Diversity and Democracy

Replacing the Cracked Mirror: The Challenge for Diversity and Inclusion

In her poem “Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap,” Audre Lorde creates a vivid metaphor of a gleeful glass maker “turning out new mirrors / that lie”—replicating cultural messages that dangerously distort our self-images ([1970] 1993). The late Ronald Takaki referenced this poem in his introduction to A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, an effort to provide a new mirror with no distortions ([1993] 2008). Yet, despite the work of Takaki and others to create a new narrative of American diversity, equal opportunity remains our national myth. As Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote, the “gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider” (2013). The mirror showing our nation to itself is continually reproduced with cracks rather than made anew, reflecting our rich diversity as threatening at best, if it reflects that diversity at all.

Existing alongside this persistently distorted self-image is an ongoing conversation about the role that colleges and universities play in the maintenance of democracy itself. As William Deresiewicz recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society” that “deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry,” “have no use for larger social purposes,” and “reject the view that higher education is a basic human right.” Opposed to tax-supported social safety nets and preoccupied with preparing students to not be “left behind in the information economy” (Michael Staton of UnCollege, quoted by Deresiewicz), these forces treat education as an engineering problem focused

on the movement of information from one brain to another—not the development of intellectual capacities, not the ability to formulate questions or devise solutions to unfamiliar problems, not imagination and creativity, not the power to continue learning after college on your own (all of which are necessary, as any employer will tell you, for a successful career in the “information economy”), and certainly not personal growth or the discovery of meaning, let alone any kind of larger social purpose. (Deresiewicz 2014, B9)

If Deresiewicz is right, what are the implications for our work to advance diversity and equity in higher education? What should our work involve if we are to mend the cracked mirror and realize our democratic principles and aspirations when the measure of humanity appears to be monetary and societal values are reduced to promoting the advance of technology?

The Connectedness of Diversity

The context I have described above has deep consequences for diversity in American colleges and universities. Higher education’s support for diversity, spawned in the 1970s when the nation believed in universal education and its key role in opportunity, is now reeling from the simultaneous defunding and widespread dismissal of higher education for purposes beyond that of filling jobs. In national policy discussions, debates about diversity compete awkwardly with debates about immigration, same-sex marriage, environmental justice, poverty, globalization, and global conflict—all viewed as separate, unrelated issues despite their connectedness within a multicultural context.

Our nation’s persistent political polarization suggests the importance of developing connections among these topics. Contrary to what Peter Wood argued in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003), diversity is not a manufactured ideal, hostile to individual rights. Instead, various and intersecting diversities—of race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, religion, sexuality, ability, etc.—exist at the core of all efforts to maintain group and individual rights and to reconcile the complex past with the rapidly changing present. Having served as faculty facilitator for James Baldwin’s seminar at Smith College during the 1980s, I recall his passionate discussions of negotiations that must occur in order for both minorities and the majority to realize democratic freedom. He often said, “My freedom ends where your freedom begins, and your freedom ends where my freedom begins.” Perhaps this insight should become a cultural aspiration.

To meet such an aspiration, we would need not only to create inclusive campuses and classrooms, but also to engage with diversity across disciplines—in the arts, humanities, and social sciences as well as in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Such engagement not only helps develop an informed citizenry, but also makes it possible for a student discriminated against or experiencing hostility because of her race or her gender to confront the discrimination or hostility—or simply to consider its source—rather than internalize it. Throughout higher education, we must question the single-minded focus on innovation, individuality, and monetary gain that exists at the expense of human needs; challenge the public and judicial disdain that prevents synergistic balance between individual and group rights; and combat the consistent and persistent exclusion of certain groups from financial gain and stability, which maintains a racialized and gendered underclass.

Below, I offer three examples shedding light on the contemporary context for diversity in higher education. I intend for these examples to provide some direction and much hope. As I have written elsewhere, diversity can be a “wicked problem” that by definition spawns other wicked problems (Butler 2013). Our task is to turn the ever-evolving problems of diversity into “wicked possibilities” that sustain and advance our democracy.

Growing Political Polarization

On June 12, 2014, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released Political Polarization in the American Public (Pew Research Center 2014). A telling component of this report is its analysis of the voting records of every senator and representative in five Congresses, beginning with the ninety-third Congress (1973–74) and ending with the 112th Congress (2011–12). The data show the decline in ideological overlap from 1973–74 (when 240 House members scored in between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican, and twenty-nine senators scored between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat “in their respective houses”) to 2011–12, when there was “no overlap” at all in either chamber (Pew Research Center 2014, 26).

As summarized in the Pew report, findings from the Political Polarization and Typology Survey (which collected information from over 10,000 Americans) and its companion project, the American Trends Panel, suggest similar lack of ideological overlap in the American public. Readers concerned about such polarization may find comfort in the finding that most Americans “do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views.... [or] do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want” (Pew Research Center 2014, 7). However, the Pew report describes those in the center as “on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process” (Pew Research Center 2014, 7). The study also shows that a significant number of Americans want to live next to, go to school with, and socialize with others most like them racially and culturally.

