The Enigma of Diversity The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice
by Ellen Berrey
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Cloth: 978-0-226-24606-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-24623-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-24637-6
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.001.0001


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. 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—housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, 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.


Ellen Berrey assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation.


“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. It makes important contributions to cultural analysis, organizational change, social movements, and race and ethnic relations. 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

"In this important book 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

“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 individualist aesthetics of identity distribution to much more robust group-oriented pursuits of justice, accountability, and inclusion.”
— Osagie K. Obasogie, University of California-Hastings

“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, 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

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

“An impressive achievement.”
— Public Books

“Berrey suggests a method of considering diversity that diverges considerably from the paradigm adopted by the authors of public policy, positioning ‘diversity’ as a broader concern than has been previously defined. . . . Berrey teases out themes of neoliberalism as a paradigm and color blindness as a policy and argues that comparing color blindness with the real objectives of diversity clearly shows the ‘symbolic politics of racial progress.’ Recommended.”

— Choice

The Enigma of Diversity is a strong contribution to the literature on diversity, providing a complex and nuanced view of how the language of diversity functions in different areas. . . . Berrey has pushed the diversity conversation forward substantially and identified areas from which future researchers can build toward a fuller understanding of the enigma of diversity.”
— Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

The Enigma of Diversity is a major contribution to the study of race. Berrey’s multicase design compellingly demonstrates how deeply the language of diversity has permeated racial politics and the significant consequences this has had. The book will shape future debates about racial inequality in education, employment, and housing. It will also encourage further scholarship on the diversity discourse, as well as the role of language and discourse in racial politics more broadly. Any scholar working on these issues will want to read this book.”
— American Journal of Sociology

“In The Enigma of Diversity, Berrey looks beyond diversity rhetoric that offers illusions of openness and progress to the actual practices that organizations use to demonstrate their commitments to diversity. . . . She convincingly argues that it is important to interrogate the causes and consequences of this valorization of diversity by focusing on the organizational practices that have largely escaped scrutiny. Berrey invites more nuanced discussions that focus on the relationship between diversity and the actual distribution of access and opportunity to mobility-enhancing resources.”
— Harvard Educational Review

“Berrey’s is a crucial study of the way that expressions of multiculturalism and demonstrations of inclusivity have supplanted attention to organizational practices and cultures that are tied to ongoing inequality. The book examines the American orientation to diversity in a college, a company, and a neighborhood.”
— Multiculturalism

"Smart and subtle."
— Kelefa Sanneh, New Yorker

2016 Winner
— Law & Society Association, Herbert Jacob Book Prize

2016 Winner
— American Sociological Association, Distinguished Book Prize, Sociology of Law section

2016 Honorable Mention
— American Sociological Association, Mary Douglas Book Prize, Sociology of Culture Section

Exemplary Law Book of 2015
— Green Bag Almanac and Reader

"Ellen Berrey presents a comprehensive and insightful analysis of the rhetorical and doctrinal limits of diversity. The aspirational features of diversity, particularly inclusion, are laudable goals for any societal institution, but diversity never really eradicates racial hierarchies or the permanence of structural inequality. . . . . Berrey’s work is a valuable addition to the literature for political scientists, sociologists, and constitutional law scholars."
— Green Bag Almanac & Reader

"Berrey deftly demonstrates how contemporary definitions of diversity have resulted in civil rights-era claims for racial justice being replaced with despairing, tokenistic institutional practices that invest more in diversity as symbol than as a meaningful catalyst for creating greater inclusion. . . . In a macro sense, Berrey has perhaps produced a quintessential exploration of the counterintuitive effects that may result when fluid ideological meanings combine with brittle organizational practice. More narrowly, her insightful observations across time, location, and context have uncovered how malleable, 'feel good' definitions of diversity become the apparatus for frustrating opportunities for real racial progress."
— Law & Society Review


