Dr. Carol Swain, born into poverty in rural southwest Virginia, dropped out of high school but went on to earn five university degrees. Swain was tenured at Princeton University and then became a full professor at Vanderbilt University. She went from a high school dropout and teenage mother to a highly accomplished university professor and intellectual.
In addition to three presidential appointments, Swain has also served on the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the 1776 Commission. Swain has authored or edited 11 published books including her most recent and timely title, “The Adversity of Diversity: How the Supreme Court’s Decision to Remove Race from College Admissions Criteria Will Doom Diversity Programs.”
Recently Patrice Onwuka spoke with Swain about the rising tide of antisemitism on college campuses, her views on DEI and how to achieve True Diversity.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We are a few weeks removed from the horrific Hamas attack against innocent Israeli civilians, and we’ve seen Israel’s response. You’ve been a professor, you’ve been on college campuses. Are you surprised by this antisemitic strain we’re seeing? Where did it come from?
Swain: Well Patrice, It’s been there for a long time. The incident that took place with the attack on Israel has allowed what was bubbling—not even below the surface—to come out to the open. Because I can tell you during the years that I was in academia there was a strong pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel sentiment on campuses and many of my Jewish students were anti-Israel.
On college campuses there’ve been so many people who have been indoctrinated to believe that Israel is evil, that they have oppressed the Palestinians and that the Israelis have no right to the land. People really believe this is a civil rights issue.
On college campuses, identity politics, multiculturalism and diversity, equity and inclusion programs feed this misinformation. Campuses have all these identity group centers or little pockets where people identify by cause, by ethnicity, by religion or by sexual orientation. And the college campuses are very fractured. Viewpoint diversity is not valued in DEI teachings and training. Instead of encouraging discussion and debate, individuals who view things differently would go along with the majority viewpoint, which often reflects the most vocal views, out of fear of being punished.
Another thing that I find very troubling is there are so many university professors who don’t make any pretense or effort to be neutral. They are activists, and they encourage the students to be as well.
Q: Is there any tension between protecting academic freedom and free speech versus really stamping out antisemitism on campus?
Swain: The tension is not about academic freedom anymore. Academic freedom and free speech are not the same as hate speech.
Academic freedom should include the right to disagree. For example, in a healthy academic environment you’d have people on different sides of an issue hosting and sponsoring panels where they would present different views. In the past, you would never have a university-sponsored event that was one-sided. Organizers especially wanted experts who could talk about the historical roots and context of complex issues.
I’ve seen academia devolve over the past few decades. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, academia appeared more like a marketplace of ideas. In the 1990s when I was an assistant professor, it was still a place where you had healthy dialogues taking place. That changed by the time we reached the 2000s to the intolerant environment we have today
However, campus should not protect outright hate speech and we’ve seen outright hate speech that has no academic merit come from the mouths of professors who are very much agenda driven.
Q: Shouldn’t administrations be willing to stand up to antisemitism? Instead, we’ve seen several universities either be silent or equivocate on the October 7 attack.
Swain: Administrators abdicated their responsibility to be the adults in the room a long time ago. And so, what you saw was students straight out of high school leading causes and being able to challenge professors and the administrators would just defer to the students because it’s easier for them than to do their jobs.
The DEI industry, especially after George Floyd’s death, is a layer on top of old-fashioned affirmative action. Affirmative action was put in place by executive orders. But the 1964 Civil Rights Act was legislation that was passed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and sex, and that’s the law of the land. What we have now is a system that encourages discrimination, has racial double standards and recently pushed a resegregation on many college campuses. Minority students often have their own separate graduations. They can have separate dorms. Some colleges and universities have separate course sections.
The expression “the inmates running the prison” applies. Students are running the campuses, and they don’t have experience. Nor are the adults teaching them about the Constitution, our freedom of speech, the founding of the nation, American values and principles and how we became the greatest nation in the world.
And as a consequence, I would say the quality of education for every student has gone down. They are not getting value for their dollars and are not getting well educated. America is falling further and further behind in its competition with the rest of the world.
Q: Your new book “The Adversity of Diversity: How the Supreme Court’s Decision to Remove Race from College Admissions Criteria Will Doom Diversity Programs” was released soon after the Supreme Court ended affirmative action on college campuses. Walk us through why you wrote the book and what you think is going to happen next as a result. I think we’ve heard “gloom and doom” expectations that the number of minority students will drop. Do you see that happening?
