Diversity's Dubious Origins

For more than thirty years, conservatives, Republicans and-especially-those in the business world ignored the relentless progress of a powerful political and social movement that has steadily institutionalized its ideas in law and social policy.

The increasingly influential networks demanding first “affirmative action” and then more sweeping “diversity” and “multiculturalism” were too long dismissed by GOP and business bigwigs as “soft stuff,” bothersome compliance matters fostered by federal regulations and human resources departments.

But a major cultural transformation was under way. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, GOP leaders and corporate managers were ritually chanting “diversity is our strength.” And-absent early protest or criticism-“goals and timetables” and other quasi-quotas in hiring and selection have become taken-for-granted practices.

Can any of this be changed? Not unless professionals and the general public make up for lost time by identifying, dissecting, discussing this diversity juggernaut.

Boston University anthropologist Peter Wood is here to help with his recent book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. He sees his role as diversity’s biographer and geographer-tracing the concept’s origins and chronicling the widespread impact of modern-day diversity ideology.

The key message of Wood’s book is: ideas count. He states this upfront: “Diversity is not about fine-tuning American society . . . a way of tweaking equality and liberty to achieve more equality or greater liberty. It is, rather a brand new thing, a principle that aims at no less than transforming American society through and through.”

Wood properly declares that “the principle of diversity represents an attempt to alter the root cultural assumptions on which American society is based.” His “diversiphile” revolutionaries are not concerned with real, complex social and cultural diversity and with a long-standing anthropological tradition of observing, comparing and judging very real and sometimes troubling cultural differences-such as the practice of female circumcision in some Muslim societies.

Instead, they are captivated by an artificial, uncritical “celebration of differences” along only two dimensions: race and gender. Their legal and political agenda is to both legitimate and achieve ethnic-gender proportional representation throughout society: in schools, universities, the workplace, government, the civic establishment, religious institutions, the arts, etc.

Today’s politicized proportional diversity-which began percolating with the spread of affirmative action policies in the 1970s-was vaulted into legal and policy realms through one Supreme Court Justice’s careless opinion.

In 1978 Justice Lewis Powell tried to broker a compromise between his evenly-divided brethren involving the famous reverse discrimination lawsuit brought by would-be medical student Alan Bakke against the University of California.

Powell suggested that states have a compelling interest in ethnically diverse institutions. Achieving this with obvious racial quotas was illegal; but race could be a “plus factor” in selection procedures. Powell’s decision legalizing racial “pluses” to achieve diversity was given added impetus overstated projections of massive demographic change and the rise of a “minority majority” America.

Armed with Powell’s Supreme Court diversity dictum, regulatory threats, and exaggerated demographics, the diversiphiles began their “long march through the institutions.” Remarkably, the diversiphiles have made their conquests with no systematic social science evidence that “diversity works” by reducing inter-group tensions, increasing creativity and productivity, and furthering the cause of E Pluribus Unum.

On the contrary, Wood consistently demonstrates his contentions that the diversiphiles have:

  • Increased social discord and cultural decline
  • Contributed significantly to failing educational performance and lower academic standards
  • Undermined love of country
  • Trivialized art
  • Made certain forms of racialism respectable again
  • Wood’s forecasts that the fever of diversity may pass but its legacy will linger. Diversity “is both disappearing and indelible. It is close enough to mere fashion that it might go out of fashion, but is now so indispensable to American party politics, so rooted in the marketing practices of American business, so overwritten into government regulations, and so tenderly looked after by higher education that it cannot simply vanish.”

    Indeed, I would concur with Wood and add that even a U.S. Supreme Court decision against the University of Michigan’s use of racial preferences in admissions (a decision likely due in July) will only slow-not stop-this mighty diversity machine. Yet there is an “emperor has no clothes” quality to the diversity juggernaut and Wood’s book unveils the diversiphiles pretentious claims and, hopefully, helps to reduce their self-proclaimed powers.