Supreme Court’s Dangerous Mix-Up of Diversity and Affirmative Action

Are affirmative action and diversity the same? The Supreme Court wrongly thinks so in the Michigan university-admissions case.

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By Daniel M. Levy, Director for Law and Policy, Michigan Department of Civil Rights

Supreme Court’s Dangerous Mix-Up of Diversity and Affirmative Action

Photo by Shutterstock

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case asking whether an applicant’s race may ever be considered in university admissions. Based on the justices’ questions and (even worse) the answers, the court appears ready to decide the wrong case. Listening to the argument, one would think Michigan’s universities used “affirmative action” or “racial preferences” in their admissions policies. They do not.

The Case That IS Before the Court

Michigan’s universities have long recognized that a diverse student body serves the academic interests of ALL students. The Supreme Court, in the 2003 Gratz case, declared that designating particular race(s) for special affirmative-admissions advantages is unconstitutional. On the same day, however, the court also issued the Grutter opinion declaring that because student-body diversity is a “compelling interest” of a university, it is constitutional for a school to consider race as one of many admissions factors when diversity cannot be achieved in any other way.

In an effort to nullify the Supreme Court’s ruling in Grutter, Michigan voters passed a referendum amending the state’s constitution to prohibit race-based “preferential treatment” in university admissions—even when racial diversity serves the academic interests of all students and cannot otherwise be achieved.

While Michigan voters may have intended to reverse the court’s Grutter decision permitting diversity, the language they chose covers only the kinds of affirmative action and preferential treatment the court had already prohibited in Gratz.

Diversity and Affirmative Action Are NOT the Same

The court seems intent on treating this as an “affirmative action” case, thereby failing to recognize what you may already be thinking: Although diversity and affirmative action might have similar results, they are fundamentally different in both intent and operation.

A2 is a remedy for past discrimination, intended to correct the wrong done to a minority group by affirmatively offering special advantages to that minority group—even at the expense of members of the majority. In university admissions, A2 prefers the minority group’s objective of correcting past harms over the majority’s objective of admitting applicants who best advance the interests of the entire student body.

Diversity, in contrast, is not focused on minority concerns. It is designed to benefit all (and particularly majority) students by exposing them to each other. Universities have determined that students benefit academically from being part of a racially diverse student body, and that diversity better prepares students for career success. Most large employers agree, indicating they prefer hiring graduates from racially diverse universities. In short, diversity is sought primarily for the benefit it provides to non-minority students.

So how does a program implemented to benefit white students get branded as anti-white discrimination? Simple: Critics seek only the opinions of applicants (or, in this case, the wider public) whose concerns are not focused on the academic reputation of the institution or the academic interests of admitted students. Diversity does not place the interests of one race over another; it puts the interest of all students ahead of applicants.

Diversity Is NOT Racial “Preference”

The Supreme Court phrased its question as whether a state can constitutionally prohibit race-based “preferential treatment” in public-university admissions. Formulated that way, the answer should be “Who cares? Gratz already prohibits ‘preferential treatment.’”

When an orchestra determines that it wants to include every instrument, which instrument does it have a “preference” for? When diversity is the goal, the only “preference” is for everyone.

Why It Matters

The problem exposed during oral argument was that the constitutionality of prohibiting diversity efforts was debated using only the terminology of affirmative action.

The Michigan law before the court prohibits “affirmative action” and race-based “preferential treatment,” both of which the Court said in Gratz are unconstitutional. Whatever its intent, the wording used in the Michigan referendum merely requires Michigan to do what the court already ruled that federal law requires. Before it evaluates the constitutionality of the Michigan law, the court must determine whether the law will somehow be read to also prohibit universities from pursuing the broad student diversity that serves all students.

Only then can the court properly return to the underlying question: In a state where all admissions policies are determined by university boards based on what’s best for that university and its students, is it constitutional to create a different process requiring a majority vote of the general public for, and only for, policies involving minorities?

In Grutter, the Supreme Court explicitly recognized the benefits diversity provides to all students. It must now explicitly recognize what it implicitly recognized 10 years ago by deciding Grutter and Gratz on the same day: There is a difference between affirmative action’s preference for the interests of one race over another and diversity’s raison d’être, that every group benefits from the inclusion of all others.

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  • Thank you for this enlightening explanation. As someone who works in higher ed, I intimately understand the value of diversity on campus, and have been frustrated that others (especially outside of higher ed) do not seem to share my perspective on recent headlines about college admissions. Now that I understand that there is a perception problem – that what I see as a diversity issue is being interpreted by others as an affirmative action issue – I can better address this subject.

  • Although you are technically correct as to the difference between Diversity & AA, I think you are splitting hairs with this article. Plus, 9 times out of 10, there is some aspect of a Diversity initiative that is comprised of AA principles and/or objectives.

  • Interesting that the outright ban against the admission of men in women’s college is practically a non-issue and is virtually never challenged in court or elsewhere.

  • Bill Woodson

    Dan Levy — you nailed it. Thank you for a simple, insightful, concise explanation of the issues. I hope one day you will have the opportunity to present this framework to our Supreme Court Justices.

  • This is an issue that really needs more education, whether Affirmative Action, U.S., or Employment Equity, Canada, this has been a long standing issue for me. In my experience when people are speaking about Diversity they really mean race or cultural Diversity. I believe most people who work with and study Diversity, understand that race and cultural Diversity and are only one aspect of the term “Diversity”. The courts have to get this right, Affirmative Action, Employment Equity, these are laws, and as stated in the article have been enacted to right wrongs to specific groups; generally when it comes to employment practices. Accepting these groups is also being accepting of their diversity. But I believe Diversity is acceptance of everyone and their particular differences. When you embrace Diversity you look beyond race, ability, religion and culture accepting the person for who they are not what they represent.

  • Thank you for an excellent analysis of the distinction between diversity and affirmative action. Despite your common sense presentation of the facts, there continue to be many who simply feel nothing is owed for the horror perpetrated on a race of people, the effects of which are felt even to this day.

  • You give a oversimplified false analogy regarding the orchestra and “diversity”. A more accurate representation would be to imagine an orchestra that granted positions based purely on aptitude and raw talent, as it should. Then, new owners of the symphony have come in and decided that the current mix of woodwinds, percussion, brass, etc. would be greatly enhanced by bringing in things like the “kazoo,” didgeridoo, and the keytar. Now, the professional kazoo and keytar players that apply to join the symphony show markedly lower capacity for technical music, and cannot play their instruments as well as even the lowest “chair” positions in the brass or woodwinds. But, because their sound brings more “diversity” to the symphony, and because there are only so many musicians that the symphony can hire, some of the more advanced and technical musicians are cut from the orchestra to make room for the didgeridoo players. Why? Because someone arbitrarily determined that there needed to be more “diversity” in the sound of the orchestra. Now imagine this happening in symphonies across the country. More advanced and technical players are being denied jobs and access to music schools in favor of people who play the keytar. The effing KEYTAR! The primary difference in this example being that people can choose which instrument to play based on job market demand. This is not the case with race! So those who are born white are SOL!

    • Here’s the difference between human beings and a keytar. Businesses do not practice diversity management as a random or superfluous “urge”. Diversity is managed in large corporations to bring more profit, through better connections/relationships/efficiencies with customers, employees, investors and suppliers. That is why our Top 50 list outperforms the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500″ on both a short and long-term basis.

      Perhaps a better analogy would be two orchestras, one with woodwinds the other without – the complete orchestra will sell more tickets because its sound will be better.

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