Diversity: The Invention of a Conceptby Peter Wood
But what its proponents have in mind when they cite the compelling
Diversity is America's trendiest cultural ideal. Corporations alter their recruitment and promotion policies in the name of a diverse workforce. Universities apply new admissions procedures in the name of a diverse student body. Politicians call for institutions that mirror our diverse population.
But what its proponents have in mind when they cite the compelling importance of diversity, Peter Wood argues in this elegant and learned book, is not the dictionary meaning of the word -- variety and multiplicity; rather, they mean a new kind of regimentation that fixes people into artificial categories and dispenses rewards in proportion to the size and political muscle of social groups. Real diversity, he proposes, is far different from this impostor "diversity."
Wood begins his account by tracing the fate of one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite images, the "single garment of destiny," and ends it ruminating on how "diversity" played into the fate of John Walker Lindh. Along the way, he shows how "diversity" has come to sprawl across politics, law, business, entertainment, religion, the arts, and especially higher education (where it has occasioned two Supreme Court decisions). Wood demonstrates that the "diversity" principle -- to the extent that it identifies people as, above all else, members of social groups and products of collective historical experience -- is profoundly at odds with America's older ideals of liberty and equality. Even those who are inclined to argue with his conclusions will enjoy his provocative case studies and his wicked sense of humor.
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DIVERSITYThe Invention of a Concept
By PETER WOOD
Encounter BooksCopyright © 2003 Peter W. Wood
All right reserved.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a striking image of human unity. He wrote:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
King had used the phrase "single garment of destiny" before, as early as a 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University, and he would use it again in many more speeches and sermons. Sometimes he varied the surrounding language:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated.
(Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Oslo, Norway, December 11, 1964)
We are tied together-white and black Americans-in a single garment of destiny. There cannot be a separate black or white path to power.
(Address at the University of Pittsburgh, November 2, 1966)
You must recognize in the final analysis you are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
(Sermon at Washington National Cathedral, Palm Sunday, 1968)
And sometimes he was oddly misquoted:
You must recognize in the final analysis you are all tied together in a single garnet of destiny.
(Quoted in The Cathedral School, January 18, 2002, supposedly
transcribing the text of a sermon at St. John the Divine Cathedral,
May 17, 1965; emphasis added)
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr.-"We are woven into a seamless garment of destiny"-Clinton called for Americans to make the country "one America."
(Report in CNN/Time on President Clinton's speech in Little
Rock, Arkansas, commemorating the Little Rock Nine, September
But King wore the garment of destiny so often in his speeches that there could be little doubt that it was to him among his most important turns of phrase.
I don't know where Dr. King originally found this metaphor with its biblical echoes (e.g. "for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation," Isaiah 62:20; Joseph's "coat of many colors," Genesis 37:3) or if he came to it first while composing his 1961 commencement speech. Perhaps King's deep interest in Gandhi, who had made much of boycotting British textiles and spinning his own cloth, is also woven into the image. In any case, by dint of repetition the "single garment of destiny" became a figure woven into King's own legacy. It is probably quoted in his honor in thousands of sermons and speeches each year.
The "single garment of destiny" in which we are all tied or bound is a slightly strange image. King's language ("network," "tied together") suggests that we are all part of the fabric of this garment, but the garment itself is vague. What is this unity of which we are all part? Society? Humanity? And who wears the garment?
Granted, we ought not to make too much of a metaphor, which serves its purpose if it lights up one good idea. And King's metaphor does that splendidly: he puts us in mind of the myriad connections that make us one people.
King's emphasis on our connectedness and underlying unity is self-evidently opposed to what we now call "diversity." This presents a problem for those who today would honor King's memory but discard most of his message. For proponents of diversity, King's "single garment of destiny" is a musty old wrap, but too well known simply to throw away. For some, the solution has been to reinterpret it by emphasizing the separateness of the threads rather than the forceful interweave.