These findings suggest that diversity is neither solely demographic nor wholly intellectual. Too many Americans currently view the world as sharply divided between “us” and “them,” defined by “either/or” situations. The more diversity is reflected in our classrooms and laboratories, in our teams and study groups, and in our faculty and administrators, and the more inclusive our research, scholarship, and teaching, the more likely it is that these sharp divides will gradually lessen—not only in higher education, but outside the ivory tower as well.

Persistent Racial Divisions

The US Supreme Court decision in Schuette v. BAMN upheld Michigan voters’ ban on affirmative action, prompting an extraordinary dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Ginsberg. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor traces the history of political restructurings and redistricting to deny voting rights to minorities, thwart desegregation, and invalidate the election of minority candidates. As Sotomayor writes, “to know the history of our Nation is to understand its long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process” (US Supreme Court 2014).

In Schuette v. BAMN, the Supreme Court declared constitutional the elimination of race-sensitive admissions policies in ways, Sotomayor explains, that are inconsistent with previous court decisions, which established that “the political process cannot be restructured in a manner that makes it more difficult for a traditionally excluded group to work through the existing process to seek beneficial policies” (US Supreme Court 2014). In this case, the court’s decision supports “two very different processes through which a Michigan citizen is permitted to influence the admissions policies of the State’s universities: one for persons interested in race-sensitive admissions policies and one for everyone else.” While Michigan citizens and alumni can meet individually with the Board of Regents to advocate for admissions policies that take into consideration factors other than an applicant’s race, “for that policy alone,” she writes, “the citizens of Michigan must undertake the daunting task of amending the State constitution.”

Sotomayor notes that the plurality bases its decision on “the freedom of self-government—because the majority of Michigan citizens ‘exercised their privilege to enact laws as a basic exercise of democratic power.’” The court, she demonstrates, ignores precedent and rules with a logic that “embraces majority rule without an important constitutional limit” (US Supreme Court 2014)—a limit the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ensure. Furthermore, as Gaylynn Burroughs points out in Ms. Magazine, the Schuette case “upheld [Michigan’s] Proposition 2—which also covers contracting, employment and women,” leading Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal to comment that “the Supreme Court has just rubber-stamped efforts … to set women and minorities back a few decades” (2014, 15).

Such legal and political actions are not unconnected from the persistent microaggressions faculty of color experience, the current controversies related to immigration, or the violence against women and African Americans and other people of color reported daily in local and national news. Furthermore, such actions and issues not only limit efforts to foster demographic diversity in higher education, but also create a national climate that negatively informs our campus and classroom climates. By guiding students to understand, both intellectually and affectively, the role of diversity in their civic engagement, social justice, and service-learning experiences, and by connecting those experiences more directly to curricular content, we can begin to unravel these negative effects. The more we interact deliberatively with difference, the more we will find similarity.  

Underrecognized Intersectionality and Privilege

Written by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson, The Long Shadow (2014) is an eye-opening study with paradigm-shifting implications for academic perspectives, expectations, and methodologies. Findings from this study of 790 white and black youths in Baltimore’s disadvantaged communities, followed from first grade to their late twenties, have strong implications for discussions of diversity in higher education. These implications are not new to higher education, but this new volume underscores their critical importance within a broader context.

The first finding of note relates to intersectionality, an approach long taken in women’s studies. Studying the effects of race alone or gender alone “misses consequences that trace to distinctive profiles of disadvantage” (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 2014, 171). In a chapter explaining this concept that many of us still miss in our scholarship, teaching, and campus work, Elizabeth Spelman quotes Beverly Smith: “Women don’t lead their lives like, ‘Well, this part is race, and this is class, and this part has to do with women’s identities,’ so it’s confusing” (1988, 133). Despite the realities of lived experience, too often, even those of us committed to diversity speak of “women and people of color” or “women and minorities,” using race or gender alone as the basis for analyzing stratification. When we do this, we risk ignoring, dismissing, or misunderstanding real differences in experience or socioeconomic location that depend on both race and gender—for example, the experiences of women of color in relation to those of white women—not to mention differences based on other aspects of identity.

As the authors of The Long Shadow point out, the practice of contrasting experiences based on one aspect of identity alone (for example, race) can serve to diminish the real effects of related “-isms.” In their study, the intersectional approach yields a much deeper understanding of social stratification—how it affects white men, black men, white women, and black women, rather than just whites and blacks or men and women. In higher education’s diversity work, an intersectional approach yields a fuller understanding of the sociocultural dynamics and results of stratification.

