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.

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.

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.

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.

Much of the book is an examination of how this messy principle might work in practice, as Schuck examines bilingual education, affirmative action and residential integration policy. Sometimes his argument is plain wrong. He contends, for instance, that private, but not public, universities should be allowed to admit students on the basis of race. Public institutions, as agents of the state, can’t be color conscious–a nearly all-white Yale would assumedly be intolerable to Schuck, while a nearly all-Asian-and-white Berkeley might not trouble him. But this public-private distinction is artificial. Private universities depend on government loans for student aid; public universities, which now get less than a third of their funding from the states, rely increasingly on private money to keep running. One rule for all: The outcome of the Michigan affirmative action case will inevitably set the standard for admissions at Columbia.

In general, Schuck’s analyses are provocative and complex. Consider his approach to the vexed question of suburban integration. For thirty years, the poor black residents of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, fought for affordable housing in their home town. The principle they advanced, which was embraced by the New Jersey Supreme Court in a series of landmark rulings, emphasized class rather than race: Every community must accept its “fair share” of the burden of housing the poor. I spent half a decade chronicling those efforts to achieve simple justice. Peter Schuck devotes eight pages to trashing them.

The ethical premise of Schuck’s argument is deeply troubling. While racial discrimination is intolerable, he asserts, “classism is not only descriptive but normative as well; in a capitalist society it seems like the natural order of things. Government has no business inserting people who have not climbed the ladder in the customary neighborhood they cannot afford.” Yet as it turns out, Schuck doesn’t really buy his own argument. He favors residential integration achieved on the QT, through housing vouchers–boosts up that “ladder” with public funds–that tenants can use to negotiate with landlords. Perhaps poor families wouldn’t have wound up living in Mount Laurel, which prohibited the construction of apartments, but they would have a better opportunity to live in decent housing, most likely in more diverse neighborhoods than where they’d been living.

Is that fair? Some years ago, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, NYU law professor Derrick Bell advanced a Swiftian proposal: Let businesses that want to discriminate buy licenses to do so, and distribute the fees to African-Americans victimized by the discrimination. After all, Bell argued, tongue only partly in cheek, the bigots were going to discriminate anyway; why not let blacks get something out of it?

If racist (or classist) suburbs had the option of buying their way out of their responsibilities to the commonwealth, would black and poor families really be better off? Mount Laurel’s taxpayers spent over $1 million fighting the court’s decree, and it wasn’t until 2001, thirty years after the lawsuit was filed, that the first affordable housing units were built in that town. Across New Jersey fewer than 30,000 such units have been constructed because of the decision, most of them occupied by the twentysomething children and the sixtysomething parents of suburban homeowners. In a state where, during the 1990s, as many as 30,000 units of market-rate housing were being constructed each year, fewer than 2,000 low-income housing units have been built because of this decree. In Yonkers, New York, another celebrated case discussed by Schuck, a federal judge ordered that both public housing and public schools be integrated. The principle–securing nondiscrimination–is certainly right. But in Yonkers, as in Mount Laurel, the resistance was fierce and the results have been modest. As a pragmatic matter, it’s hard to dispute Schuck’s conclusion that a less adversarial approach would achieve more, in terms of concrete housing opportunities.

Not just in housing but across the social landscape, Schuck argues, “diversity’s value to people depends on its perceived genuineness and lack of legal contrivance”–its “provenance.” That’s a bitter pill for a veteran of the civil rights wars to swallow. But the accumulated evidence of increased racial segregation in suburbs and schools, despite decades of litigation, as well as ceaseless resistance to other government initiatives aimed at promoting diversity, suggests that sometimes it’s best to do good by stealth. Initiatives that are more freely chosen and less visible–reliance on civil society with a nudge, rather than a clout, from government–may achieve more enduring diversity than government can bring about on its own. That’s the nub of the argument in Diversity in America, and it’s a proposition that no one who thinks hard about diversity–not as a slogan but as something of value–can afford to ignore.