I'm from Louisville, Ky., attended Yale University and work as a TIME journalist. Since I haven't met any other person who shares these three characteristics, I suppose I add some diversity to most discussions I'm a part of. But at most colleges and workplaces in America, something else about me would make me add much more diversity. I'm black. And as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in a landmark Supreme Court opinion last week, borrowing language from a lower court, once a few people like me are sitting in a classroom, "discussion is livelier, more spirited and simply more enlightening and interesting." In her defense of affirmative action, O'Connor argued that our presence "helps to break down racial stereotypes and 'enables [students] to better understand persons of different races.'" And since nearly every major employer in America has a diversity policy, I will be expected to share what O'Connor calls the "unique experience of being a racial minority" with my coworkers as well.
O'Connor says other traits bring diversity too. But let's be honest here. Growing up on a farm in Arizona might help broaden a resume, but checking "black" has the effect of leapfrogging me over many comparable applicants gunning for a prestigious school or job. Although I'm sure my race improved my odds of being admitted to Yale and hired at TIME, I don't carry around the "stigma" that Justice Clarence Thomas claims all blacks do because of affirmative action, wondering if they received a benefit based on merit or race. For me, the question has never been "Do I belong?" but rather "Since I'm here in part to contribute diversity, how do I do that?" O'Connor's diversity rationale doesn't just pressure colleges to admit more minority students. It gives me and other underrepresented minority students an added burden: delivering diversity. It creates expectations that I have a uniquely black viewpoint to contribute and that part of my responsibility as a student or worker is to do that.
At Yale, I often felt obligated to present these diverse views. On the campus paper there, I edited feature stories and had little desire to influence other sections of the paper. But when some minority students complained about the lack of diversity in our coverage and on our staff, I felt dutybound to press other editors to cover minorities more and explore ways to recruit more black students. When students debated whether Yale should have a day off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I saw this as a largely symbolic issue that I wasn't passionately interested in. But eventually I found myself questioning how anyone could not agree that we should have this day off, in part because I felt that as one of the few blacks around I should be speaking up.