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Friday, May 04, 2012

Brief Thoughts on Photoshop Diversity and Elizabeth Warren

Many thanks to Dan and the rest of the Prawfs regulars for having me as a guest this month. I'll be posting mostly about issues relating to my recent research on antidiscrimination, affirmative action, and diversity.

On that note, I have followed the recent discussion of Elizabeth Warren's racial self-identification with great interest. That discussion seems to me a symptom of an uneasiness with affirmative action and the diversity rationale that goes far deeper than the question of whether Professor Warren's self-identification was "accurate," or whether she was "seeking an advantage."

In my article Racial Capitalism, forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review, I argue that the diversity rationale for affirmative action assigns a value to non-white racial identity.  As a result of this value, the diversity rationale also creates incentives for predominantly white institutions to display and promote the presence of non-whiteness within the institution.

Schools' promotional materials provide one window into this phenomenon. At the extreme, schools have been known to photoshop people of color into photographs to communicate the impression of diversity and racial integration. In 2000, the University of Wisconsin notoriously photoshopped a black student into its admissions brochure (the original and photoshopped brochure can be seen here). Other schools have engaged in similar photoshopping, and the practice certainly isn't limited to schools (for a few examples, see here and here).

But even when promotional materials don't involve photoshopping, colleges and universities still engage in measures to advertise their racial diversity. A recent study examined the promotional materials of 371 colleges and universities and found that non-white students were significantly overrepresented in photographs -- for example, Asians made up 3.3% of enrolled students but 5.5% of students depicted, and blacks made up 7.9% of enrolled students but 12.4% of students depicted. Indeed, the trope of schools visually proclaiming their diversity  has become so common as to provide fodder for satire.

The drive to display diversity is not limited to the visual. Virtually every college, university, and graduate school website includes a prominent link to statistics touting the diversity of the school's student body.  And U.S. News currently maintains a ranking system -- apart from its influential but opaque system of overall rankings -- based on a "diversity index." Schools who score high on that metric often publicize their status.

So where does this leave us with respect to Professor Warren? Perhaps with the idea that Warren's racial self-identification is one issue, and Harvard's decision to claim her as a person of a particular racial identity is another. Sociological research suggests that it's relatively common for people of racially mixed backgrounds to identify themselves differently at different times and for different reasons, and Warren's explanation that she identified herself as Native American in law school directories because she wished to meet others who shared her background and experiences seems, at the very least, plausible.

An institution often has different incentives.  Given the value placed on diversity, an institution often has every incentive to maximize its apparent diversity.  This might happen with or without the knowledge of its members -- that is, Harvard might have chosen to tout Elizabeth Warren's Native American identity with or without her knowledge or consent.  Of course, I don't know exactly what happened in this particular situation, and it may be that no one really remembers at this point.  From personal experience, though, I know that institutions do claim individuals to boost their diversity numbers.  For instance, a large law firm where I worked for a summer decided to identify me as "Asian" in statistics proclaiming the diversity of its summer class, even though I'd elected not to self-identify in a demographic questionnaire it circulated.

My ultimate point is simply that it's analytically useful to separate institutional use of racial identity from individual self-identification.  Sometimes the two have little in common -- ask any person of color who's been involuntarily photoshopped into a picture.

I look forward to delving more deeply into these topics in coming weeks.

Posted by Nancy Leong on May 4, 2012 at 09:45 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Law and Politics | Permalink

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