In a recent interview titled “On Diversity in Education,” Brown University economics professor and public intellectual, Glenn Loury, referenced his 2008 Opening Convocation Address at Brown University titled, “Is He ‘One of Us’? Reflections on Identity and Authenticity?” In that talk, Loury emphasized the importance of avoiding the “identity reflex,” which, he cautioned, can “lead [students] to define their identity primarily through race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference.” (as summarized by Brown Alumni Magazine). The concerns over identity that Loury raised 13 years ago are even more salient today. 

Most current approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion have not heeded Loury’s warning. Rather than reaching beyond identity categories, these approaches tend to reify them. This approach of prioritizing identity has become dominant, not just in higher education, but also throughout K-12. In addition to turning schools into ideological battlegrounds, it’s counterproductive. If we want to produce schools that foster minds that are truly welcoming of diversity, we’d be better off by framing our ideas in the universal terms that bind us together. 

It is precisely this universalism that sat at the philosophical center of the civil rights movement, that has been all but cast aside today. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from his Nobel prize speech: 

We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other. This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

Some critics of a universalist approach to promoting diversity are skeptical, thinking that, while it sounds good in principle, in practice, “universal” is really code for elevating “white” culture to the exclusion or denigration of non-white cultures. Some view universalism as a way of skirting issues of diversity and equity altogether by ignoring or erasing important racial or cultural differences. Others argue that universal concepts and values don’t exist at all. Many of these views are understandable given the history of U.S. education that has overemphasized White and European achievements. As a Black man myself, who grew up in a Black neighborhood, attended an HBCU, and participated in many diversity efforts, I understand these concerns well, but they’re not good reasons for being hyper-focused on identity-specific groups—racial or otherwise. 

In response to what many have referred to as the “racial reckoning” of the last year, many schools have established, or revised formal statements communicating their values and policies on how they address diversity and equity. These documents usually emphasize the impact of racism in modern society; some go much further by embracing “antiracist practices”. They share a desire to “center” Black voices or “lived experiences.” While, in many ways, this focus makes some sense, there is an inherent tradeoff between centering and inclusivity that is often unacknowledged. This is because centering involves organizing information and resources around a particular identity group. In other words, the more schools lean into centering on race, the more they move away from inclusivity. 

Many modern antiracists would deem this loss of inclusivity in the service of correcting past and current societal harms as acceptable or even laudable. For example, in How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, the most prominent proponent of modern antiracism, advocates for using discrimination to redress racial discrimination: “The only remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy for present discrimination is future discrimination.” But is this what we want to model for our children—that when things are unfair, the appropriate response is to take turns at discriminating until things become fair? This is hardly a recipe for achieving real inclusion or justice. Examples of how this approach can go terribly wrong by creating illiberal school environments have emerged at elite schools like The Dalton School, Grace Church High School, and Columbus Academy, to name a few. And there is no reason to believe that these problems will remain in elite settings. 

Taking the concept of inclusivity seriously requires taking into account all of the different ways in which people may differ and feel excluded from school communities and society. These factors are complex and focusing on broadly-defined identity groups unduly reduces these complexities. Ironically, this oversimplification can lead to overlooking, rather than addressing, important dimensions of marginalization and inequality. For example, the English Learner achievement gap is alarmingly large and the income achievement gap is twice as large at the Black-White achievement gap. What would the implications be of lowering these on the priority list?

In any school, for a variety of reasons, some students will need more supports than others and more resources should absolutely be directed towards them compared to those who need less support. As proponents of “targeted universalism point out, focusing on common goals, values, and full inclusivity need not threaten what some define as equity. Neither does this approach ignore the reality of racism and other forms of racial mistreatment—a view some might criticize as being colorblind or postracial. Universalism encourages us to conceptualize, communicate, and advocate in terms that are relatable to the widest range of individuals as possible. Not only is this essential to the functioning of democratic and diverse societies, it also makes one more effective in their group-specific advocacy efforts. In a 2006 speech, President Obama made this point well in the context of faith and politics when he said:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

As this passage implies, advancing a group-specific advocacy position based on universal principles is a much more likely path to success than trying to persuade others with group-specific demands couched in group-specific frames of thought. In short, the best way to gain broad support for your position is to identify and appeal to values you have in common with your interlocutors. 

Accomplishing this takes serious intra- and interpersonal skills, which are commonly referred to as abilities, or “soft skills” or life skills, related to social and emotional learning, except there’s nothing soft about them. Among other things, these skills require being able to see beyond yourself and to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This can seem impossible when you feel like you or your identified group have been mistreated. It’s all too easy, even natural, to slip into a warlike mentality of dividing the world into us and them, good and bad, or oppressed and oppressors. But the world is far too complicated, and we need educational approaches that can get at the common features of problems like conflict, discrimination, and prejudice—approaches that teach students how to think—not what to think—about differences in others’ appearances, viewpoints, and behaviors. 

Establishing universal core concepts as a framework would allow schools to think broadly about the entire community, and to also act proactively and reactively to specific diversity and equity-related issues. Doing this should also involve a vision of what diversity and inclusion looks like and what schools want to impart to students. For example, here are some lessons that schools might adopt that flow from this universal perspective:

1. We should use reason rather than assumptions and gut feelings to understand difference in people. 

- Our brains are designed to take shortcuts to conclusions to help us process the enormous amount of information it receives. But these conclusions are often wrong when engaging complex phenomena, so part of being a good thinker and citizen involves being guided by reason rather than assumptions.

- The fact of people being different from us in how they look, think, and/or behave does not mean that they are inferior to how we look, think, and/or behave.  

2. There is a lot to be learned from cultures different from our own

- Learning from other cultures helps us develop a more wholistic and accurate perspective of the world and our place within it.

- It is a big world out there and we can benefit from experiencing it. Also, our society is more dependent than ever on relationships that span national and cultural boundaries. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to knowledge and experiences that are comfortable and/or familiar.

- History and current events are full of examples of people mistreating individuals and groups. It is important for us to learn about these events so that we can personally and collectively avoid them.

3. Welcome disagreement and find the value in it

- Disagreements can be very uncomfortable, but they are also essential to a healthy society and present opportunities for us to grow in our understanding, knowledge, and communication skills. Capitalize on these opportunities.

- Focus on the ideas of the disagreement rather than the person.

- Try to find common ground by seeking and acknowledging the best parts of others' arguments. 

4. Improving ourselves is a lifelong journey.  

- We should seek to improve on our values and beliefs by continually examining them and exposing them to alternative perspectives.  

- There are many people who are far less fortunate than us due to no fault of their own. Likewise, much of our good fortune is due to no effort of our own. Remembering this helps us be humble and fosters empathy and respect for others.

- We should find ways of using our good fortune to help those who are far less fortunate than us. 

At the close of Loury’s 2008 address, he stated, “The most important challenges and opportunities that confront us derive not from our cultural or sexual identities, not from our ethnic or racial conditions, but rather from our human condition.” One element of the human condition that has led to enormous misery and mistreatment throughout history is our tendency to create artificial us-vs-them boundaries, which limits our circle of compassion, empathy, and tolerance towards others outside of the circle. All forms of oppression and discrimination flow from this human feature. It’s essential for us to remember this in our efforts to move schools and society in a more fair and unified direction. And if we want to redirect these unproductive impulses, a great place to start is to teach our kids the values, mindsets, and skills required to do so.

Michael Strambler is a psychologist and Associate Professor at Yale School of Medicine in the Division of Prevention and Community Research. He is also a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. 

Published on Oct 12, 2021