Swain: I have had a problem with the diversity programs for a long time. About five years ago, I started working on a book about why diversity training programs are all wrong. I felt the approach we were using was creating so much divisiveness and there was a better way.
After I got involved with the critical race theory discussion and published a book in 2021, “Black Eye for America: How Critical Race Theory is Burning Down the House,” I heard stories from parents and saw in corporate America so much racism against Asians, whites, men and Christians that was clearly in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These groups are covered by the Civil Rights Act but were being discriminated against because everything was favoring either women, members of the LGBT community or people of color.
There were situations where men on jobs were denigrated because they were male, and stories of young children coming home crying because some teacher told them their ancestors were responsible for all the evils in the world. It reached the point that the Supreme Court had to act, so when the Supreme Court accepted affirmative action challenges from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and from Harvard, I believed the Court had to strike down affirmative action, and I started the book in earnest.
Some 80% of the book was written before the Supreme Court decision, and I do have a co-author. It was written anticipating the fall of affirmative action. I was very anxious because there was a possibility the Supreme Court would make the wrong decision (to uphold affirmative action). If they did, the book would have to be substantially rewritten.
I don’t believe for a moment that institutions will be entirely white because they were not entirely white before race-based affirmative action. Colleges and universities should stop lowering the standards and setting up this two-tier system that’s based on racism. It’s racist to believe there are no qualified minorities. Anyone who’s been in academia knows there are qualified minorities.
My story of coming from nothing, being a high school dropout and going to college is an example. In my undergraduate school, there were courses–huge psychology courses–where I had the highest score. I’m Black. I came from poverty. I worked hard. It’s not just me. I’ve always met minorities and taught minorities that excel. It’s not that institutions would be really white. The institutions would not have quotas though, if they actually admit students as individuals rather than as members of distinct groups.
As a professor at Princeton, for example, there were situations where minorities with better pedigrees, because they came from more affluent families with lower scores, were admitted over better-qualified minorities that came from working-class backgrounds. It was assumed that the more affluent person would fit in better. At Ivy League schools, at least during the time I was there in the 1990s, you found a lot of people that had different races and ethnicities. Yet, in many ways, they were the same person because they overwhelmingly came from the same socio-economic and educational backgrounds.
Q: Will colleges adhere to the Supreme Court decision?
Swain: Many of them have said no, they’re not going to adhere to the Supreme Court decision, but they’re going to resist and they’re going to find proxies. That takes me back to 1954 when the Brown v. Board of Education school segregation decision came down and the Court said to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” An implementation plan was handed down in 1955, but it was 1968 before I attended integrated schools in Bedford, Virginia.
There was massive resistance then, and there will be people who say “We’re gonna do it the way we’ve always done it.” It may take a few years before they begin to actually try to expand the pool of qualified students, and I believe that can be done. But it seems as if affirmative action supporters have given up on trying to reform K-12 education so you can have a larger pool of people who are qualified to be admitted to elite institutions. They would rather take the pool that comes every year rather than do the hard work of reaching down and trying to find qualified people.
Q: Please provide us your definition of what True Diversity means and how can we achieve that as a society.
Swain: True Diversity is diversity that includes a diversity of viewpoints. True Diversity treats people as individuals and any special talent they bring to the table becomes part of the whole. People are contributing to the team not because they’re there to represent a particular group, but to represent their experiences, their intellect and the things they know because of their life journey.
I’ve never quite fit in because I’ve always wanted to be an individual. When I was in college, I never joined the Black student union. I was not a Black political scientist. I was a political scientist and I find it has been very difficult for people who just want to do that work. They just want to be the best in the field.
There is constant pressure for you to choose your group and stay in your group. Some people don’t want you to be outside of your group. I’ve had minority students come to me saying that they grew up in an environment with white classmates and friends and neighborhoods that were integrated and they’ve had friends of other races, but when they got to campus they either had to choose their ethnic group or their diverse friends groups. If they chose to keep white friends, that was seen as a rejection of the ethnic groups. It affects every racial ethnic minority who just wants to be the best they can be doing whatever they’re doing.
As individuals, we are created in God’s image, unique. Ideally, we should have workplaces and learning environments that are not singling out any particular group for ostracism because of that group membership. But instead, it’s looking for the talents of individuals and encouraging these individuals to talk to one another and work as a team.
Unfortunately, instead of unity and the possibility for healthy teams, what we have created is an environment that just fosters divisiveness and bitterness. People cannot be their best selves when they’re in an environment where divisiveness rules.
Click here to learn more about True Diversity.