From Affirmative Action to Diversity: Toward a Critical Diversity Perspective

This article provides an overview of changes in the discourse about inclusion as it has evolved from debates about affirmative action to various notions of diversity. The article seeks movement away from ‘colorblind diversity’ and ‘segregated
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  Critical Sociology38(5) 629  –643© The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permission: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.navDOI: 10.1177/0896920511402701crs.sagepub.com From Affirmative Action to Diversity: Toward a Critical Diversity Perspective Cedric Herring University of Illinois at Chicago, USA Loren Henderson Wright College, Chicago, USA Abstract This article provides an overview of changes in the discourse about inclusion as it has evolved from debates about affirmative action to various notions of diversity. The article seeks movement away from ‘colorblind diversity’ and ‘segregated diversity’ toward a ‘critical diversity’ that examines all forms of social inequality, oppression, and stratification that revolve around issues of difference. It lays out concrete strategies for doing so: (1) target goods and resources to excluded people; (2) advocate an expansive notion of diversity, but seek out distributive justice that will serve to assist ‘disprivileged’ groups; (3) shift resources away from privileged groups, especially when invoking the rhetoric of diversity; (4) reconnect diversity to affirmative action and the need to offset historical and ongoing racial and gender discrimination, segregation, and bias; (5) remind people that diversity is consistent with legal compliance; and (6) demonstrate to organizational members that diversity is institutionally beneficial. Keywords affirmative action, critical diversity, discrimination, race and ethnicity, stratification Introduction Over the past 40 years, the rhetoric about inclusion has changed substantially in the USA (Berrey, 2007). In the 1960s, African Americans and others, through the Civil Rights and Black Power move-ments, fought to end racial discrimination (Morris, 1984). By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, there was growing recognition within the private sector that, while legal mandates were necessary, they were not sufficient to ensure the effective management of diversity within organizations. Corresponding author: Cedric Herring, Department of Sociology (MC 312), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 West Harrison Street, Chicago, IL 60607, USAEmail: Herring@uic.edu 402701 CRS   XX   X   10.1177/0896920511402701Herring and HendersonCritical Sociology  Article  at Univ of Illinois at Chicago Library on October 2, 2012crs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   630 Critical Sociology 38(5)   But a reactionary movement developed to protest what opponents of affirmative action perceived as preferential treatment, quotas, and reverse discrimination (Stryker et al., 1999). For more than two decades, affirmative action has been under sustained assault. In courts, legislatures, and the media, opponents have condemned it as an unprincipled program of racial and gender preferences that threatens fundamental American values of fairness, equality, and democratic opportunity.The rhetoric of diversity was a neoliberal response to the reactionary backlash against affirma-tive action (Berrey, 2007). Neoliberal elites used diversity rhetoric to convey racial inclusion in language that was more politically palatable to whites and to expand the politicsand conversation about inclusion beyond concerns about race and inequality. In doing so, they transformed the terms of institutional inclusion to accommodate demands in the post-civil rights era. The new rhetoric of diversity helped bring about the addition of some racial minorities (e.g. Latinos and Asians), women, and other disadvantaged groups (e.g. those from underrepresented geographical loca-tions). At the same time, elites have begun to rely on this rhetoric to accommodate and even sup- port the inclusion of people from groups not traditionally thought of as being disadvantaged (Edelman et al., 2001).This article will argue that critical diversity is about embracing cultural differences that exist  between groups and appreciating those differences, but critical diversity must also include examin-ing issues of parity, equity, and inequality. It is imperative that it examines all forms  of social inequality, oppression, and stratification that revolve around issues of diversity. A theory of critical diversity includes celebrating cultural differences, but also it requires an analysis of exclusion and discrimination, and it challenges hegemonic notions of colorblindness and meritocracy.  What is Diversity? A Brief History with Changing Meanings For some people, the term ‘diversity’ provokes intense emotional reactions because it brings to mind such politically charged ideas as ‘affirmative action’ or ‘quotas’. The idea of diversity is ambiguous, and this ambiguity is expressed in the variety of the concept’s definitions that exist in the literature (Ollivier and Pietrantonio, 2006). Some definitions focus narrowly on protected groups covered under the edict of affirmative action (e.g. Kelly and Dobbin, 1998). Here differ-ences such as race, gender, ethnicity, age, national srcin, religion, and disability are the focal  point. Alternatively, other definitions of diversity are broadly construed and extend beyond race and gender and include all types of individual differences. These broader definitions tend to include geographic considerations, personality, sexual preferences, and a myriad of other personal, demo-graphic, and organizational characteristics (Edelman and Petterson, 1999). Generally speaking, the term ‘diversity’ refers to policies and practices that seek to include people who are considered to  be, in some way, different from the traditional member. Less tangibly but more centrally it means to create an inclusive culture that values and uses the talents of all would-be members.The rhetoric about inclusion has shifted over time. Since the 1940s, the federal government has increased anti-discriminatory employment measures and enacted civil rights legislation on behalf of African Americans (Collins, 1997a, 2002; Herring and Collins, 1995). In the 1940s and 1950s, such efforts were through executive orders aimed at prohibiting discrimination in the federal civil service system, eliminating discrimination in the armed forces, and establishing compliance proce-dures in the private sector for government contractors.In the 1960s, social movements for African-American civil rights fought to end legal racism and economic discrimination on the grounds of civil rights, justice, and equality (Morris, 1984). Activistschallenged widespread beliefs that certain groups – such as white people, men, the wealthy, and heterosexuals – should have privileged access to universities, at Univ of Illinois at Chicago Library on October 2, 2012crs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Herring and Henderson 631 workplaces, communities, voting, and other major institutions. Government officials, also facing international criticism of US racial policy, institutionalized some redistributive programs and accommodationist policies of non-discrimination and affirmative action, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s (Skrentny, 2002).Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, made it illegal for organizations to engage in employment practices that discriminated against employees on the basis of race, sex, color, and religion. Through such government action, American society made the declaration that employers must provide equal employment opportunities to people with similar qualifications and accom- plishments, irrespective of their demographic characteristics (Collins, 1997a). In addition, Executive Order 11246 issued in 1965 required government contractors to take affirmative action to overcome past patterns of exclusion and discrimination (Herring and Collins, 1995). These soci-etal mandates eliminated formal policies that discriminated against certain classes of workers, and they raised the costs to employers that failed to implement fair employment practices. The laws remain a part of the legal responsibilities under which firms and other labor market institutions such as unions and employment agencies operate today.Affirmative action was borne out of the racial conflict of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Collins, 1997b; Skrentny, 1996). Affirmative action consists of government-mandated or voluntary pro-grams and activities undertaken specifically to identify, recruit, promote and/or retain qualified members of disadvantaged minority groups in order to overcome the results of past discrimination and to deter discriminatory practices in the present. The assumption is that simply removing exist-ing impediments is not sufficient for changing the relative positions of women and people of color (Burstein, 1985). Affirmative action is based on the premise that to be truly effective in altering the unequal distribution of life chances, it is essential that employers and others take specific steps to remedy the consequences of discrimination.Affirmative action came under siege not only for being politically unpopular, but also for  being ineffective as a policy for reducing levels of inequality for targeted groups (e.g. Berry, 1976; Cole, 1981; Loury, 1991; Ornati and Pisano, 1972; Wilson, 1987). Some challenged affir-mative action because it purportedly helps those members of minority groups who need assis-tance least at the same time that it does little for those who are among the ‘truly disadvantaged’ (e.g. Wilson, 1987). Others criticized such programs for unfairly stigmatizing qualified minority candidates who must endure the perception that they were selected or promoted only because of their institutions’ need for minority representation (e.g. Carter, 1991; Loury, 1991). And still others have derided affirmative action policies as ‘reverse discrimination’ which benefits minor-ity groups at the expense of equally or more qualified white males (e.g. Cole, 1981; Glazer, 1975; Sher, 1975). The attitudes of the general public on affirmative action took on even greater and more direct relevance, as referenda in several states asked voters themselves to make deci-sions about ending affirmative action.By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, there was growing recognition within the private sector that, while the legal mandates were necessary, they were not sufficient to ensure the effective man-agement of diversity within organizations (Herring, 2009). To promote organizational cultures that would support more diverse workforces, many companies and consulting firms began to offer training programs aimed at ‘valuing diversity’.But a reactionary movement developed to protest what opponents of affirmative action per-ceived as preferential treatment, quotas, and group rights (Stryker et al., 1999). Jonathan Leonard, a prominent economist, proclaimed that ‘affirmative action effectively passed away with the inau-guration of the Reagan administration in 1981’. He went on to say that ‘the Supreme Court deci-sions... nailed down the coffin lid’ (Leonard, 1990:47).  at Univ of Illinois at Chicago Library on October 2, 2012crs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   632 Critical Sociology 38(5)   Still, elites started to frame such issues of inclusion as matters of ‘diversity’(Downey, 1999). They called for the inclusion of different types of people – disadvantaged groups such as racial minorities as well as groups not defined by their disadvantage or identity – and they portrayed this inclusion as both morally right and institutionally beneficial.On the one hand, diversity ideology represents white elites’ taming of what began as a radical fight for African-American equality (Berrey, 2007). On the other hand, the ideology of ‘diversity’ was a neoliberal response to reactionary blowback against affirmative action. As Berrey (2007) suggests, neoliberal elites used diversity ideology to frame racial inclusion in language that was more politically palatable to whites and to broaden the politicsand discourse of inclusion beyond concerns about race or inequality. In doing so, they transformed the terms of institutional inclusion to accommodate demands in the post-civil rights era. Diversity rhetoric helped to encourage some institutional integration of racial minorities, women, and other disadvantaged groups. At the same time, elites have begun to rely on this ideology to accommodate and even support privileged peo- ple and to minimize the threats of integration to their own institutional interests.Diversity ideology has become institutionalized through their public rhetoric, especially in their descriptions and justifications, and through various structuring elements of their organizational initiatives, particularly the criteria for program participation.Diversity was srcinally a concept created to justify more inclusion of people who had tradi-tionally been left out. Back in the 1980s, it was used to make the process more inclusive of  people of color, women, and other groups that had been left out of schools, universities, corpora-tions, and other kinds of organizations (Edelman et al., 2001). Somewhere along the way, the idea got co-opted. More and more groups – e.g. the left-handers