Sacrificing truth on the altar of diversity
By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist | August 30, 2006
YOU'RE A publisher of children's textbooks, and you have a problem. Your diversity guidelines -- quotas in all but name -- require you to include pictures of disabled children in your elementary and high school texts, but it isn't easy to find handicapped children who are willing and able to pose for a photographer. Kids confined to wheelchairs often suffer from afflictions that affect their appearance, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. How can you meet your quota of disability images if you don't have disabled models who are suitably photogenic?
Well, you can always do what Houghton Mifflin does. The well-known textbook publisher keeps a wheelchair on hand as a prop and hires able-bodied children from a modeling agency to pose in it. It keeps colorful pairs of crutches on hand, too -- in case a child model turns out to be the wrong size for the wheelchair.
Houghton Mifflin's ploy was recently described by reporter Daniel Golden in a Wall Street Journal story on the lengths to which publishers go to get images of minorities and the disabled into grade-school textbooks. A Houghton Mifflin spokesman claimed that able-bodied models are presented as handicapped only as a last resort. But according to one of the company's regular photographers, the deception is the norm. At least three-fourths of the children portrayed as disabled in Houghton Mifflin textbooks actually aren't, she told Golden. In fact, publishers have to keep track of all the models they use for such pictures, so that a child posing as disabled in one chapter isn't shown running or climbing a tree in another.
Faked photos of handicapped kids are just one of the ways in which truth is sacrificed on the altar of diversity. The cofounder of PhotoEdit Inc., a commercial archive that specializes in pictures of what it calls ``ethnic and minority people in all walks of life," advises publishers that images of Chicanos can be passed off as American Indians from the Southwest, because they ``look very similar." Similarly, Golden notes, a textbook photographer tells clients that since the ``facial features" of some Asians resemble Indians from Mexico, ``there are some times where you can flip-flop."
Yet pictures of authentic Hispanics who happen to have blond hair or blue eyes don't count toward the Hispanic quota ``because their background would not be apparent to readers." In other words, rather than expose schoolchildren to the fact that ``Hispanic" is an artificial classification that encompasses people of every color, publishers promote the fiction that all Hispanics look the same -- and that looks, not language or lineage, are the essence of Hispanic identity.
Some images are banned from textbooks because they are deemed stereotypical or offensive. For example, McGraw-Hill's guidelines specify that Asians not be portrayed wearing glasses or as intellectuals and that publishers avoid showing Mexican men in ponchos or sombreros. ``One major publisher vetoed a photo of a barefoot child in an African village," Golden writes, ``on the grounds that the lack of footwear reinforced the stereotype of poverty on that continent." Grinding poverty is in fact a daily reality for hundreds of millions of Africans. But when reality conflicts with political correctness, reality gets the boot.
So, on occasion, does historical perspective, as for example when a McGraw-Hill US history text devoted a profile and photograph to Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot -- but neglected even to mention Wilbur and Orville Wright. ``A company spokesman," the Journal reports dryly, ``said the brothers had been left out inadvertently."
It isn't only when it comes to texts that diversity has led to dishonesty, or even to the manipulation of photos. In 2000, the University of Wisconsin at Madison featured a group of students cheering at a football game on the cover of its admissions brochure. One of those students was Diallo Shabazz, a black senior who hadn't been at the game. University officials, desperately wanting the new publication to reflect a diverse student body, had lifted Diallo's image from somewhere else and digitally inserted it into the football shot. ``Our intentions were good," Madison's director of university publications said when the deception was exposed, ``but our methods were bad."
But the ``good" intentions of the diversity crusaders cannot be separated from bad methods they resort to, whether those methods involve racial quotas in admissions and hiring, the assignment of schoolchildren on the basis of color, or photographic fakery that puts healthy kids in wheelchairs. By reducing ``diversity" to something as shallow and meaningless as appearance, they reinforce the most dehumanizing stereotypes of all -- those that treat people first and foremost as members of racial, ethnic, or social groups. Far from acknowledging the genuine complexity and variety of human life, the diversity dogmatists deny it. Is it any wonder that their methods so often lead to unhappy and unhealthy results?
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
A blog post at DPreview offers an interesting insight to the issue:
I'm not sure I understand what the problem is. It appears the columnist is talking about pictures that the textbook publishers are commissioning specifically for publication in their textbooks, using professional photographers, models, etc. It seems to me that such a picture is an illustration, not an editorial or news picture.
If the pictures he's talking about purport to be of actual events, then the problem of fakery goes well beyond able-bodied children in wheelchairs. After all, if models are being used at all, then the entire picture is "fake," so to speak. But I suspect that the pictures in question are simply illustrative--the columnist is not completely clear on this.
So what if the model in the wheelchair is actually able-bodied? How is that any different than photographing a model in a fancy car that he doesn't actually own? Or photographing a model about to skydive from a plane when he won't actually jump? How is the able-bodied child in the wheelchair any different from anything else that was staged in the photograph, including every single other model in the shot?