

Members of Harvard Law Review, 1990–91. The author appears in the back row, fifth from right. Former US President Barack Obama appears third row, center.

By the time I applied to Princeton University in 1984, it was well-known that elite schools were competing for diverse candidates—students who not only excelled academically but were also well-rounded, and boasted unusual or under-represented backgrounds. Being “diverse” could mean having a musical talent, standing out as a great athlete, speaking multiple languages, enjoying an esoteric hobby, being a young entrepreneur, hailing from a foreign country, displaying artistic flair, or coming from a single-parent household. When applying to an Ivy League school, it could even mean growing up in the Bible Belt.

Which is to say that being “diverse” meant providing a unique lens through which to view the world. The collective experiences of an authentically (which is to say, intellectually) diverse student body were (rightly) seen as contributing to a more richly textured academic experience for all—one that inspired curiosity and critical thinking.

And yes, sometimes intellectual diversity and racial (or sexual) diversity overlap: The policy that came to be called affirmative action was rooted in the realization that members of underrepresented groups—including White women, who rank among the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action—often come from socio-economically challenged backgrounds. It became understood that these challenges gave us unique perspectives, influenced how we identified problems, and shaped our approaches to solving them. 

Members of these groups would follow in the wake of the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other immigrant groups that had re-invigorated America’s kaleidoscope of culture, mind, and spirit in the early part of the twentieth century. At its core, affirmative action was an effort to promote the authentic diversity that America thrives on.

Students who benefited from affirmative action weren’t academically “unqualified” any more than the captain of the lacrosse team or the president of the drama club was less qualified than a National Merit Scholar. Affirmative-action policies were based on the assumption that all admitted students would meet a threshold of academic competence demonstrated through such objective metrics as standardized testing (a requirement that a growing number of colleges, and even medical and law schools, are now abandoning).

In Defense of New York City’s Elite Public High Schools
Those of us who believe in the merit principle, and who have seen firsthand how these schools can improve the lives of the students

I set my sights on an Ivy League university in my freshman year of high school. While I was certain I would benefit from affirmative action, I never assumed I would be accepted solely or primarily because I was a Black woman; I knew the competition would be fierce. So, on the advice of my college counselor, I tried to make myself as well-rounded as possible. I studied Latin and Spanish, enrolled in advanced science courses, and took on student leadership positions.

I remember poring over the personal essay that challenged applicants to relate a “life-changing experience.” I could have recounted my experience as one of a handful of Black students at my prep school, but instead drew upon the summer I spent in the Dominican Republic as an American Field Service student. I joined a dozen other participants from working- and middle-class families, from big cities and small towns all around the country.

Despite our differences, we realized we were all outsiders trying to navigate unfamiliar territory. Those three months gifted me with an insight I would carry the rest of my life: what we have in common is far more important than what separates us. During college interviews, my experience abroad was always a topic of interest. It validated my belief that I was valued not only as a Black woman, but also as someone who’d benefited from cultural immersion.

Princeton was the least diverse of all the Ivies (with the possible exception of Dartmouth). Affirmative-action policies were then still in their infancy, as was the university’s co-ed status: the first Princeton cohort to graduate women with a four-year degree had been the Class of 1973. Yet even Old Nassau held promise: While the student body was overwhelmingly White, there was still a substantial mix of Jewish, Black, Latino, and Asian-American students. There were a fair number of foreign students, too, and so I was able to find peers from Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. 

Political diversity was on display, too, which is to say that while the institution itself was then conservative, liberal students and speakers were never attacked or dismissed. And there was class diversity, as well, with students raised in welfare families living in dorms alongside heiresses and (literal) royalty. We learned from each other, inside and outside the classroom, with a spirit of curiosity and (generally) without judgment.

In 1988, I graduated from Princeton and headed to Harvard Law School—part of the same class as Barack Obama—where I enjoyed the same kind of diversity I’d observed at Princeton. And like my fellow members of Generation X, I naively assumed that the model of diversity I’d seen at these two universities would continue to inform American institutions for generations to come. 

