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Diversity by Peter Wood (Encounter Books, 351 pages, $24.95) Diversity and its supposed consequences, both positive and negative, are much in the news lately. For example, the disgraced former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, is at the center of a debate about how the desire for diversity in the newsroom blinded his superiors to a pattern of erratic behavior, fabrication, and plagiarism. And a May 19 article in The Washington Post described special African-American, Latino, and Asian graduation celebrations at the University of Pennsylvania. Students interviewed for the article said that such ceremonies and special minority centers provide support for minority students at majority white universities. Critics of such diversity programs feel that they create separatism on college campuses. Most important, two cases before the Supreme Court, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, challenge the University of Michigan’s use of racial preferences in admissions as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In general, while Americans are proud of our cultural diversity, our tolerance, and our opportunities, discussions about the nature of diversity and its role in American political, educational, economic, and cultural life are becoming increasingly contentious. In Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Peter Wood steps back from the ongoing debates to look at the very nature of the concept of diversity in the United States. Peter Wood is a cultural anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Boston University. Anthropologists have long studied diversity in the form of cross-cultural variation. Unlike much anthropological writing that focuses on the description and explanation of behavior or meaning within or between cultural groups, Wood uses his anthropological expertise to explore the history of an idea and its consequences. He draws on ethnographic accounts of other cultures, his own expertise in American religious movements and in American Indian culture, and his experiences at what he calls those “aviaries” of diversity, universities. Some would say that the goal of anthropology is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Forced to look critically at our own behaviors, beliefs, and customs, we can escape their thrall and understand them for the social constructs they are. At the same time, understanding a previously “strange” cultural system will explode our preconceptions and prejudices and force us to admit that if we lived in that situation as others do, we would probably act and think the same way. With this purpose in mind, Wood starts his book by exploring the language of diversity. By examining all the definitions and uses of diversity, the author illustrates the term’s ambiguity and multiple meanings. This exercise serves to unmoor the reader from previous understandings and expectations about the use of the term. Wood details how the word is used in popular culture, as a metaphor, as shorthand for a kind of worldview, and in academic discourse. It’s actually surprising how slippery the concept appears to be. It reminds me of a Thai friend who once told me that the most perplexing word in American English was stuff because it could mean anything. Diversity has just this sort of range of meanings and uses. Wood begins his discussion about diversity in the United States with the Supreme Court and the landmark 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In the case, a white applicant to a California medical school, who was denied admittance while other, minority applicants with less distinguished academic records were accepted, brought suit. Explaining Justice Lewis Powell Jr.’s opinion in the case, Wood calls the ruling a “cultural watershed” because it introduced the idea that diversity has educational merit in and of itself. Wood says that Powell tried with his opinion to “rescue the giant enterprise of affirmative action,” but that this created many unintended consequences. Wood’s commentary on Bakke may not add anything new for lawyers and legal specialists, but may help others understand the importance of this case and the impact of the concept of diversity on American life. Some of the most interesting material in the book can be found in Wood’s chapter on the effect of the diversity doctrine on American religions. Because this material includes Wood’s own research with the American popular religion of “The Shrine People” in Necedah, Wis., it has an immediacy and wealth of detail that add to its appeal. Wood describes how American cultural preferences for diversity, tolerance, and relative value result in faith switching and in the erosion of distinct religious traditions. Wood suggests that this superficial religious diversity has destroyed the role of mainline churches as “gyroscopes” for American society and that bankrupt moral relativism is the result. Wood has great contempt for the parents of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, who nonjudgmentally accepted their son’s experimentation with increasingly extreme cultural and religious forms until he was finally apprehended fighting with the Taliban against Americans in Afghanistan. It is ironic that in John Walker Lindh’s quest for self-fulfillment in a culture of diversity, he joins with religious fundamentalists who brook no diversity in thought or belief. Wood briefly mentions such issues. For Wood, one of the worst consequences of the American attachment to diversity is the creation of stereotypes and the limitation on cultural expression. Wood explores the “affliction” of the diversity concept on the arts, especially when an artist is reduced to being an “exemplar” of a group. While diversity programs in the arts provide opportunities to artists, they also limit and channel the art that can be created. Similar havoc may be wreaked on theater and music as well. For example, Wood discusses the controversy on Broadway about the hiring of a European actor to play the role of a Eurasian pimp in “Miss Saigon.” Wood focuses two important chapters on the “identity” business in American companies and diversity programs on university campuses. The business chapter is important because he points out the tremendous professional presence in diversity work. Businesses reflect the cultural climate that many Americans must live in. As a university professor, Wood is the most knowledgeable about university life. This material is particularly on point as we await the Supreme Court decisions in the two University of Michigan cases. He uses engrossing examples and writes persuasively about how diversity has affected higher education in the United States. For example, Wood says: Higher education is by far the institution in American society most affected by the ideology of diversity. But if I have seemed to imply that colleges and universities have been completely transformed by diversity, I have implied too much. Higher education has absorbed the ideology and made it dominant for the moment. But the undergraduate college and the research university are much older and more substantial than the diversity movement, and much of what they are and what they do reflects that deeper history. Diversity is a somewhat destructive flippancy that diverts many students from a real education. It is a cost — a tax — on intellectual seriousness and has demoralized many thoughtful scholars who are dedicated teachers, just as it has inflated many lightweight academics. Wood repeatedly shows how diversity is accepted as being a good thing, although he finds the proof that diversity benefits students as stated by researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, to be tortured and unconvincing. According to Wood, although universities tout diversity as a positive good for all students, there is scant evidence that increased diversity on a campus increases interaction between racial or ethnic groups or what such increased interaction would mean if it happened. Wood thinks that the positive feelings we have about diversity can be traced historically to Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the natural diversity so important to his theory. Diversity also sounds “sweet” to us because it stands in opposition to racism and is taught to children using culturally appealing symbols (rainbows, for example). Yet Wood’s discussion possibly underplays the importance of the opportunity structures created by diversity programs. Individuals and groups ascribe to the beliefs about diversity and use diversity programs because, in the final analysis, such programs help them get access to scarce resources. In addition, powerful and attractive cultural messages about diversity appeal to American interests in individuality, self-fulfillment, and authenticity (all of which Wood discusses to some degree). Diversity also appeals to American folk beliefs about the reality of race and helps disguise the threatening specter of class differences and inequality. Wood takes an openly conservative and critical perspective on the concept of diversity and how it has played out in American culture, a point of view that experience tells me is relatively rare for an anthropologist and university professor. At the same time, Wood’s anthropological training provides objectivity to his writing. It is possible to read his discussion of a particular issue and reach a conclusion that differs from his. I found myself agreeing with some of his opinions and disagreeing strongly with others. Yet this adds to the strength of his book and is a consequence of his social science training. Overall, this is an engaging and provocative study, no matter what your definition or opinion of diversity. Patricia M. San Antonio is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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