The narratives and analyses in The Long Shadow also remind us of the social capital attached to white privilege, which is embedded in “the way things work” (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 2014, 181). For example, the authors describe how whites found employment opportunities at Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel Corporation through family ties and the local bar culture, while blacks, cut off from such social capital, found much lower levels of employment through word of mouth. Similar, almost invisible networks exist in higher education, as information is shared in social situations and through social contacts in our separate communities outside the academy.

Diversity as Fundamental

An informant from a related study quoted in The Long Shadow observed that “drinking together … created more harmony than the union hall did” (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson 2014, 180). “Harmony” is a key word here. For in the face of an array of disruptions—technological change, reduced funding, threats to the tenure system, increased reliance on adjunct labor, concerns about students’ declining preparedness for college and the workforce—“diversity” suggests to many yet another new academic experience (on committees, in the lab, or in the classroom) sure to prompt inharmonious discomfort. Times are tumultuous in the United States and around the globe. Some blame diversity. Yet, diversity is fundamental to our humanity and to our natural world. The question should not be “How do we fix the problem of diversity?” but rather, “How can we use our diversity to find the unity within it? How can we in higher education help students see human possibilities and advance those possibilities through technology, social justice, equal opportunity, and a democracy that balances majority and minority rights? How can we create a different mirror that is not cracked?”

On its Diversity Initiative website, the Associated Colleges of the South lists five practices at the “center of the types of learning that distinguish a liberal arts education from other types of learning”:

  1. Commitment to Life-long Learning that is characterized by a sustained intellectual curiosity.
  2. Critical Thinking that is characterized by the ability to identify assumptions, to test logic, to evaluate evidence, to reason correctly, and to take responsibility for the actions that result.
  3. Encounters with Difference that promote the understanding of others, as well as self-understanding, and the appreciation and mutual respect of diverse perspectives and cultures.
  4. Free, Principled, and Civil Exchanges of Ideas that are characterized by open-mindedness and mutual respect.
  5. Ethical framework that serves as the basis for decisions and actions in all personal, social, and business relationships. (2014)

These five practices, similar to the Essential Learning Outcomes promoted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, come from a region that is not typically associated with the practice of embracing diversity; and yet, these colleges are on the forefront, clearly connecting diversity as an essential component of liberal education in a way that is consistent with AAC&U’s work on inclusive excellence (AAC&U Board of Directors 2013). Diversity, the focus of the third practice, is fundamental to the success of all five. All describe key components of engaging diversity, and all are central to liberal education.

Through our research and teaching, we educators can foster inclusion of the varied manifestations of diversity in our students and our courses, grappling with difference and sameness not as conundrums, but as synergistic and intersecting dynamics that reveal the human experience and ways to improve it. By continuing as a polarized nation, we risk losing any sense of compassion for one another. By denying rights to some, we risk endangering the rights of all. By supporting privilege in all its forms—white privilege, religious privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege—we risk losing all sense of public and common good.

The efforts discussed in this issue of Diversity & Democracy—efforts to improve campus and classroom climates for all students, create inclusive curricula, attend to faculty diversity, increase success for all students—contribute to the change higher education needs to replace the cracked mirror. Our goal must be to create a different mirror rather than, as Lorde describes, to “shatter the glass / choosing another blindness” ([1970] 1993).


AAC&U Board of Directors. 2013. “Board Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence.” http://www.aacu.org/board-statement-diversity-equity-and-inclusive-excellence-0.

Alexander, Karl, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson. 2014. The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Associated Colleges of the South. 2014. “The ACS Diversity Initiative within the Context of a Liberal Arts Education.” http://www.colleges.org/diversity.

Burroughs, Gaylynn. 2014. “A Blow to Fairness for Women and Minorities: Court Ruling Against Affirmative Action Goes Beyond Race, Education.” Ms. Magazine 24 (2): 14–15.

Butler, Johnnella E. 2013. “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Must This Be the Future of Diversity?” Liberal Education 99 (3): 8–15.

Deresiewicz, William. 2014. “The Miseducation of America, the Movie Ivory Tower and the Rhetoric of Crisis and Collapse.” Chronicle of Higher Education (The Chronicle Review), July 4, 6–9.

Lorde, Audre. (1970) 1993. “Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap.” Undersong. In Zami, Sister Outsider, Undersong. New York: Book of the Month Club, 85.

Pew Research Center. 2014. Political Polarization in the American Public. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. http://www.people-press.org/files/2014/06/6-12-2014-Political-Polarization-Release.pdf.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. 1988. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph. 2013. “Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth.” New York Times, February 16. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/equal-opportunity-our-national-myth/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.

Takaki, Ronald. (1993) 2008. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Back Bay Books.

Wood, Peter. 2003. Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. San Francisco: Encounter Books.

US Supreme Court. 2014. Schuette v. the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). 12 US 682. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/12-682.

Johnnella E. Butler is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Spelman College.

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