The Limits of “Diversity”

In recent years, diversity has become a hallowed American value, shared and honored in a wide range of contexts. And even as the concept has faced renewed criticism since the rise of Donald Trump, it remains a much-praised cornerstone of corporate, educational, and civic values.

But what do we mean by it? What are we talking about when we talk about diversity? What goals is it intended to serve? And who is it for? The answers to those questions are surprisingly hard to pin down, and they vary by context. Ellen Berrey has been studying diversity for years, in neighborhoods, colleges, and corporations, and in a piece for Salon a few years ago, she was blunt about what she’s discovered:

Here’s what I’ve learned: diversity is how we talk about race when we can’t talk about race. It has become a stand-in when open discussion of race is too controversial or — let’s be frank — when white people find the topic of race uncomfortable. Diversity seems polite, positive, hopeful. Who is willing to say they don’t value diversity? One national survey found that more than 90 percent of respondents said they valued diversity in their communities and friendships.

Berrey’s book The Enigma of Diversity forms the backbone of an extended review essay, “The Limits of Diversity,” by Kelefa Sanneh in the October 6 issue of the New Yorker. Writing of Berrey’s “smart and subtle” book, Sanneh digs into the complicated role diversity plays today:

It may turn out that the rise of diversity marked the end of the golden age of affirmative action. This summer, Berrey published a paper that analyzed the admissions practices of about a thousand selective colleges in America; she and her co-author, Daniel Hirschman, found that sixty per cent of them had race-conscious admission policies in 1994, but only thirty-five per cent did in 2014. Some public institutions were forced by law to adopt a race-blind admissions policy, but much of the shift came among “middle-status” colleges and universities. Berrey and Hirschman hypothesized that these schools were reacting to a broad political backlash against affirmative action. This retreat may explain why Berrey, who is sympathetic to affirmative action, is reluctant to dismiss the diversity movement, no matter how inchoate or feckless it may seem. The upbeat language of diversity helps camouflage racial demands that might otherwise seem impolite—or unconstitutional. “Diversity is so plastic and broadly appealing,” Berrey writes, “it can justify effective policy interventions such as affirmative admissions, and it can animate progressive political action to redistribute resources to the disadvantaged, too”—measures that Berrey seems to support, and that many other Americans otherwise might not.

Sanneh brings in insights from other books, including works by Walter Benn Michaels and David Goldberg, as well as our own The Diversity Bargain, by Natasha K. Warikoo, but diversity–its limits and its value–remains frustratingly tough to assess. Is, Sanneh wonders, “diversity . . .  too weak a term to do all that is asked of it?” It’s worth turning back to Berrey’s take in 2015 for Salon:

Treating race as diversity does offer some promise. The drive for diversity disavows outright racist hate. Appealing to diversity can unite people across differences that divide us deeply. It affirms a much-needed basis of commonality — a shared, self-reinforcing commitment to each other.

But with what other issue of inequity do we think that the solution is just talking about it? Health care? No. We create insurance plans that buffer people from bankruptcy. Hunger? No. We create emergency food pantries and free school lunches.

Ultimately, I see diversity as a big lie. We need fewer cheerful logos and more effective action.

Read the rest of Sanneh’s piece here.