hat, exactly, is "diversity?" Is it nothing but a euphemism for racial and ethnic quotas, or is it the name of a fundamentally new way of thinking about American society? Do lovers of diversity play-act at tolerating cultural differences about which they know little and care to know less? Or have diversity's acolytes actually discovered a way of reconstituting our personal identities?
Diversity, of course, is and does all of these things. Yet until now (and despite its advocates' ceaseless prattle) diversity has been incapable of speaking for itself. There is no poet or philosopher of diversity no Simone de Beauvoir, or even Betty Friedan, of diversity. The hollowness and mendacity at the heart of diversity serve to silence and disguise all that is remarkable and profound (even if profoundly troubling) about this concept.
Yet, diversity has finally found its poet and philosopher, in the form of a clever antagonist named Peter Wood. Wood's extraordinary new book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, spills the beans about diversity about its flimsiness and mendacity, yes, but also about its complex cultural accomplishments and appeal, however unfortunate or insidious these may be.
Let me first make a disclosure that is anything but pro forma. Peter Wood is my friend that rare sort of friend of whom you find only a handful in a lifetime, if you're lucky. Wood and I met at college, got our professional degrees in anthropology (yes, there are at least two conservative anthropologists), and for years watched each other do battle with the forces of political correctness in our respective academic settings. For years, Wood has been established as an influential administrator at Boston University, one of the few institutions of higher learning in the country that resists the new academic dispensation. Battle hardened and wise in the ways of the enemy, Wood has gone after diversity in a way that diversity's friends will not, and cannot he has taken the concept seriously.
Where did diversity come from? With remarkable precision, Wood is able to trace the diversity movement from its origins in Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in the famous 1978 Bakke case, to the present. (Wood's prehistory of diversity is just as interesting, but more of that below.) With the Supreme Court split four to four on Alan Bakke's lawsuit against affirmative action, Justice Powell was casting about for a compromise. Unwilling to directly embrace reverse discrimination, yet unable to affirm classic liberal notions of individual equality and merit, Powell turned to diversity, a concept which, before that moment, had barely been whispered by anyone. By affirming the educational value of diversity, Powell was able to justify reverse discrimination as something other than a deliberate suspension of classic liberal principles.
Or so it seemed. Yet, by elevating and dignifying an obscure and seemingly benign concept of group rights, Powell subverted classic democratic ideals far more insidiously than he would have by forthrightly repudiating liberalism. Wood reminds us that the constitutional status of the diversity notion, as enshrined in Powell's Bakke opinion, remains uncertain. Although colleges and businesses everywhere have embraced diversity, no other Supreme Court justice has ever joined Powell in affirming it.
That is why the Supreme Court's upcoming decision on affirmative action in college admissions at the University of Michigan is so important. Should the Court unambiguously affirm the constitutional status of diversity, it will have given the go-ahead to a kind of counter-principal to liberalism. That means that we can look forward to suits pressing quotas on jury selection even the election of legislators. In the end, the principle of diversity cannot coexist with classic liberal democracy, and one of the several things that Wood's book does is allow us to see the breadth and depth of this opposition.
Before exploring this broader perspective, the threads leading out of the Powell opinion are worth following. Wood shows just how flimsy were the empirical claims on which the Powell opinion was based. Powell simply took a few public-relations statements from places like Ivy League alumni magazines and wrote as though the educational value of diversity had been scientifically established. It has taken decades for academics to churn out even a few shoddy and unconvincing studies purporting to prove that racial and ethnic diversity really does improve the quality of education. Wood fairly decimates these claims.
The empirical evidence underlying the rise of diversity programs in American business is even more scandalously thin. In a skewering of bogus statistics worthy of Christina Hoff Sommers, Wood shows how a garbled passage in a famous think-tank study was misread and turned into a major pro-diversity story by nearly every paper in the country. Supposedly, the famous Hudson Institute Workforce 2000 report of 1987 showed that, by 2000, white men would make up on 15 percent of the American workforce. Yet, the report actually said nothing of the kind. It merely projected that white men would make up only 15 percent of those workers entering the workforce, over and above the number of white men already employed. In other words, Workforce 2000 projected that the number of white men in the workforce would grow relatively slowly. The report in no way claimed that the proportion of white men in the workforce would fall to the drastically low figure of 15 percent. Yet this transparently absurd misreading of the report was accepted on its face, turned into a major story by (who else?) the New York Times, whence it filtered down to the rest of the media. As a result, businesses all over the country were pushed to institute diversity hiring.
Of course, the deeper point is that, even if there had been so major a reshuffling of the workforce, it would have best been dealt with in the spirit of classic liberal universalism. Not only does authentic justice demand as much, but the "cultural differences" that supposedly divide races, ethnic groups, and "genders" actually have almost nothing to do with real cultural variety. The fact is, in nearly every important respect, Americans share the same culture. In the hands of Wood, a knowledgeable anthropologist, free of the current orthodoxies, the diversity industry's claims to be dealing with "cultural differences" ends up in tatters.