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0000
[Drive for diversity, Cultural sociology of inequality, Racial domination, Race, Racial order, Boundary minimization, Relational analysis, Analogical theorizing, Multi-case research, Ethnography]
The introduction sets up the research questions: How are diversity's enthusiasts constructing the meanings of racial progress, integration, and pluralism for the twenty-first century? Whose interests are served, whose worldviews are represented, and what are the consequences for social inequality? Does diversity exemplify the success of the civil rights movement or the movement's co-optation? The introduction succinctly lays out the key argument and research design (see Book Abstract) and the key issues and outcomes of each of the three cases. It identifies important advancements for people of colour over the past fifty years and growing multiculturalism but persistent dynamics of racial domination--of white privilege and minority disadvantage. It explains the book's engagement with the cultural sociology of inequality. It identifies the need for analyses of how people reimagine the racial order and elaborates the process of boundary minimization, by which social membership is expanded. It has an extensive discussion of the book's signature relational analysis, the innovative multi-case design, and historically grounded ethnography. It details the book's sophisticated application of analogical theorizing. The introduction foreshadows the book's engagement with the sociology of race and relational research on organizational inequality as well. (pages 1 - 24)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0001
[Symbolic politics of racial progress, Drive for diversity, Racial discourse, Sociology of race, Colorblindness, Organizational inequality, Legitimation of hierarchy, Selective inclusion, Archetypes of diversity]
This chapter explains the rise of the drive for diversity in the US and the symbolic politics of racial progress. It provides a vocabulary for understanding diversity as a keyword and discourse. It identifies key historical influences, including civil rights reforms, the Bakke case and subsequent legal doctrine (particularly strict scrutiny), pressures for legal compliance, cultural pluralism, the growing popularity of colorblindness, and neoliberalism. It reviews the sociology of race and critiques this scholarship for focusing on discourse without also attending to organizations and their contexts. Chapter 1 shows its contribution to that scholarship by outlining substantive themes in diversity discourse and their organizational uses in the three cases, including the process of selective inclusion and organizations' acceptable archetypes of diversity. It outlines a relational approach to organizational production of inequality and calls for greater analysis of legitimation, particularly the hegemonic construction of social hierarchies. It explains that the cases in the book provide an opportunity to consider an alternative to prevailing legitimacy processes: the organizational de-legitimization of some hierarchies. This chapter also pushes relational scholarship forward by showing that the culture of diversity becomes consequential through a dynamic in which organizational actors tether particular ideological meanings to particular organizational tasks. (pages 25 - 52)

Part I: Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Michigan

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0002
[Diversity, Organizational identity, University of Michigan, Affirmative action, Affirmative admissions, Race, Higher education, Selective admissions, Bakke, Symbolic boundaries of the student body, Symbolic politics]
This is the first of two chapters on affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. It introduces the university and demonstrates the university's organizational identity as academically excellent and diverse. It provides synopsis of why selective admissions matter in higher education, the class bias of admissions criteria such as the SAT, and the process and effectiveness of affirmative action. It then explains how Michigan became diverse (and garnered a reputation for its diversity), using empirical historical evidence to present four snapshots of key historical moments in the rise of the university's drive for diversity and the policy of affirmative admissions between 1964 and 1990. The chapter engages cultural sociology of inequality, concluding with a discussion of how university proponents of diversity reimagined the symbolic boundaries of the student body by constructing American pluralism in terms of common group interest, one that could be benefit everyone involved and the institution itself. (pages 55 - 78)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0003
[University of Michigan, Drive for diversity, Gratz v. Bollinger et al, Grutter et al v. Bollinger et al, Affirmative action in admissions, Diversity rationale, Colorblind legal doctrine, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means, Necessary (BAMN), Street-level semiotics, Holistic admissions]
This is the second of two chapters on Michigan. It discusses the legal and symbolic politics of Gratz v. Bollinger et al, Grutter et al v. Bollinger et al, and affirmative action in admissions at Michigan in the mid-2000s. It sets out the adversarialism of litigation and the power of law as well as specifics of the cases--the Center for Individual Rights' use of colorblind legal doctrine, the university's diversity rationale, and the Supreme Court's 2003 decisions. It features an ethnography of the university's public relations campaign leading up the decisions, spotlighting how campus leaders projected an identity for the university that mirrored ideological tenets of the diversity rationale. It discusses two campus organizations of pro-affirmative action activists-- including the social movement organization Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)--and two opposed to racial preferences, and these many organizations' street-level semiotics. The analysis covers changes in the university's diversity rhetoric and race-conscious policies after June 2003, such as its adoption of holistic admissions. In sum, through legal arguments and relentless messaging, Michigan's drive for diversity successfully defended affirmative action while concealing the reality of racial inequality. (pages 79 - 124)

