Diversity and Its Malcontents | The Nation


Diversity and Its Malcontents

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In the early 1990s the trustees of the Boston Aquarium belatedly awoke to the realization that almost everyone at the museum--staff, volunteers and visitors alike--was white. The museum needed to reflect the diversity of the city, the trustees decided, and it was especially important to attract the black community.

David L. Kirp has chronicled the Mount Laurel, New Jersey, history in Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community (Princeton).

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David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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But those good intentions didn't readily translate into practice. While free "Terrific Thursdays" were supposed to boost the aquarium's appeal, the message never got out, and the only people to benefit from the deal were the regulars. Most of the museum's energy went into recruiting black teenagers as paid interns, but for a host of reasons that scheme failed. The museum had no training program for its new recruits. The staff wasn't prepared to mentor them; staff members mostly bit their tongues when the new recruits messed up. For their part, the interns had no special passion for aquatic life. They had been recruited at the last minute by a government summer job program and assigned, willy-nilly, to the aquarium. They weren't prepared to fold T-shirts or answer over and over, with infinite patience and plastered smiles, the same questions about the shark tank. These adolescents might have been pulled in by real work, but in the name of diversity the museum put a black face on a social problem.

These days, diversity belongs on the motherhood-and-apple-pie list of things everyone favors--or at least pays lip service to. Beyond the precincts of the kooky right, there is none of the ethnocentric rhetoric so common during the debate over the 1965 Immigration Act, which changed the demographics of America, and no interest in returning to a "Europeans first" immigration regime. From the rhetoric of the party platforms, it would be hard to tell the Democrats from the GOP in the 2000 election. Only Pat Buchanan's wing of the Reform Party made a direct appeal to xenophobia, and he received just 0.5 percent of the vote. When President Bush announced that his Administration would file a brief opposing the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policy in the lawsuit now before the Supreme Court, the President insisted that while he opposed racial "quotas," he embraced diversity. For its part, the university could claim the support of a veritable Who's Who of the American Establishment, with sixty-four briefs in support of affirmative action signed by more than 300 parties, including many Fortune 500 companies as well as twenty-one retired generals and admirals.

Rhetoric is one thing, though, and reality something quite different. Even as the idea of diversity is publicly celebrated, affirmative action is in trouble with the voters as well as the judges, as a number of states (led by California, the most Democratic state in the Union) have adopted anti-affirmative action ballot measures. The right-wing research centers and law firms whose well-coordinated efforts are meticulously documented in Lee Cokorinos's The Assault on Diversity are part of the explanation. These outfits know their market. Instead of attacking affirmative action directly, they spin the issue, coming out against "reverse discrimination" or "liberal bias." And rather than putting a white face up front, they turn to minority spokespersons like Ward Connerly and Linda Chavez, who present themselves as the true champions of civil rights--advocates for what Chavez, cynically borrowing a famous Supreme Court dictum that helped keep segregation alive for a generation, calls the "Project for All Deliberate Speed."

There's even a smoking gun in Cokorinos's account, a 1971 memorandum written by future Justice Lewis Powell to the Chamber of Commerce titled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System." Don't whine about the rights revolution, which was then at its apogee, Powell wrote to the business leaders. Instead, "launch scholars and speakers," engage in "constant surveillance of the media" and, most critical, go where the action is--politics and the courts. "The judiciary may be the most important instrument of social, economic and political change." The Assault on Diversity situates all the present-day right-wing power centers in a diagram that in its intricacy looks like the plans for a complex engineering project.

Right-wing organizations have pulled off an intellectual putsch, Cokorinos argues. They've gulled Americans into believing that for women and minorities, there's really no longer any need to provide compensation for past discrimination, nor a compelling social interest in diversity--that justice requires not "special treatment" but color- and gender-blindness. The populace, however, wasn't duped into resisting diversity by coercion. It never was given a good reason to think otherwise.

As John Skrentny carefully documents in The Minority Rights Revolution, the transformation of the legal and policy landscape that occurred between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s came about with remarkably little public discussion. While for generations African-Americans fought for equality, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act other groups, including the ill-defined one labeled Hispanics, essentially piggy-backed on their efforts. (Discrimination on the basis of sex was added to that legislation by a conservative Southern congressman in an effort to kill the measure by ridicule.) These new "official minorities," Skrentny points out, were immeasurably helped by sympathetic judges and responsive bureaucrats, many of whom had been leaders of civil rights groups.

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