Diversity these days is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored. That’s a remarkable change from the Civil Rights era—but does this public commitment to diversity constitute a civil rights victory? What does diversity mean in contemporary America, and what are the effects of efforts to support it?
Ellen Berrey digs deep into those questions in The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, May 2015). Drawing on six years of fieldwork and historical sources dating back to the 1950s, and making extensive use of three case studies from widely varying arenas—affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and the workings of the human resources department at a Fortune 500 company—Berrey explores the complicated, contradictory, and even troubling meanings and uses of diversity as it is invoked by different groups for different, often symbolic ends. In each case, diversity affirms inclusiveness, especially in the most coveted jobs and colleges, yet it resists fundamental change in the practices and cultures that are the foundation of social inequality. Berrey shows how this has led racial progress itself to be reimagined, transformed from a legal fight for fundamental rights to a celebration of the competitive advantages afforded by cultural differences.
Powerfully argued and surprising in its conclusions, The Enigma of Diversity reveals the true cost of the public embrace of diversity: the taming of demands for racial justice.
"From the language of Supreme Court opinions to conversations held in private and public, we have disconnected the idea of ‘diversity' from our nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and obscured its profound importance to American society. In her in-depth study, Ellen Berrey explains the urgency of rejecting this distortion. Her investigation of the term, who employs it, and to what end underscores the need for uninhibited discourse about racial hierarchies and inequality. Berrey adds a vibrant, vital, and incisive voice to the discussion.”
—Lee C. Bollinger, President, Columbia University
“In this important book Ellen Berrey shows how the demands for inclusion of the racially oppressed during the Civil Rights Era were translated in universities, communities, and corporations into practices to keep the powerful in control. Berrey has deconstructed the symbolic politics of diversity and helped us understand the fundamental importance of substantive rather than formal diversity.”
—Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Duke University
"The Enigma of Diversity’s most important contribution is to carefully trace the symbolic politics of racial progress produced by specific decisions made in organizational settings in higher education, urban development and the corporate world. Berrey’s keen eye dissects how various meanings of diversity offered by competing actors have led to the current racial order. Her compelling analysis sheds new light on processes of transformation of group boundaries, the destigmatization of African-Americans, and the limits of the diversity paradigm for a genuine transformation of racial inequality in American society. Her book is an important addition to the literature on the production of racial and class inequality.”
—Michèle Lamont, Harvard University
"While others have bemoaned the conceptual shortcomings of diversity talk in universities and the workplace, Berrey makes a remarkable contribution in providing a series of stunning empirical examples of precisely how and why this rhetoric—with all of its good intentions—can limit substantive pursuits of equality, reaffirm status quo market orderings, and further entrench racial hierarchies. This insightful study cautions readers to think twice before uncritically embracing the language and politics of diversity and offers a much needed empirical basis for shifting the discourse of equality from the thin individualistic aesthetics of identity distribution to much more robust group-oriented pursuits of justice, accountability, and inclusion.”
—Osagie Obasogie, University of California-Hastings School of Law
“Drawing on the extensive case analyses, and embedding herself in core theoretical questions surrounding culture, power and diversity, Berrey provides an important snapshot of historical and contemporary claims-making about inequality and institutional practices in higher education, housing and work. Fascinating and important in these regards is Berrey's simultaneous attention to the hopes but also pitfalls of current diversity efforts—efforts that are forged in an arena of definitional ambiguity, sometimes clarified through the courts, and filtered through popular and media perceptions. This is a must read for culture, diversity and organizational scholars, as well for practitioners and those with specific interests in education, work, housing and inequality.”
—Vincent Roscigno, Ohio State University
"This is a wonderful book. The in-depth, insightful, balanced, and theoretically grounded ethnography of the corporation is especially valuable. Berrey's close-up examination of how it looks on the ground, and the variety of cross-pressures affecting the implementation of these policies, is worth the price of the book alone. Berrey writes as a sympathetic observer, with an agenda of understanding, rather than as an advocate of diversity policies or a close-minded critic.”
—John Skrentny, University of California-San Diego