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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Diversity in America: Keeping the Government at a Safe Distance

Impenetrable to Anyone Outside the Policy Elite

According to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a blastula is “a structure, frequently a hollow sphere, formed by the cells of an embryo after cleavage of the ovum and before gastrulation.” Gastrulation, in turn, is “inward migration of the cells of the blastula.” I looked this up after reading the second paragraph of Peter Schuck’s Diversity in America, which explains: “Like a blastula of cells undergoing mitosis, American society constantly proliferates new divisions and differentiations. Some of this merely proliferates the familiar, reshuffling old decks, but much of it creates unprecedented forms of social life.”

I’m fond of metaphors that tease an audience into an unexpected way of looking at a subject, but Schuck’s image of the mitotic blastula fails the test. A good sign is that he introduces a second metaphor, reshuffling old decks of cards, to explain the first. Then he blots out both metaphors with a third by asserting that this gin rummy-playing embryo is also an originator of “unprecedented” forms of social life.

It is, of course, not too hard to extract the basic idea: America is getting more diverse. The colliding and contradicting metaphors, however, do nothing to advance the idea and even less to entice the reader. This is not a small fault in a book that aims to win over people to a series of contrarian positions on public policy. Nor is the mutant blastula an isolated instance. Much of Schuck’s writing is awkward, and some of it is downright painful.

Schuck does have some important things to say. His chapters on immigration (4) and judicial attempts to desegregate neighborhoods (6) are excellent tours through rough terrain. His chapters on affirmative action (5) and religion (7) are less illuminating but still worth the hard slog of Schuckian prose. That slog has been kindly overlooked in a series of generous reviews that have celebrated Schuck’s middle-of the-road sensibility. He generally endorses “diversity” as a social ideal while castigating some of the ways in which courts and the government have sought to promote it. But I wonder what it means when a supposedly major statement on a key public-policy matter issued by a prestigious university press is written in a fashion bound to be impenetrable to anyone outside the policy elite.

Through most of his book, Schuck, who is the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law at Yale, looks over his shoulder at what his colleagues on the academic left will make of his points. This I think explains the convolutions of his argument as well as his coagulating imagery and overqualifled sentences. In this sense, Diversity in America pays a high price for entree into the salons of Cambridge and New Haven. By striving so hard to achieve respectability in those quarters, Schuck has written a book that is unlikely to enlighten most others.

That’s too bad because some of Schuck’s points are surely right. He argues, for example, that the value Americans place on diversity depends in large part on its “provenance.” Diversity that ensues from individuals making their own decisions is often felt to be enriching. But diversity that results from stage managers attempting to arrange society according to their own lights of the right proportions of ethnic groups, classes, and sexes is experienced as an unwelcome imposition. And Schuck accurately registers that the “ideal” of diversity is new and not, as some of its proponents pretend, an abiding principle of American life.

Sadly, Schuck never really comes to grips with the rise of diversity as an ideology. He acknowledges and even insists that the facts of social diversity are one thing and the belief system something else. But this distinction frequently disappears when he comes to specific cases. The two meanings bleed together and the attentive reader is hard put to decipher the argument. Do the courts in the Mount Laurel, Chicago Housing Authority, and Yonkers housing cases care about demographic realities or conformity to the crudely drawn categories entailed in the doctrine of diversity?

Schuck makes a fateful mistake near the beginning of the book, where he insists that diversity is a unified subject: “I define [diversity] as those differences in values, attributes, or activities among individuals or groups that a particular society deems salient to the social status or behavior of those individuals or groups.”

But just as all the people in Cincinnati named “Charles” are not the same person, “diversity” is not one thing. It is a sprawling collection of sentiments and slogans often aimed in contradictory directions. Diversity in America suffers from treating this junkyard as though it were a college seminar.

Like a blastula undergoing mitosis—this book might have been better left to gestate until it was really ready for the outside world.