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Ideologies are most successful (or most dangerous) when they become common-sense—when they become widely accepted, taken-for-granted truths—because these truths subsequently provide implicit guidelines and expectations about what is moral, legitimate, and necessary in our society. In Regents of University of California v. Bakke, the Court, without a majority opinion, considered and dismissed all but one of several “common-sense” rationales for affirmative action in admissions. While eschewing rationales that focused on addressing discrimination and underrepresentation, the Court found that allowing all students to obtain the educational benefits that flow from diversity was a compelling rationale—essential, even, for a quality education. Although ostensibly pro-diversity, this rationale positioned diversity as conditional on the educational benefit to the student body as a whole, including white students. Armed with social science evidence, subsequent affirmative action jurisprudence in Grutter and Fisher reinforced this rationale. While these cases proved favorable to affirmative action, the reasoning surrounding the benefits of diversity may prove deleterious to inclusion efforts in the long run.

In this Essay, we first review the intellectual history of “diversity-benefits” ideology in these key affirmative action cases, focusing on the recruitment of social science by litigants, amici, and the Court. We focus on how these legal actors have used social science to construct a view of diversity as a benefit to all, including dominant groups. In contrast, we note that the impact of discrimination and lack of diversity on historically marginalized groups has been largely, though not entirely, absent from this social science literature. We then examine the interracial contact framework that pervades the diversity-benefits literature, arguing that this approach is psychologically one-sided in that it focuses more on the benefits Whites receive from diversity than on how nondominant groups experience diversity. Moreover, because diversity-benefits ideology positions Whites as key beneficiaries, it could create a sense of entitlement to diversity. We explain that while it appeals to egalitarian sensibilities, it can simultaneously appeal to Whites’ psychological desires to maintain their position at the top of the social hierarchy. Finally, we discuss an experiment we conducted to examine how four rationales based on those in Bakke affect policy support. Preliminary results suggest that diversity-benefits language may lead Whites to support policies that center benefits to white students more than policies tailored for nondominant racial groups. Furthermore, the study provides initial support for the role that egalitarianism and preference for racial hierarchy together can play in cultivating a common-sense entitlement to diversity.