the push for diversity
My new book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press), is officially out today. Yay! The book is about diversity—that word, diversity—the organizational politics that coalesce around it, and the implications for the struggle for racial justice. I’m going to paste some excerpts here that highlight the main (empirical) argument. I’m working on a variation of this for an op-ed. Reactions welcome!
Talk of “diversity” is ubiquitious in the twenty-first-century United States, from the Oval Office to celebratory neighborhood festivals. A national sociological survey found that nearly all respondents said they valued diversity in their communities and friendships. Popular diversity interventions include affirmative admissions policies, mixed-income housing programs, and corporate training.
I have spent more than a decade answering these questions through ethnographic and historical research. My investigation has taken me to various settings—a university, a neighborhood, and a corporation—that all proactively identify as diversity champions. There, I found that some of the most passionate advocates of diversity are CEOs, university presidents, elected officials, and other leaders with stature and power. This presented a riddle: what, exactly, do decision-makers accomplish when they take on the goal of diversity?
In the post–civil rights period, many decision makers face a new race problem: racial representation and the potential stigma of not representing race properly. They confront a widespread expectation that some people of color, especially African Americans, will be present in a predominantly white context, measured either numerically or by racial minorities’ visibility or authority. Having at least one token person of color on a governing board has become, in many places, crucial for an organization’s legitimacy. Just as racial representation has become an issue—and, in part, because racial representation has become an issue—the representation of other marginalized groups has become important as well, particularly that of women.
The decision makers in this study have responded by advocating diversity. They have constructed identities for their organization or community as distinctive for its diversity—as one of its distilled, essential features and compatible with other fundamental characteristic of that locale. University administrators, for instance, touted the University of Michigan as “excellent and diverse.” At Michigan and elsewhere, leaders have deliberately cultivated a diversity image in hopes of shaping other people’s views and experiences of cross-racial interaction. They may be sincerely trying to improve intergroup relations and increase minority representation or just creating the appearance of such. These leaders certainly hope to create the impression that they, themselves, can manage group differences successfully.
There are both promises and pitfalls in treating race as diversity. The drive for diversity disavows discrimination. It helps to justifies some organizational policies, like affirmative action, that are proven to be effective at moving racial minorities and women up the economic ladder. It also affirms a basis of commonality—a shared, self-reinforcing commitment to social cohesion—across group-based differences that normally divide Americans deeply.
But diversity advocates’ efforts to minimize group divisions and expand the bounds of social membership have focused on symbolism more than on social causes. They have resisted fundamental change in the structures, practices, or cultures that guide day-to-day interactions and shape determinations of merit and value. The push for diversity is, by and large, a mechanism of containing and co-opting equality, as it largely leaves untouched persistent racial inequities and the gulf between rich and poor. This is the taming of the civil rights movement’s provocative demands for racial justice.