At a time when racial minorities and immigrants are being used by populist politicians in western countries as scapegoats to mobilize their supporters, the concept of diversity now occupies a central role in political debates. For example, on September 7, 2018, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News network talk show host, questioned the value of population diversity, asking: “How exactly is diversity our strength?” His argument against diversity occasioned numerous reactions on news outlets and social media, outlining the postulated benefits of social heterogeneity. Indeed, this recent incident found many diversity advocates adopt a line of argument based on the benefits of the presence of minority groups for American society. I find this approach in many cases problematic and questionable. Instead, I believe, and argue here, that advocates of diversity should ground their arguments in ethical and justice claims.
Here is an example of the sort of “minorities provide benefits” argument that was so often raised in response to Tucker’s demagoguery. In a New Yorker article published in March of 2017 entitled “The Sriracha Argument for Immigration,” David Sax offered a list of delicious foods and pastries that have found their way onto North Americans’ tables thanks to the presence of diverse groups of immigrants (Sax, 2017). He argued: “When fighting for the rights of immigrants, and the greater ideal of immigration, food just might be an unexpected weapon” (Sax, 2017). He concluded his article by observing: “People brought us lunch from far away. In time, it became the food we associated with home. We should know better than to bite the hands that feed us” (Sax, 2017). Although I do not question the author’s good intentions, I find this line of reasoning problematic.
By linking the argument in favor of diversity with its benefits to a dominant group, advocates associate minority groups’ rights to exist with such provision. This sort of contention seems to suggest that such groups must present something worthy of the gods at Olympus or possibly lose their right to exist. In a sketch on the Not the Nine O’ Clock News show, the comedian Rowan Atkinson, playing the role of a Conservative Party United Kingdom parliament member, highlighted this assumption in a comedy routine: “Now, a lot of immigrants are Indians and Pakistanis for instance, and … I like curry, I do! But now that we’ve got the recipe, is there really any need for them to stay?” (Wilson, 1979) Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is common. On December 9, 2015, for example, George Osborne, a Conservative Party member in the UK parliament, responded to a Labour Party member’s (Rupa Huq) question regarding her concern that an average of two curry houses were closing weekly due to government immigration policies, this way: “We all enjoy a great British curry, but we want the curry chefs to be trained in Britain so that we can provide jobs for people here in this country. That is what our immigration controls provide” (Hansard, 9 December 2015 col 987).
But, there is a more troubling problem inherent in this line of argument. It assumes that the minority groups’ right to exist (and not simply at the policy making level, but also at an individual level) is up to the general public (i.e., the dominant group) and by doing so, this line of reasoning reinforces the dominance of historically privileged groups and maintains the status quo. For instance, a white, heterosexual male in the United States is never asked to justify or legitimize his presence. If one is perceived as a member of the ascendant group, his right to exist is simply accepted, as, indeed, it should be for everyone. A horrifying echo of this problem was evidenced in recent events in Chemnitz, Germany, during which “a group of self-described ‘vigilantes’ […] targeted a birthday celebration, ordering anyone they deemed did not look German to show their identification papers” (“Police arrest far-right ‘vigilantes’ in Chemnitz,” 2018).
Although my examples here concern immigration, a status with which I am quite familiar as a foreigner studying in the United States, the use of the benefits argument is not limited to this subject. The presence of women in the workplace, for example, is frequently advocated on the grounds that it will improve productivity or profitability. Similarly, African Americans are legitimated by arguments pointing up their roles in the music industry or in professional sports. For example, an article on the Center for American Progress (CAP) website reminded its readers that “Even Justin Beiber names Usher, Michael Jackson, and Boyz II Men among his greatest role models” (Ajinkya, 2011).
I argue that the way to avoid this instrumentalization of entire population groups is rooted in advocacy based on ethics. In this view, a society does not choose to be diverse because of the particularistic benefits to one or another group that arise from social heterogeneity. Rather, it accepts those individuals and groups as equals because they are human and, as human beings, they deserve rights on that basis alone and not on whether they supply a sufficient array of perceived benefits to one or another group. In this sense, diversity, without preconditions, is not a choice, but an indication of social justice. Another way to put this point is to suggest that diversity is not a cause; it is an effect of a factual reality. This logic would answer Tucker Carlson’s question: “How exactly is diversity our strength?” by suggesting, “It is not your strength. It is their right.”
Ajinkya, J. (2011, November 22). “Top 10 Reasons to Be Thankful for Diversity.” Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2011/11/22/10602/top-10-reasons-to-be-thankful-for-diversity/
Hansard,HC Deb vol. 603 col 987 (9 December 2015) [Electronic version]. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151209/debtext/151209-0001.htm
“Police arrest far-right ‘vigilantes’ in Chemnitz.” (2018, September 15). Retrieved September 16, 2018, from https://p.dw.com/p/34vfY
Sax, D. (2017, March 27). “The Sriracha Argument for Immigration.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-sriracha-argument-for-immigration
Wilson, B. (1979). “The Immigration Speech.” Not the Nine O’ Clock News. BBC Two. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p007n19z
Reza Fateminasab is a PhD student in the Architecture and Design Research program in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Tehran and his Bachelor’s degree from Tehran University of Art, both in architecture. His current research focuses on the design process and implementation of digital tools within it. He enthusiastically follows the arts and politics.