But in the years that followed, while I was busy forging my career and starting a family, a transformation began taking place at my alma maters. The definition of diversity shifted, as did the goal of affirmative-action policies. Instead of affirmative action remaining a tool used to level the playing field, it became a weapon to hobble those with superior credentials and “power”—even if they weren’t White or male.

Last year, the US Supreme Court found Harvard University guilty of discriminating against Asian-American applicants through mechanisms that effectively required them to meet higher academic thresholds than Black and Latino applicants. By The New York Times’ account, these mechanisms “significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted.” Jewish students have also been negatively affected: They are increasingly lumped in as part of a “privileged” oppressor class, and their enrollment numbers have declined at many elite schools over the past twenty years.

I find Harvard’s embrace of this unsettling new approach to diversity and affirmative action to be both unsettling and sad—a betrayal of the optimistic and constructive approach I experienced as a student. And I only became more disappointed in recent months, when I saw Harvard convulsed by credible accusations of antisemitism, which have caused some alumni to stop donating.

Then there’s the university’s (now former) president, Claudine Gay, who was exposed as a serial plagiarist following a disastrous appearance before lawmakers, at which she hedged on the question of whether Harvard students who call for the extermination of Jews should be censured. 

Claudine Gay’s Misguided Defenders
Damning facts shouldn’t be ignored just because they’re brought to light by the ‘wrong’ kind of person

Culture warriors on the left accused conservatives of orchestrating Gay’s departure by weaponizing her race and what they call “inconsequential” instances of plagiarism. But the truth is more complicated. Harvard’s malaise, like that of elite American schools more generally, reflects a profound disconnect between its own rarefied subculture and the so-called “real world.”

Yes, there’s growing resentment toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. But this resentment isn’t an entirely conservative phenomenon. And DEI critics, conservative and otherwise, aren’t necessarily rejecting diversity and inclusion, as those terms have traditionally been understood. 

Most Americans—and especially members of Generation X, by my observation—wholeheartedly believe that schools and workplaces should reflect our increasingly heterogeneous society. But they view diversity holistically, not through a rigid intersectional prism that assigns someone oppressor or oppressed status on the basis of skin color, sex, or pronouns. Ironically, in fact, the same university administrators who obsess over these categories make little effort to promote authentic diversity of the type that includes a wide range of backgrounds, political perspectives, and worldviews.

Reaping What We Have Taught | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson
Why antisemitism seems to be a problem at Harvard and other universities is one of the still-unanswered questions that precipitated the University’s downward spiral.

In a recent article in The Crimson, Harvard computer-science professor Harry R. Lewis unearthed tidbits in Harvard’s undergraduate course catalog that should give pause to any parent otherwise prepared to spend almost $80,000 per year on his or her child’s tuition, room, and board: the college offers more than eighty classes whose descriptions feature the words “oppression” or “liberation,” and more than 100 featuring “social justice.” The number of classes highlighting “White supremacy” is nearly tied with the tally of those focusing on “Enlightenment.” I can’t help but wonder whether my 1980s-era personal essay, describing my experience abroad and emerging awareness of our common humanity, would be as welcomed by admissions officers today as an essay excavating the pain of being Black and female.

In some ways, today’s Ivy League students are far less diverse than those of yesteryear. Regardless of skin color, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, students at elite schools increasingly tend to come from high-income families. And so, once admitted, they read back to one another the political views that such privileged teenagers tend to crowdsource on social media or through networks formed at expensive private schools. Authentic diversity isn’t enhanced when a community of “thinkers” are all looking through the same lens.

As the Harvard Corporation goes about selecting Gay’s replacement, its members can follow one of two paths: they can pick a leader who doubles down on the school’s existing approach; or, as I hope, they can take a step toward rediscovering the spirit of the Civil Rights movement and the Gen Xers who learned to appreciate its legacy. 

On Instagram @quillette