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Before Diversity, From Affirmative Action To Diversity, The Diverse Society, Governing A Diverse Society

Diversity, as a word or concept, can apply to rocks, plants, animals, people, systems of law, and much else. In the United States, since the 1970s, its immediate reference, if the word is presented with nothing more to specify it, is to the diversity of races, ethnic groups, and language groups that make the United States possibly the most diverse country in the world. But its import extends far beyond its use as a neutral descriptor of this variety: It rather refers to an ideology in which this diversity is prized, considered a benefit to the society, and is to be responded to positively in public policy and by major nongovernmental interests.

Of course the differences among people can be described in many ways aside from race or ethnicity: One can refer to their opinions, their character, their height and weight, the degree of their health, and so on. But "diversity," as it is has come to be used in public and scholarly discourse since the 1970s, refers specifically to those differences, primarily in race and ethnicity, that have been the basis of exclusion or segregation or differential treatment in public action and private social interaction. Its use and import is intimately linked to the great divide of race that has shaped so much of American history, society, and culture. This specific current meaning of diversity grows out of the great effort in the 1950s and 1960s to overcome the inferior position, in law and social treatment, of American blacks. The civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, marked by major constitutional legal decisions, major legislation, insurgent social movements, violence, and changing ideologies and political demands, shaped the emergence of diversity as a central concept used to justify policies to favor excluded groups, primarily American blacks.

Very rapidly groups whose disabilities could be, with more or less justice, considered equivalent to those that blacks had suffered were included among those who contributed to the diversity of American society, a diversity that was now to be seen not as a problem but a benefit and a virtue, a pillar of American society. Most directly parallel to blacks in making up the roster of groups that were part of this diversity were the nonwhite races—American Indians ("Native Americans," in one increasingly popular formulation) and Asians (Chinese, Japanese, and many other groups, all of which are considered separate "races" in the U.S. census). A fourth group, "Hispanic Americans," as the census came to call them in 1980 (after trying "Spanish surnamed" in earlier censuses as a means of identifying a group considered "different" but clearly not a "race"), became part of the roster of the diverse, because they too suffered from disabilities—discrimination on the basis of physical differences from whites that approximate differences of race, and difference in language. These four groups emerged in the 1960s as those among the diversity of American groups that deserved some redress because of the discrimination they suffered. Asian Americans then consisted almost entirely of Chinese and Japanese, while Hispanics consisted almost entirely of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. But very rapidly, as a result of major immigration reforms in 1965, the Asians expanded to include Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, and many other Asian groups; and the Hispanics expanded to include Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, and many other peoples from Central and Latin America and the Caribbean who left their native lands because of civil war and economic hardship.

In the wake of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, and the institution of federal requirements for affirmative action by employers and federal contractors, employers and educational institutions were required to provide counts of their employees and students according to these ethnoracial groups and by gender. Women were part of the roster of the recognized diverse that deserved some public acknowledgment from the beginning. The disabled were soon included, under legislation parallel to civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination against them. Those different because of sexual orientation—gays and lesbians—are also considered part of American diversity, but they receive as yet no public recognition parallel to that of the four ethnoracial groups and women. But in the world of higher education in particular, their distinctiveness and contribution to a valued diversity is broadly recognized, in ways parallel to those that recognize and respond to ethnoracial and gender diversity: through recognized student groups, courses of study devoted to the group, and the like.

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