Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Limits of “Diversity”

Where affirmative action was about compensatory justice, diversity is meant to be a shared benefit. But does the rationale carry weight?

By Kelefa Sanneh
The New Yorker, October 9, 2017

As universities learned to reframe their affirmative-action programs as diversity programs, students learned to believe them. This notion of diversity has proved remarkably flexible, and therefore popular, especially in comparison with terms like “integration” or “racial parity,” which connote conflict, rather than harmony. Liberals have been particularly enthusiastic exponents of Powell’s diversity doctrine, but the ideal of diversity is generally nonpartisan. Last year, Reince Priebus, who was then the chair of the Republican National Committee, voiced his hope that Trump’s running mate would add “a degree of diversity.” Later, when it was reported that the final list of choices consisted entirely of white men, Priebus said that he was not disappointed. “There’s also something called ‘diversity of experience,’ too, that’s necessary,” he said. And at the Republican Convention a student leader rallied the crowd with a Powellian affirmation: “We are the party of youth and diversity. Not the Democrats!”

Even as the idea of diversity was conquering the country, some on the left were having second thoughts. In 2006, the literature professor Walter Benn Michaels published a brusque polemic, “The Trouble with Diversity,” which depicted the whole concept as profoundly conservative. Because diversity meant “the appreciation (rather than the elimination) of difference,” he argued, it was the ideology of “bosses and owners,” who could celebrate their own increasing “cultural diversity” while ignoring the economic inequality with which they were complicit. Ellen Berrey, the sociologist, found Michaels’s argument “simplistic,” and, in “The Enigma of Diversity,” she sets out to discover how this ideology functions, by spending time in the field. Three fields, in fact: a large (and, by agreement, anonymous) Fortune 500 corporation, a mixed-income neighborhood in Chicago, and a selective public university, the University of Michigan. All three realms were proudly and self-consciously diverse, although carefully so—Michigan had been sued over its affirmative-action program. Berrey’s smart and subtle book aims to show exactly how differently people and institutions use this malleable concept.

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