Education Letter to the Editor

If the Topic Is Inequality, Why Speak of ‘Diversity’?

January 22, 2008 1 min read

To the Editor:

Regarding “Poverty’s Effect on U.S. Scores Greater Than for Other Nations” (Dec. 12, 2007):

Your article notes that poverty appears to more strongly influence students’ science test scores in the United States than in other countries, a point worthy of consideration. But I was frustrated with how it referred to countries’ student bodies with terms such as “economically diverse” and “diverse economic backgrounds,” as well as the reference to “racially and economically diverse nations like the United States.”

“Economically diverse”? I am concerned by this kind of language because the issue the article addresses is not diversity, a word that refers to difference and variety, with a generally positive connotation. The issue at hand is inequality. We in the United States have huge racial and ethnic inequalities in wealth and income, and our country has the highest level of income inequality in the industrialized world. In the context of what the article is trying to convey, does it make sense to refer to these disparities as “diversity”? I think not.

This is more than a matter of word choice. Intentional or not, characterizing the United States as an “economically diverse” country obscures our high level of inequality by viewing it instead as difference or variety. The implication? If one views social classes as simply “different,” then one probably thinks that little can be done to lessen the impact of class on academic achievement. But if one recognizes—as the vast majority of social scientists studying this issue do—that children born into different economic circumstances are unequal in material resources and educational opportunities that influence educational achievement, then one understands that reducing such inequalities will reduce the impact of social class on achievement.

Shouldn’t we use language consistent with the latter view?

Dennis Condron

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Emory University

Atlanta, Ga.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as If the Topic Is Inequality, Why Speak of ‘Diversity’?