This thread-finding has become an increasingly common conceit. In January 2002, Rohit Ananth, a seventh grader from Park Forest Middle School in central Pennsylvania, won a Martin Luther King Day essay contest on the theme "A Single Garment of Destiny." Young Mr. Ananth opined, "It is unrealistic to think that our country is like a perfectly woven garment. There are many loose threads." These loose threads, presumably, are the people not fully woven into the fabric of American life: individualists, outcasts, whole groups that go their separate ways, the excluded and the self-excluded.
But once we deny Dr. King's basic premise-that we are all part of "an inescapable network of mutuality"-the whole garment unravels. In fact, Americans in the last quarter-century have turned that unraveling into a new social ideal. This is what we call diversity, a word that I will italicize when it refers to the contemporary set of beliefs, as distinct from its older meanings. Diversity bids us to think of America not as a single garment, but as divided up into separate groups-on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex, for starters-some of which have historically enjoyed privileges that have been denied the others.
Diversity, though, is more than a propensity to dwell on the separate threads that make up the social fabric. It is above all a political doctrine asserting that some social categories deserve compensatory privileges in light of the prejudicial ways in which members of these categories have been treated in the past and the disadvantages they continue to face. Diversity sees itself as a tool for knocking down the door to exclusive enclaves-colleges, workplaces, churches, organizations of all sorts-of the favored groups. A university that admits more minority students, a company that hires more minority workers, and a museum that shows more works by minority artists can each be said to have taken the first step toward diversity.
Many more steps follow. Diversity is not merely a reformulation of the idea of equal access to social goods; it is also an attempt to redefine the goods themselves. The ideal of diversity is that once individuals of diverse backgrounds are brought together, a transformation will take place in people's attitudes-primarily within the members of the formerly exclusive group, who will discover the richness of the newcomers' cultural backgrounds. Diversity will breed tolerance and respect, and, because it increases the pool of skills, will enhance the effectiveness of work groups and contribute to economic prosperity. In the more extended flights of the diversiphile's imagination, diversity creates good will and social betterment in every direction. The African-American manager, the gay white secretary and the Latino consultant learn from each other's distinctive cultural experience and become better workers, better citizens, better persons.
Diversity in this cascade of meanings is deeply appealing to many Americans, but not all. Those who resist the dream of diversity see it instead as a rubric for racial and ethnic quotas in college admissions and on the job; for acts of petty and not so petty discrimination; and for a system of ethnic favoritism that undercuts the principle of rewarding demonstrated merit and ability. Diversity, to its critics, calls to mind cultural elites who promulgate convoluted reasons why discrimination is wrong, except when they do it.
Diversity is only a few decades old, but diversity (without the italics) is nothing new. Let us start with the older meaning. America was made up of diverse peoples even before the first Europeans (and soon after, the first Africans) arrived. People who thought seriously about the New World and about the North American colonies that became the United States were already thinking about diversity centuries ago. In his first letter back to Spain in January 1493, Christopher Columbus carefully described the people he encountered in the Caribbean, who he said were not "slow or stupid," and whom he hoped to "conciliate" to Christianity and the Spanish Crown. His hopes in this regard, as in so much else, were dashed by the rapacity of the Spanish conquerors, but Columbus's legacy is far more complex than either the old schoolroom story of simple "discovery" or its up-to-date replacement, a story of nothing but genocide.
Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, the physician who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, has left us a letter in which he describes the joy of some Native Americans rescued by Columbus from their cannibalistic captors. Columbus had arrived in the New World to find not one people, but myriads of peoples, many in perpetual war with each other. One of his first tasks was to come to some practical understanding of this diversity of native peoples. That concern has echoed through hundreds of years of Spanish, French, English and Russian colonial relations with Native Americans and echoes still in the independent states that arose from European colonization.
The diversity among native peoples posed intellectual as well as practical problems that generations of historians, theologians, philosophers, linguists and eventually anthropologists wrestled with, as they also confronted the problem of the diversity between Europeans and Native Americans as a whole. As early as the 1550s, some Europeans were offering profound arguments in favor of an encompassing concept of our common humanity. At that time, Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican priest, wrote his passionate and learned book In Defense of the Indians as a plea to the Catholic Church to intervene against the enslavement and brutalizing of Native Americans.
