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Diversity to Deradicalize


For the past 40 years, the constitutionality of affirmative action has rested on a central idea: racial minorities have unique perspectives, and without including those perspectives, universities are limited in their ability to expose students to a “robust exchange of ideas.” This idea has prevailed in large measure because elite universities have consistently argued to the courts that underrepresented minorities add vital racial perspectives that enrich the education of their peers. This dissertation answers two key questions: one focuses on the Court’s initial embrace of the diversity rationale, the other aims to see how the diversity rationale plays out in practice today.

1. How did “the diversity rationale” become the primary—and for practical purposes, the only—justification that the Supreme Court has deemed sufficiently compelling to uphold affirmative action?

2. How do black students interpret and respond to the expectation embedded in the diversity rationale that they are to contribute unique intellectual insights that emerge from, as the Supreme Court has said, “being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race unfortunately still matters”?

To answer these questions, I rely on both archival research and interviews with graduate students at both a predominantly white and historically black university. As I uncover in this dissertation, the origins of the Court’s embrace of diversity are rooted in an effort to mold the ideological orientation of college students by policing the kinds of ideas that were present on campus. In line with that goal, black students attending predominantly white institutions today express a belief that despite their university’s outward embrace of intellectual diversity, that their racial viewpoints are devalued and, through subtle mechanisms, policed. Ultimately, this is a dissertation about race, intellectual freedom, and social control.

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