By Kaleb ‘Kal’ Demerew
The Diversity Delusion is a scathing critique of the politics, methods, and concepts that have informed contemporary diversity policy in American colleges. Mac Donald argues that diversity is fashioned into an ideology for coercing compliance, contrary to the spirit of a university education. In developing this argument, the author cites several quantitative studies and some notable case studies, centering on the identity politics of race and gender in college campuses.
Mac Donald develops her argument systematically, beginning with an assessment of diversity politics as a system that empowers pandering administrators to engage in thought policing on behalf of certain ‘preferred’ groups. This system is implemented under the guise of promoting ‘multiculturalism’, but in effect produces negative value judgments on those forms of knowledge and expression associated with non-minority categories such as males or whites. These negative value judgments are institutionalized through a group of administrators the author refers to as ‘diversocrats’. By silencing those they disagree with, the author argues, diversocrats claim to espouse postmodernism or relativism while actually imposing a form of totalitarianism (p. 20).
Mac Donald argues that totalitarian ‘diversocrats’ threaten the pursuit of humanities, truth, and science in university, promoting niche fields that provide narrow support to the ‘diversity’ project. Examples of this include the replacement, rather than supplementation, of classical curricula in classical rhetoric, oratory grammar, and literature with abstract study areas in fields like gender, race, and sexuality studies. For Mac Donald, this reflects a narcissistic turn, as these policies assume that students can only gain value by learning about things that they can relate to experientially. In the process, this approach may undermine the transmission of nuggets of knowledge considered more neutral, especially those in the humanities.
Finally, the author argues that diversity policies rely on falsehoods to pander to gender and racial identity politics. For instance, when it comes to race, diversity policies provided reduced nominal standards for less qualified minorities to access elite flagship state schools like UC-Berkeley and UCLA, through newly-adopted ‘holistic’ admissions criteria. Mac Donald identifies a number of faults with these policies, the most important being the proliferation of what she calls ‘victimology’. This concept relies on ‘mismatch theory’ and links obsessions with ‘microaggressions’ to a psychology of inadequacy created when students are admitted into colleges in which they are not equipped to excel. The real hindrance to URM achievement, according to Mac Donald, is an ideological rejection of cultural values pertaining to education, and a rejection of the meritocracy associated with bourgeois culture. Mac Donald also presents a historical case study of sexual promiscuity and the campus rape movement as another instance of diversocrat totalitarianism.
The Diversity Delusion is a bold and controversial assault on the campus ideology of diversity, but it is helpful to explore some of the weaker methodological choices in the book. While most case studies in the book focus on how diversity and identity politics play out in college campuses across the United States, these themes are also explored in the context of the corporate world and Hollywood. In other words, the book has a very broad focus. While this may help with reaching a variety of mainstream readers, there are times when it seems that the book’s central message is lost. For instance, Mac Donald devotes an entire chapter to a critique of the #MeToo movement in the context of Hollywood, and another to discussing the racial politics of policing. While it is clear that the author is trying to provide the broader societal context of diversity policy and identity politics in these chapters, logical connections to campus politics are not clearly made. The book would have thus likely benefited from the omission of these two chapters, in favor of a more singular focus on diversity ideology in American higher education. Still, there are a few instances when the college-corporate themes are connected more logically. For instance, Mac Donald projects skepticism about the notion that victimology proponents can ‘grow out’ of victim politics, since the same politics are increasingly being adopted into corporate diversity training programs (p. 22).
Along these lines, the organizational structure of the book also leaves much to be desired. Diversity Delusion is organized into four parts, the first on race, the second on gender, the third on university bureaucracies, and the fourth on the purpose of the university. A total of sixteen chapters constitute these parts. While the organization of chapters within the individual parts is logical, the book reads like a collection of essays at times and the thematic organization of the four parts is not always effective. Although the race and gender sections were likely provided first to entice mainstream readers, a more logical organizational scheme would likely move parts 3 and 4, on educational bureaucracies and educational theory, respectively, to the beginning of the book where they could provide some initial conceptual grounding.
With all this being said, Mac Donald’s findings regarding the failings of counter-bourgeois culture, and the idiosyncrasies of diversity politics in college campuses are alarming. They present a challenge to liberal educators, who must balance any needs for inclusion with the realities of cultural difference as well as the preservation of curricula that have made American universities elite to begin with. The most effective arguments in Diversity Delusion are those that present human stories that portray counterintuitive narratives to those espoused by diversity promoters. One particularly poignant case in this regard is that of Kashawn Campbbell, an affirmative-action admit at UC-Berkeley whose first-year GPA suffered as a lack of his academic preparation and inability to master even basic writing. While Campbell’s inflated grades in African American courses allowed him to continue into sophomore year, the experience took a mental toll, making him feel inadequate and unwelcome, although the university clearly skewed its admission standards in his favor. In the end, the cognitive dissonance resulted in Campbell’s attribution of his feelings towards racism and microaggressions, rather than his clear lack of academic preparation. This story is what pushes Mac Donald to decry, “[r]acial preferences are not just ill-advised; they are positively sadistic” (p. 61).
The driving theme in Diversity Delusion is that diversity promoters may continue to hold on to flawed ideas about minority achievement and culture, often with the best of intentions. While Mac Donald made these assessments in 2018, it is helpful to consider them today in the context of two controversial articles that have recently made similar assessments. First, Mead (2020) asserted that poverty in the United States has more to do with minority rejection of Western individualist cultures, than with systemic failures to accommodate diversity. Similarly, Wang (2020) relied on mismatch theory to argue that affirmative action discriminates against non-minority students with superior credentials, and even hurts talented minorities. Both authors cited academic data and published their findings in reputable academic journals, but both have since been decried as racists, subjected to severe academic discipline. Both authors have since retracted their articles, perhaps forcibly. The eerily similar trajectories of these two cases seem to support Mac Donald’s more concerning assertion, that diversity promoters may use totalitarian means to enforce their ideas on anyone who disagrees. At the very least, readers will likely question whether and why ‘diversocrats’ may want to promote every kind of diversity except the type that has to do with alternative viewpoints.
In the end, Diversity Delusion is crucial reading, both for campus diversity promoters and for anyone with more critical viewpoints on multiculturalism. The book will have limited appeal to policy-makers in curriculum and instruction, as issues related to epistemology and preservation of classical curricula are mostly left unaddressed. There is indeed a cursory chapter near the end exploring a subscription service known as the Great Courses, but it seemed that Great Courses found profitability outside the university system. The implication in Mac Donald’s review of this case thus seems to be that there is no solution forthcoming from within the academy, where postmodernism seems destined to reign. Still, it is not clear that the politics and curricular implications of diversity and victimology in college campuses were analyzed deeply enough in this volume to reach this disconcerting conclusion.
Mead, L.M. (2020). “Poverty and Culture.” Society https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-020-00496-1. (retracted)
Wang, N. (2020). “Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity: Evolution of Race and Ethnicity Considerations for the Cardiology Workforce in the United States of America From 1969 to 2019.” Journal of the American Heart Association 9(7). https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.120.015959. (retracted)