Part II: Housing Politics in Rogers Park

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0004
[Chicago, Rogers Park, Neighbourhood identity, Diversity, Racial integration, Segregation, Low-income housing, Race-class politics of housing, Symbolic boundaries of urban community, Symbolic politics]
This is the first of two chapters on gentrification and housing redevelopment in Chicago's Rogers Park. It introduces the neighbourhood and demonstrates the neighbourhood's community identity as the most diverse neighbourhood in Chicago. It provides synopsis of the reasons why capitalist housing markets matter, the political economy of urban redevelopment, racial residential segregation, class segregation, and the race-class politics of housing. It then explains how Rogers Park became diverse (and developed a reputation as diverse), using empirical historical evidence to present five snapshots of key historical moments in the rise of the neighbourhood's drive for diversity, its civic politics, community disinvestment and new investment, and contests over low-income housing policy between 1963 and 1988. It weaves in the theme of white middle class politics of homeownership. The chapter engages cultural sociology of inequality, concluding with a discussion of how political officials, developers, and activists reimagined the symbolic boundaries of urban community by constructing racial and ethnic differences as a common group interest and commensurate with a good quality of life. (pages 127 - 152)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0005
[Chicago, Rogers Park, Diversity, Gentrification, Low-income housing, Subsidized housing, Mixed-income housing, Section 8, Concentration of poverty, Symbolic politics, Street-level semiotics]
This is the second of two chapters on gentrification and housing redevelopment in Chicago's Rogers Park. It explains uneven gentrification and disputes over low-income housing and the Section 8 program. It explains the power dynamics of the neighbourhood's civic politics. The ethnographic analysis shows how the neighbourhood alderman and his allies, the real estate industry, and grassroots activists all mobilized the symbolic politics of diversity as they tried to establish the terms of debate over gentrification. Political officials preferred the language of balanced development and mixed-income housing policy (a colorblind way to promote diversity). Using street-level semiotics, activists couched their objectives as social justice and tenants rights. The chapter spotlights a political fight over subsidized housing in a majority minority, poor pocket of the neighbourhood that pro-growth groups labelled as a concentration of poverty and an aberration from the neighbourhood's diversity. In this case, the outcome is of the drive for diversity is indeterminate and contradictory. Diversity is appropriated by political officials and developers to drive out long-term, low-income residents from prime real estate. At the same time, it has social justice-grassroots connotations that never totally disappear, especially as connected to affordable housing and the arts. (pages 153 - 192)

Part III: Human Resource Management in Starr Corporation

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0006
[Multinational company, Organizational identity, Corporate diversity management, Race, Discrimination, Workplace affirmative action, Neo-institutionalism, Human resource management , Symbolic boundaries of the workforce , Symbolic politics]
This is the first of two chapters on human resource management in a multinational company, Starr Corporation (a pseudonym). It introduces the company and demonstrates the company's organizational identity as strong and productive for its diversity. It briefly discusses the analytical engagement with new-institutionalism. It provides synopsis of the reasons why labor markets and employment decisions matter, the politics of corporate diversity management, and policy interventions of workplace affirmative action and equal employment opportunity. It then explains how Starr Corporation became diverse (and developed a reputation as diverse), using empirical historical evidence to present three snapshots of key historical moments in the rise of the company's drive for diversity, its legal politics, and shareholder capitalism between 1973 and 1992. The chapter engages cultural sociology of inequality, concluding with a discussion of how company executives and human resource managers reimagined the symbolic boundaries of the corporate workforce by constructing racial minority, female, and GLBT representation in the business class as compatible with market success. (pages 195 - 218)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0007
[Multinational company, Corporate diversity management, GLBT employees, Managerial authority, Workplace affirmative action, Human resource management, Symbolic politics, Corporate model of individual empowerment, Glass ceilings, Neoliberalism]
This is the second of two chapters on corporate diversity management at Starr Corporation. It explains the limits of diversity managers' authority and the pressures of neoliberalism. The corporate ethnography shows the politicized challenges of implementing diversity management. It reveals how diversity personnel drew on the symbolic politics of diversity to support people of colour and women--but only those at the top of the class hierarchy. Diversity personnel relied on diversity statistics to define those businesspeople as the diverse employees that matter, and they advocated a corporate model of individual empowerment for promotable employees. Other topics covered include efforts by GLBT employees to be recognized as diverse and animosity toward affirmative action. The chapter concludes that the movement for diversity at Starr seems to have helped some people of colour and women push through glass ceilings and cope with the stress of working in a white and male dominated environment. Ultimately, though, it is complicit in neoliberal market forces that degrade low-level workers and demean the moral significance of substantive equality. (pages 219 - 256)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226246376.003.0008
[Drive for diversity, Walter Benn Michaels, Colorblindness, Racial justice, White privilege, Destigmatization of minorities, Destigmatization of whiteness]
The chapter engages Walter Benn Michaels' book, The Trouble with Diversity, and considers how the organizational drive for diversity is complicit with neoliberalism. It compares and contrasts colorblindness and diversity as legal doctrines, policy paradigms, social psychological beliefs, organizational and community norms, and ideologies. It discusses how diversity advocates engage in the simultaneous legitimation and de-legitimation of inequality. Diversity advocates encourage the destigmatization of minorities as well as the destigmatization of whiteness, which can facilitate white buy-in but fails to question white privilege. The end of the chapter discusses how the drive for diversity has contained the cause of racial justice. (pages 257 - 278)


Methodological Appendix