Diversity in this older sense of relations between culturally disparate groups is a major aspect of the history of all New World nations. Their patterns of resistance to and accommodation of cultural diversity differed, and the United States can be understood as a particular answer to the problems posed by cultural multiplicity. By the time of the American Revolution, we not only claimed but also felt a sense of unity as a people, but we also divided ourselves by region, state, race and religion. The many-ness, the diversity of America, was not somehow overlooked or invisible to the founders. They saw it clearly, took steps to keep it from overwhelming the unity they hoped would thrive, and persisted in worrying whether those steps would be sufficient.
Negro slavery loomed as perhaps their greatest worry, for as certain as many of the founders were that slavery was wrong, they also saw the difficulty of successfully assimilating African-Americans, who had been deprived of education, as free and equal citizens. Benjamin Franklin in the last few years of his life served as the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, penning calls both for the end of slavery and for public assistance to "emancipated black people." Franklin's last public act at age eighty-three was to compose and sign a petition dated February 3, 1790, to the U.S. Congress citing its constitutional duty of "promoting the welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States" as grounds for abolishing the enslavement of "fellow-creatures of the African race."
The Constitution set up an unstable compromise on the issue, allowing slavery to stand in the states that permitted it and, for purposes of taxes and apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, counting the population of the states as "the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons." The Constitutional Convention also set a date, 1808, when the federal government would be empowered to end the importation of slaves, which in fact it did. In December 1787, James Wilson, a Pennsylvania delegate to the Constitutional Convention, expressed the hope of many that this provision would lay "the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country."
The temporizing of the founders on slavery, however, is rightly understood as part of a larger history of diversity. They were engaged with a real question of how much real diversity a free nation could contain without pulling itself apart, and diversity in that sense has remained central to the definition of American society, through the early republic, the Civil War, emancipation, the great waves of immigration, and on up through the Civil Rights struggle and King's telling metaphor. Diversity-called appropriately by diverse names-has always been on our minds.
But diversity is not diversity. The new movement is something different, and in some ways a repudiation of the older attempts to find a oneness in our many-ness. Diversity in its new form tends to elevate many-ness for its own sake. But I do not aim in this book to oversimplify a complex social and cultural movement. The new diversity has its vision of unity too, and many separate threads of its own.
But let's not take just a thread-by-thread view. Diversity is big. It's everywhere. Schoolchildren are taught to celebrate it; high courts weigh and scrutinize it; corporate personnel offices assiduously seek it out; unions that once feared it now robustly champion it; artists offer searching introspections of diversity in their own lives; museums exhibit it; restaurants serve it; churches worship it; and tourists vacation in it. Diversity is enunciated in the dolls we buy for our children (the American Girl collection), the fashions teenagers buy for themselves (think of the "United Colors of Benetton" ads, featuring lots of contrasting flesh tones), and in the admissions brochures of the colleges and universities those teens hope to attend. Diversity plays its part in every electoral campaign for every candidate and in the sales pitches for a great many products. The pursuit of diversity is held to be both practically good and personally redemptive; and diversity is depicted in popular entertainment as both fun and-there is no better word for it-virtuous.
Now largely forgotten, Henry Davenport Northrop was a popular writer of the 1880s and 1890s who catered to the taste for the eye-opening spectacle of human variety. He was the IMAX theater of his day, with heavily illustrated books such as Marvelous Wonders of the Whole World (1886). But it would be difficult to find a writer less suited to the temper of our times. The title alone of his 1891 volume, Indian Horrors or Massacres by the Red Men, Being a Thrilling Narrative of Bloody Wars with Merciless and Revengeful Savages ..., shows Northrop to be a man who dealt in sensationalized stereotypes, a stirrer-up of the fantasies that fuel discrimination and ethnic strife. Northrop represents a part of cultural history that most Americans today notice only with a shudder.
Yet Northrop may still have some important things to teach us. His world was one that abounded in surprises.
Excerpted from DIVERSITY by PETER WOOD Copyright © 2003 by Peter W. Wood. Excerpted by permission.
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