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Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Why Diversity

“Diversity” became the announced goal of schools and employers and liberal activists once American voters and courts turned against “affirmative action” for black Americans (never mind the idea of reparations). Earlier, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Johnson and Nixon administrations had pushed racial “goals” (not quotas, they stressed) in a not-so-transparent effort to redress some of the economic disadvantages accrued from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. However, with votes such as the 1996 passage in California of a constitutional amendment outlawing state institutions from considering race in employment, contracts, or education, and with Supreme Court cases reaching almost as far, liberals retreated from affirmative action to promoting “diversity.” Ethnic diversity, they argue, is good for everyone, not just minorities; it makes learning, working, neighboring, and deliberating better (e.g., here). Thus was born a defense for legally considering race just a bit, as well as a set of careers in diversity promotion, management, training, and law.

Opinion leaders from school teachers to corporate CEOs now promote, with some support from research, the virtues of diversity. Yet, out of view from most public discussion of the topic, a line of scholarly research emerged that implies the opposite. It suggests that the more diverse neighborhoods, cities, or countries are, the less people cooperate to common ends and the more they socially disengage; they “hunker down,” in one colorful rendition. A new paper by Maria Abascal and Delia Baldassarri in the latest issue of the American Journal of Sociology revisits this academic line of research and forces us to think back to why diversity was important in the first place.

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The city in which I live is probably the national capital of multiculturalism. Its logo (shown here) displays four races in profile. (For sources of the logo, see this and that.)  An October holiday is officially listed as “Indigenous People’s Day” (aka Columbus Day). The University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, is probably the multiculturalism leader among the nation’s major research universities. For example, to graduate, a student must have taken an “American Cultures” course, one which presents the diversity of America and which explicitly reviews the experiences of three particular groups. (When I taught an American Cultures version of urban sociology, I included two-week modules on African-, Jewish-, and Mexican-Americans.) In class discussion, students display considerable sensitivity about and respect for multiculturalist ideas.

In the end, the commitment to multiculturalism here – and, I think, in most settings around the nation – is important, sincere, and commendable. But it is not that real nor very deep. It is multiculturalism lite, which is just about right.

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