The New Yorker Magazine recently published a piece called “The Limits of Diversity” discussing debates in the US about affirmative action and the rhetoric around “diversity.” The article prominently features the work of Professor Ellen Berrey. Professor Berrey is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department with teaching responsibilities on the Mississauga campus. She studies the effects of law, organizational practices, and culture on inequality and recently published the book, The Enigma of Diversity.
We have posted an excerpt of the article below.
The Limits of “Diversity”
Where affirmative action was about compensatory justice, diversity is meant to be a shared benefit. But does the rationale carry weight?
… in “The Enigma of Diversity,” she [Ellen Berrey] sets out to discover how this ideology functions, by spending time in the field. Three fields, in fact: a large (and, by agreement, anonymous) Fortune 500 corporation, a mixed-income neighborhood in Chicago, and a selective public university, the University of Michigan. All three realms were proudly and self-consciously diverse, although carefully so—Michigan had been sued over its affirmative-action program. Berrey’s smart and subtle book aims to show exactly how differently people and institutions use this malleable concept.
The neighborhood that Berrey studied is called Rogers Park, and when she did her research it was roughly thirty-two per cent white, thirty per cent black, twenty-eight per cent Hispanic, and six per cent Asian—neither a rich enclave nor an isolated ghetto. One alderman referred to a controversial plan to offer subsidized housing to low-income residents as a way to “maintain diversity.” But when a representative from a pro-development organization responded that his organization “wants to diversify,” he was using the word to argue against the plan. “There’s already too much low-income housing there,” he said. Meanwhile, at the big corporation, the diversity-management program functioned mainly as a surreal exercise in internal branding, entirely separate from the legal department (which handled claims of discrimination). So-called diversity managers worked to foster an “inclusive” environment, but they seemed to spend much of their time “reiterating the good that would come from diversity,” as a way of justifying their own positions.
Even on campus, where the modern diversity doctrine was fashioned, Berrey found that the doctrine itself was hard to define. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be that “racial minorities” were “culturally distinct from but culturally equivalent to white people.” (The cultural differences were considered real enough to make diversity valuable but not real enough to explain, say, disparities in academic achievement.) At one point, Michigan’s admissions-office Web site pictured a welter of enthusiastic believers, including a student who declared, “Diversity is one of the issues I’m most passionate about.” …
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…