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"We Aspire to Integration and Practice Pluralism,"

by Frank H. Wu January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Of all the prophecies for the new millennium, demographic predictions will come true the earliest. Within the foreseeable future, our society will make a transition that has never before and nowhere else occurred peacefully, much less successfully: we will cease to have a single identifiable racial majority and instead will begin to create a racially mixed new world. W.E.B. DuBois may have been as premature as he was prescient in declaring that the problem of the 20th Century would be the color line.

Everybody says they are in favor of diversity, but nobody has thought about the concept. Whether our diversity becomes a dream or a nightmare depends on the interpretation we give to the popular term. The left especially should take care to avoid arguments that can be appropriated.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of American exceptionalism and optimism is our ability to celebrate and embrace contradictory principles. We aspire to integration and practice pluralism. Each claims to be a form of equality, but they are as dissimilar as possible.

Progressive leaders of a generation ago proclaimed racial integration as a goal. They had in mind African Americans more than any other group, but white ethnics who only a generation ago would have portrayed themselves and in turn been perceived as less white and more ethnic have passed much more readily into this paradigm. The claim of integration is this: I am an individual who is like the next individual, and I demand to be treated as he is treated.

More cynical writers today doubt that the abstract promise of assimilation can be achieved, and they even suggest it is a false hope which must betray its beneficiaries. After all, the guarantee of a perfectly distributed assortment of peoples throughout the spheres of daily life virtually assures that in any given group of ten people the African American will always stand alone.

Another tradition of thinkers has declared cultural pluralism as an ideal. They have been concerned with American Jews more than any other group, but their values have been invoked as readily by Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Africans, and especially the immigrants among them who wish to form a diaspora community rather than lead a lonely life as an exile. The claim of pluralism is this: we are a group who are unlike the other groups, and we deserve to be respected as they are respected.

Contemporary commentators wonder whether the fragmentation into factions will lead to hatred and backlash, or if it can be nothing better than a superficial combination of tacos, sushi, hummus and grits. The common core, as a unifying myth if not quite a shared reality, has given our citizenship its convention.

The problem may be that we use diversity too casually and not critically enough. Like equality, diversity can have many meanings.

Because it can be defined for the context and has not yet become controversial, it is easy enough to substitute “diversity” for other terms: “integration” and “pluralism” are old-fashioned; “multi-racial” and “multi-cultural” too trendy. These are not synonyms, though.

An institution can be multi-racial without being multi-cultural, and vice versa. Race and culture correlate very roughly. A company could have its own buttoned-down protocol which accepted individuals of any skin color but demanded submission to the prevailing norms. Or a college could be predominantly black but encompass multiple national origins, geographical influences, class backgrounds, religious faiths and ethnic traditions.

Treating everyone identically produces its own unfairness, because any standard that is chosen is bound to favor somebody. Even a perfect neutrality, if it could be attained, has the vice of forcing everyone toward its sameness.

Encouraging dissent in all its forms creates anarchy. Almost nobody really intends to welcome each and every conceivable form of rebellion and opposition.

People who are eager for diversity in theory may not enjoy it in practice. The trouble is that any substance can be inserted into the label.

Essentially, diversity means difference. An advocate for diversity — genuine diversity — is an advocate for difference. If difference for the sake of difference is actually the goal, then every variation is worthwhile. One person’s difference is another’s damnation.

Supporters of diversity, for example, if they are to be true to the banner they fly, must at least acquiesce to the claim of the Ku Klux Klan member who insists that he too must be represented in Congress or the board room. If diversity is the measure, the born-again Christian who asks why there are not more evangelicals like herself on the op-ed page or in front of the classroom has as compelling a grievance as anyone else.

A believer in cultural diversity will be confronted with political conservatism that cannot be challenged. However they are defined, either cultural diversity or political liberalism can prevail but not both. The problem is especially apparent in the case of the minority group that in turn mistreats the internal minority within its own ranks, all the more so if outsiders attempt to intervene: the community of color that insists on female genital mutilation or that invokes a cultural defense for domestic violence; or the non-Western religious adherents that abhor gays and lesbians or that shun the disabled.

Diversity presents us the challenge of saying what we mean so we can mean what we say. Mere diversity is not enough. Its substance matters.

Frank H. Wu is an Associate Professor at Howard University Law School. His book Beyond Black and White is from Basic Books.

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