Diversity to Deradicalize
63 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2019
Date Written: October 14, 2019
For four decades, diversity has functioned as the dominant rationale for affirmative action. During this time, scholars have debated whether diversity should have this hegemonic hold on the policy. Central to the debate is Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in Bakke, an opinion that no other justice joined. What motivated him to turn to the diversity rationale to begin with, and what conception of diversity did he have in mind? The conventional answer is that Justice Powell articulated the “robust exchange of ideas” formulation of diversity as a compromise that would keep affirmative action alive on a Supreme Court increasingly divided over civil rights. Powell deployed diversity as a lifeline and in the process ostensibly signaled his own commitment to a more racially inclusive society.
This Article challenges that conventional story by offering a new interpretation of the Bakke decision. Drawing on a variety of archival materials, the Article contends that Powell’s opinion was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to deradicalize college campuses. Beginning in the mid-1960s, in the midst of the Cold War, and against the backdrop of a spate of intense campus protests erupting throughout the nation, Powell became consumed by a suspicion that white and black leftist radicals had banded together to plot a communist revolution that would overthrow representative democracy and the capitalist system. Importantly, he believed that radicals aimed to establish college campuses as “their principal base of revolution.” From his perspective, institutions of higher learning were increasingly becoming sites of political corruption, radicalizing impressionable college students “from our finest homes.” More precisely, Powell worried that if the future leaders of America — specifically, white male college students — internalized the leftist political line circulating on college campuses that the United States was irredeemably racist, repressive, and imperialistic, communists would more easily be able to “undermine or destroy our democracy and replace it with the tyranny of a Castro or a Mao Tse- tung.” Increased exposure to “a robust exchange of ideas,” Powell believed, would weaken the influence radicals had on forming students’ worldviews.
Yet, to demonstrate that Powell was influenced by his concerns about left-oriented radicalism does not necessarily disrupt the widespread belief that his Bakke opinion was primarily motivated by a desire to promote racial equality. Thus, in addition to highlighting Powell’s views on campus radicalism, the Article contests what I call The Tale of Two Powells. Underwriting this tale are the figures of the pre-Court Lewis Powell, who was effectively a racial segregationist, and the Supreme Court Justice Powell, who is often heralded as an integrationist. The Article challenges this dichotomy, revealing profound continuities between Powell’s normative commitments before and after his appointment to the Court as well as the strategies he employed to advance those commitments.
Powell’s sole-authored opinion was hugely influential not only vis-à-vis affirmative action in American universities, but it also helped to remake the goal of racial integration more generally. The diversity rationale has become the primary justification for efforts to create more inclusive organizations — from classrooms to corporations. As it turns out, the turn to diversity likely stemmed more from a deradicalizing than a racial justice imperative.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation