Monday, September 24, 2012


We hear a lot about "diversity." Especially at schools and colleges, of course, and government agencies, big corporations, really any institution in the public eye. As with the rainbow and the "coexist" bumper stickers, we're entreated to be accepting, to create one loving planet where people of all races, colors, religions and sexual predilections could be happy together. It'd be nice, honestly.

The problem is bringing this vision about. As in every government or corporate initiative, the first and usually only thought is to have a "program." So they hire a consultant, or create a "diversity office" with the advice of some consultant, and before you can say "Jiminy Cricket"* there are affirmative action hiring and admissions mandates, mandatory diversity and sensitivity classes, diversity audits...a whole 'nother bureaucratic layer, replete with self-righteousness and backed by the force of government. 

Ever wonder what happens in diversity classes? Typically, people are told they have to be "sensitive" to the culture and concerns of racial and ethnic minorities, women, "GLBTs" and other supposedly oppressed groups. Often this is overlaid with a guilt trip focusing on "white privilege." Apparently, every person not a member of a favored minority is personally responsible for the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, gay-bashing and general bigotry, even if they, their parents, or their grandparents fled to the United States to escape the same, or worse.
Even if they endured bigotry here, in fact.**

I'd call these programs horse manure, but that would be insulting to horses. Horse manure is useful; used properly it can make gardens bloom. These programs are toxic. Call them Agent Orange.

To understand why, we first need to be clear about goals. Here are mine:
One, that all individuals, regardless of ancestry, belief, sex, sexual preference or what have you, be able to achieve according to their talents and effort.
Two, for people to cooperate, voluntarily, to realize their common goals.
Three, for each person's ultimate identity to be American, first. Not that they should forget their forebears, heritage, religion or whatever else defines them; they should take pride in these and equal pride in the fact that America offers them the opportunity to do so.

I despise many diversity programs and those who would make them mandatory because they foster precisely the opposite of these goals. For instance, social psychologists recently "discovered" that making white people aware of their supposed biases or telling them not to act biased changes their behavior when they're with black people. They get stiff, uncertain, don't talk as much as otherwise. The black people, unaware of the manipulations, are aware of the discomfort and come up with the most accessible explanation: This guy doesn't like me because I'm black.

Only someone whose experience of the world was limited to the classroom, and whose knowledge of human behavior came from textbooks and journals, would find this surprising.
It's probably been written in hieroglyphics or illustrated on cave walls. But even the most sheltered pseudo-intellectual should realize that endlessly harping on differences and grievances can only produce resentment on both sides, whatever those sides may be. The common diversity program advocate is either hopelessly ignorant, uncaring, or worse, hoping to expand their bureaucratic empire and profit by perpetuating the problem.

What's doubly sad is that we've known forever how to deal with the issues. It was illustrated generations ago by the classic "Robber's Cave" studies. Muzafer Sherif (himself an immigrant and one of the great-grandfathers of social psychology) and his coworkers first created conflict between two groups of campers, then resolved it by creating a problem they could only solve by working together. Pursuing a common goal allows discovery of one's common humanity, not instead of but beyond whatever differences might exist. The differences then become---oh, interesting, maybe. Or mutually amusing. One no longer has to tiptoe around them with conscious and artificial "sensitivity."

I'll tell you a couple of illustrative stories. The first occurred in the summer of 1964, between my sophomore and junior years in college. I was working at a meatpacking plant on the South Side of Chicago.  It was a good job, paying twice the minimum wage plus overtime. We worked in a 40 degree cooler where sides of beef were disassembled, packed and shipped, 50 or more tons per day. Me, the sheltered white suburban kid, and a couple of hundred black men, most of whom used several large knives in their work. Being a kid and completely unskilled, I was given menial tasks, and did them as well and as
energetically as I could. I needed the money and I certainly wasn't about to irritate anybody.

Things got more comfortable, though, when I met a couple of guys my age. Call them Robert and B.T. As I recall them, Robert was about medium height, slim, soft-spoken and thoughtful.
B.T. was shorter, chunky, gregarious and a joker. Being the "young guys," we hung out at breaks and lunch, talking about young-guy stuff. One day we were sharing photos of our girlfriends, and Robert said to me, seriously*** "Look here, why do white people think we're after their women? I don't want no white woman; (my girl's) as black as this boot and I think she's beautiful." So suddenly I have to answer for all white people's prejudices, right? I could've just shrugged but thought my buddies deserved better, so put on my best almost-20 psych. major persona and offered this: "Well, I don't really know, but I bet they're worried. See, lots of people believe that you guys have bigger, um, 'equipment' (imagine hands held a foot apart here) and I bet they're afraid the women will like you better." I hurried to add, in what I hoped was a scholarly way, "Of course, we know that's not true..."

"What'd you mean, it's not true!?!" B.T. said, eyes wide. "Of course it's true!!" Robert added "Don't you be tellin' people that's not true!" Then all three of us broke up, and laughed pretty much till the break was over. The older guys looked over, smiled and shook their heads. Kids.

Second story. It's 1970 or '71 and I'm in grad school at the University of Illinois.That's important because it was a selective, demanding program and we students were not only a cohesive bunch but pretty arrogant about our status. The time matters because it was about then that the university administration decided to assuage its corporate guilt by instituting affirmative action in graduate admissions. They wanted more black students. The problem was that we had few black applicants and the ones who met the admissions criteria somehow made the mistake of going to Harvard, Stanford, or some other lesser school instead. So the standards were lowered and a group of black students admitted to sink or swim.

As best I can recall, none of us students were particularly bothered by this. It wasn't that we hungered for "social justice," whatever that might be. It was what it was, and since these new folks were now part of our little universe the idea was to help them through. I don't remember discussing anything, it just sort of happened. We were elite and they would be, too.

Academics aside, we all partied and socialized together like every bunch of students in a college town. One afternoon several of us were in a lounge area, having snacks, coffee and maybe a smoke (you could do that then.) It was casual talk, joking, with the occasional zinger thrown in because that was part of our culture, a little harmless one-upmanship. Somebody mentioned marriage plans and finances, and I volunteered that my wife & I had skipped an engagement ring to save for more practical stuff. One of the black students--call her Janet, smart, independent, pretty and a friend of mine-- teased that I must be a cheapskate and that anybody who wanted to marry her was going to come up with a good-sized diamond. After the snickers died down I looked over at her and said "Gosh, I'm surprised. I always thought of you as more of a....sapphire." **** There was a lot of laughter, except from Janet, who looked at me sideways and said--and this is a quote--"Watch it, nigger."  There was a second of silence, then more laughter, even from Janet, who I swear was blushing, too. When it died down to chuckles I looked her in the eye and said "You know, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me." It was, too.

Let me know when your diversity training can do better.

* Jiminy Cricket was Pinocchio's surrogate conscience, remember? These people want to be ours, whether we need one or not.
** The University of Delaware provides a particularly egregious example. You can read about it here:
If you want to see for yourself, ask. I downloaded the program before it was removed from their website and will send it on request.
*** This isn't a direct quote. I'm reconstructing conversations to the best of my recollection.
**** If you don't get it you can find two views of Sapphire here:
and here:
I'm of the first opinion but am nothing if not fair and balanced.

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