Diversity and Its Malcontents | The Nation


Diversity and Its Malcontents

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This was America's version of the "velvet revolution" in Eastern Europe. What Richard Nixon's Labor Department called the Philadelphia Plan, the "goals and timetables" rules devised to make all-white labor unions end their outright discrimination, became the affirmative action template for all minorities. And those standards, developed for the workplace, were adopted with almost no debate by elite universities, which were suddenly eager to include more nonwhite faces in their promotional materials. "By the numbers" also became the rule in public school desegregation. To achieve "racial balance," cartographers drew attendance-zone boundaries that made as much on-the-ground sense as the borders that European powers inflicted on their former African colonies.

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 these were deceptively easy victories, Skrentny points out, purchased at the price of enduring resentment. The advocates (and as someone who helped design the legal strategies, I number myself in this group) never laid the political groundwork for affirmative action. As director of the national Center for Law and Education, I co-wrote a 1970 report with the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund called "It's Not the Busing, It's the Niggers." That title was a quote from some Southern redneck. But it wasn't just a taste for discrimination that led white families to rebel when the buses came around, and it wasn't only racists who were unhappy at the prospect of their children spending two or three hours on a bus every day to satisfy a judge's order.

Times have changed. The left is now much less effective than the opposition in making its case, as the liberal think tanks and public-interest law firms have sadly receded into obscurity. Diversity has been stripped of its richness and turned into the liberal code-word for affirmative action--by the numbers if that's politically feasible; or else through indirect expedients like assuring top students from the state's worst high schools entree into top public universities and taking students' life experiences into account in admissions decisions. I strongly support such expedients for pragmatic reasons; as a professor who teaches a course on race, ethnicity and public policy, I daily see students from widely varying backgrounds teaching one another in ways that no reading assignment could hope to accomplish. Still, those who aren't in the know are entitled to much more candor--the frank acknowledgment, for instance, that the University of California's discussion of whether to discontinue using the SAT in admissions decisions, while entirely defensible on its merits, is mainly driven by the desire to increase the enrollment of blacks and Latinos, even at the expense of whites and Asians with better paper qualifications.

The next time I teach the race and ethnicity course, I'll make a point of assigning Peter Schuck's Diversity in America. Most of my students will hate it, since, rather than preaching to the choir, as The Assault on Diversity does, it tests some of the left's most cherished beliefs.

Some will dismiss Diversity in America as a footnote-laden apologia for the conservative cause garbed in full Establishment regalia--a Yale law professor being published by Harvard. But Schuck isn't Chavez or Connerly, and his arguments need to be engaged. It's essential to begin thinking beyond the model of a generation ago, which assumes that the force of law rather than an appeal to what Schuck calls "genuineness" is the best way to manage diversity.

How diverse a society are we? More than almost any other country, Schuck reminds us, more than we've ever been, and ever-more diverse because of the continuing influx of Third World immigrants. And there's no turning back. From Spain to Sri Lanka, most countries regard "the claim that diversity is a social virtue as subversive, if not suicidal, nonsense." But Americans increasingly embrace diversity, the pollsters report, which is why Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker's widely publicized crack--that taking the Number 7 subway through the multiethnic stew of Queens is like "riding through Beirut"--made him the target of such derision a few years back.

Still, as Diversity in America acknowledges, it's hardly "Kumbaya" by the campfire. Our embrace of differentness is a wary, contextual and complex matter. Even as we watch Japanese cooking shows, work alongside Indian programmers and eat at Nuevo Latino restaurants, the mushrooming of gated communities and the flight to homogeneous charter schools illustrate what might politely be termed our ambivalence. "We like the idea of diversity more," says Schuck, "the less we have to live with it." The deliciously incorrect Dame Edna, taking note of who tends the gardens of Beverly Hills and picks the Vidalia onions in Georgia, puts the point more sharply: America is living proof that a democracy can still have slaves with a clear conscience.

"The central question," says Schuck, "is whether American society can successfully thread the needle socially and politically. Can it knit these disparate identities seamlessly and effectively enough to satisfy both the affective needs of parochial communities and the civic needs of the larger polities in which they are embedded?" The key is how diversity is managed, and here's where the controversy heats up. Schuck argues for less government--more precisely, for a government that does less to discourage self-chosen diversity, fewer rules that make people associate with those they don't like, greater reliance on voluntarism, quieter and less visible official intervention. Carrots rather than sticks; honey and not vinegar; choice above all: This, Diversity in America insists, is how to thread the needle.

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