of America – came to be included under the rubric of diversity. Probably one of the first categories of people to expand the notion of diversity – and rightly so – were members of the LGBT community. But with such expansion, the question then becomes ‘what is the rationale that undergirds’ diversity? And what are the  boundaries and limits of diversity? Where, exactly, does it stop? Or does it stop? Critical Diversity As we mentioned above, critical diversity is about more than embracing cultural differences that exist between groups and appreciating those differences. It also includes examining issues of par-ity, equity, and inequality in all forms. It confronts issues of oppression and stratification that revolve around issues of diversity. A theory of critical diversity includes an analysis of exclusion, discrimination, and it challenges hegemonic notions of colorblindness and meritocracy.Critical diversity is in stark contrast to other notions of diversity such as ‘colorblind diversity’. A colorblind diversity understanding of the social world is based on the premise that it is sufficient to embrace cultural differences among various racial and ethnic groups without acknowledging disparities among these groups in power, status, wealth, and access. Such notions invite us to cel-ebrate cultural events that mask social inequalities (see e.g. Michaels, 2006). For example, univer-sities across the nation celebrate ‘unity month’ and other activities that point out the diversity of their faculties and student bodies. Such multicultural events might include ethnic festivals that invite people from different cultural backgrounds to showcase the food, the music, the clothing, etc. from their particular heritage. However, few if any of these events involve explicit discussion of these groups and how they are discriminated against within society – let alone within the very institutions that are hosting the events. These events usually fail to highlight racial and ethnic dis-crimination that individual members of these groups face. They also fail to acknowledge the extent at Univ of Illinois at Chicago Library on October 2, 2012crs.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Herring and Henderson 633 to which dominant groups benefit from such events by expropriating the very cultural items that are on display.Another critique of colorblind diversity is that just at the point where people of color are begin-ning to assert themselves, their identities, their agency, and their ability to be part of the process, advocates of colorblindness make the argument that racial categories do not really exist. They suggest that race and other categories are merely socially constructed. Racial minorities just need to start feeling differently about who they think they are and what their plight is. And when they start thinking differently about who they are and what their plight is, they will see that they are not being denied privilege and access because of their group membership. By definition they can-not be denied these things on the basis of their group memberships because groups do not really exist as objective facts. And who really knows what determines which people – not as members of groups – but as individuals get denied access.Kimberle Crenshaw (1994) discusses the intersectionality of these sorts of things and how, just at the point where members of groups are able to mobilize in order to make demands based on their group membership, arguments about how their groups are no more than the social construction of reality serve to undermine these very groups at critical times. This suggests that some aspect of colorblind diversity is about silencing individuals who are members of groups that would serve as harsh critics of the status quo.Critical diversity is also different from what we might think of as ‘segregated diversity’ (Butler, 2007). Segregated diversity exists when the entire entity (e.g. organization, community, state, or nation) becomes more diverse and differentiated within the entity but the dominant groups remain isolated from subdominant groups. Unlike a colorblind diversity perspective, segregated diversity does acknowledge the need for inclusion. Indeed, proportional representation of various groups is important to this concept, but there is no requirement for equal representation and parity through-out all ranks of the organization. In other words, we can think about racial diversity existing in a racialized social system. We can also think about gender diversity existing in a sexist social system. It is diversity, but understanding its dynamics requires examining diversity through the lens of race and gender. A concrete example of segregated diversity is the US Army. The Army often prides itself on being among the most diverse and inclusive institutions in American society (Moskos and Butler, 1997). However, the truth of the matter is that, although the Army has an increasing propor-tion of women and soldiers of color, these soldiers remain disproportionately represented in the lower ranks of the Army. In the history of the Army, there is only one woman who has achieved the rank of four-star General. This disparity is the direct result of structural policies that limit women’s access to higher-ranking positions. So, despite movement toward inclusion, the representation of women and people of color still reflects the longstanding hierarchical patterns that are systemic within this organization. Women and people of color are still disproportionately at the bottom. These disparities are not limited to race and gender. Indeed, by enforcing its ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’  policy, the Army unnecessarily discriminates against soldiers based on their sexual orientation. Such organizational segregation and exclusionary practices are the opposite of what we mean by critical diversity. Although segregated diversity does incorporate the need for proportional repre-sentation of those from diverse groups, it does not address inequality.Skeptics of diversity are more cynical about the benefits that diversity provides (e.g. Rothman et al., 2003a, 2003b; Skerry, 2002; Tsui et al., 1992; Whitaker, 1996). Some skeptics argue that diversity leads to ‘process loss’ –inefficiencies in group process that occur when groups’ members are involved in decision making (e.g. Jehn et al., 1999; Pelled, 1996; Pelled et al., 1999). For example, Skerry (2002) points out that research on intergroup relations consistently finds that racial and ethnic diversity are linked with conflict, especially emotional conflict among co-workers. at Univ of Illinois at Chicago Library on October 2, 2012crs.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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