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Courting diversity: two warnings ignored

Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance, Peter H. Schuck, The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 444 pp., $35 Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Peter Wood, Encounter Books: 360 pp., $24.95

August 10, 2003|Jim Sleeper | Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism."

The real news about the Supreme Court's recent rulings on affirmative action and homosexuality was that they surprised and disoriented both the court's conservative cheerleaders and its liberal detractors. And it wasn't just the court that made June a cruel month for the ideologically driven: The many corporate CEOs and military commanders who filed briefs in favor of color coding thereby discredited most conservative and leftist maps of American politics.

The right's culture warriors took the harder hit, of course, from a court many had assumed would vindicate them and the "silent" and "moral" majorities they claim to defend. Suddenly they had to explain why the creeping re-racialization of American life was being pushed not only by judges and tenured campus radicals but also by an impressive coalition of military and business leaders, accompanied, if belatedly and a bit lamely, by President Bush. Conservative opponents of preferences can't now pray for just one more colorblind purist on the high bench; Bush may not even want one now that free market and military titans don't.

Leftist "diversity" advocates, too, had some explaining to do. If the "politics of difference" was as progressive and transgressive as they'd claimed, why had it been co-opted so easily by CEOs and generals with reasons of their own for upending the dread straight-white-male consensus? Maybe the specter of resegregation wasn't the only alternative to leftist identity politics after all. Maybe corporate capital was subtle, protean and absorptive enough to shed its old racist patriarchal strictures for a multiculturalism more fluid and malleable than anything leftist populists had envisioned.

Caught in these tidal shifts are Peter Schuck, a centrist maverick Yale Law School professor, and Peter Wood, a Boston University anthropologist and conservative. Both condemn racially scripted "diversity," but from different vantage points and in markedly different styles. In "Diversity in America," Schuck, fighting uphill at close quarters against left-leaning legal scholars, strives decorously but at times too strenuously and schematically to reason and document his way out of the "diversity" straitjacket so many of his Yale colleagues wear (and designed).

I expected Wood, a frequent contributor to the National Review and other conservative publications, to be more the ideologue, but his "Diversity: The Invention of a Concept" is a wonderful surprise, an essay with an authorial voice you can enjoy listening to and arguing with. The book has its slippery patches, but any liberal who claims to value intellectual as well as racial diversity and wants to engage the other side's best arguments without shouting should try Wood.

Both books appeared before the June rulings, but both engaged the affirmative action cases, as if hoping to turn the court against the University of Michigan Law School's race-inflected efforts to "enrich" classroom discussion with a mysterious "critical mass" or "groupness" of racial types. The law school's goal is to spare bearers of a particular skin shade from feeling "isolated" for holding experiences or viewpoints which it presumes go along with the physiognomy that influenced that student's admission.

This is silly and stifling, but it's pretty much what the justices agreed to permit, rebuffing warnings like Schuck's and Wood's that law is too blunt an instrument to advance diversity and could plunge this country back into parsing people's racial bona fides. Both authors foresee the cruel ironies: For the right, the cruelest is that the most powerful engine of evil identity politics is corporate capitalism. For the left, it's that the most powerful engine of identity politics is ... evil corporate capitalism.

Worse yet for the right, the most effective and symbolic engine is the military, which makes affirmative action work only because it has the legal power and public resources to regiment the beneficiaries of racial preferences into no-nonsense remediation, on the taxpayer's dime. Anywhere else, conservatives would call that socialism. Leftists can only wish they had socialism in universities, instead of only pretending to have it, as some do now -- with results that their admissions offices have been caught lying about, as Wood reminds us.

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