The Workforce 2000 report was issued in 1987, at the very same moment that our contemporary culture war broke out in earnest. The controversy over Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind was in full flower, and the use of "politically correct" as a term of complaint had only just begun. Here is where we arrive at the crux of Wood's history of the present. With the sensation over Bloom's book, and with resistance to political correctness growing, advocates of affirmative action were on the ropes. Just then, Wood shows, is when the campus Left seized upon Powell's diversity concept (which by then had become merely a bit of pathetic legal camouflage for full-fledged quota systems in education and business), and transformed it into an organizing principle for a whole new way of looking at politics, culture, society, and personal identity. By the early '90s, a concept few had known or cared about before 1987 had become a ruthlessly enforced article of faith, and a challenge to liberal democracy itself.
The central paradox of Wood's book is that diversity is simultaneously hollow and full a euphemism indeed, a lie yet with cultural weight and substance nonetheless. You'll have to read the book to feel the paradox whole. But let me suggest a bit of it, using my own formulation at first, and then returning to Wood.
Diversity fills up a place left empty by modern life. I've already written of how, in a lonely secular world, liberalism itself has been rendered illiberal and transformed into a kind of religion. Diversity serves as a kind of substitute religion, chiefly by subsuming an individual in a cause larger than himself membership in (or vicarious identification with) a group with a history of oppression. In an important sense, the new minority identifications do substitute for religion. That is why diversity carries real cultural weight and substance. At the same time, there is something thin, false, and unsatisfactory about the new political religion.
The problem goes back to what we've already learned from Wood. Diversity isn't really diverse. All Americans share the same culture. There is something imaginary and contrived about the whole effort to hype one-sided and simplistic stories of oppression into the equivalent of the religious and cultural systems of the past.
Wood has his own way of getting at the falseness and superficiality of contemporary diversity. (Actually, Wood has ten or fifteen ways of getting at that. But let's confine ourselves here to one.) As a contrarian anthropologist, Wood has spent years making himself an expert in everything that contemporary anthropologists despise and disregard. Wood has become a master reader of 19th-century traveler's tales the kind where the intrepid explorer sensationalizes cultural difference hyping exotic customs, freely condemning alien practices, and openly expressing disgust, admiration or lust for his hosts. This is exactly the sort of stuff that 19th-century Americans used to eat up. Nearly every American middle-class home had some of these travelogues, and nothing could be more offensive to today's diversity advocates than the open aesthetic and moral judgments passed by these American and European travelers on their "native" hosts.
Yet Wood returns us to diversity's 19th-century prehistory a time when ordinary Americans were surprisingly aware of, and riveted by, authentic cultural difference. What Wood manages to show is that, back in the day, with all of their ethnic and racial stereotyping and even with their relative lack of sophisticated intercultural expertise Americans were 1,000 times more honest and insightful about cultural difference than we are today.
Wood's fascinating account of traveler tales from South Africa are especially impressive. For all the easy and simplistic stereotyping of Africans (enough to make anyone today wince), 19th-century travelers had a frank and frankly unfriendly attitude toward the South African Boers, who were plainly treating the Africans with disturbing hostility and prejudice. However much they lacked in tact and understanding, our 19th-century forbears allowed themselves to express their spontaneous, human, complex, and surprisingly balanced response to real cultural difference. They were frank about how strange the Africans seemed to them, yet equally willing to praise the "natives" and condemn their white oppressors. Ultimately, that sort of honesty allows insight to bubble up, and biases to be corrected.
By contrast, the contemporary ideology of diversity perpetually struggles against our natural tendency to be alternately horrified and fascinated by the reality of cultural difference. Human beings naturally judge others. We are attracted and repelled, delighted and disgusted, by authentic difference. Yet all of this is what so-called diversity advocates quickly smother in guilt, shame, and simplistic and one-sided stories of oppression. Real cultural diversity in America barely exists, and such diversity as remains is forbidden to us to acknowledge. We cannot attend to real cultural diversity long enough to know it or feel it in a genuine, rounded, and human way (which necessarily includes repulsion as well as attraction) for fear of being classed as an oppressor. So diversity is instead hollowed out and turned into a quick and superficial signal of entitlement and guilt. Thus, today, although our yearning for diversity is powerful and real, what we call diversity is thin and false. This is what Peter Wood shows in his wonderful history of "diversity before diversity."
There's plenty more to this book: diversity's subversion of religion, diversity's affliction of the arts, etc., and always with Wood's trademark restrained, yet razor sharp, wit. Hey, if you don't believe me because I know Wood, check out John Derbyshire's review of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept in the latest issue of The New Criterion. The book has gone as high as 126 on Amazon, and has been selected by the Conservative Book Club. It's doing well, but I've been annoyed to see it frozen out of the mainstream chain stores. No doubt a book jacket with glowing blurbs by Shelby Steele and Ward Connerly is a mixed blessing in today's world. But with the Michigan affirmative-action case before the Supreme Court, this is the book of the moment. Don't miss it.