Diversity in a New America: Charting the Changes

Akbar Ahmed, a distinguished professor of Islamic studies and international relations at American University in Washington, tells the story of a young relative of his named Tariq. Tariq’s father was a successful Pakistani banker who, 10 or 15 years ago, resettled his family in New Jersey to give his children a better life. “For them, America was a dream,” Ahmed says. “They worked so hard.” Tariq arrived still a boy and grew up to become a good Muslim and also a good American. He attended university here, married, and, in his early 20s, went to work for an investment company, the sort of place that launches many a prosperous career. The firm’s offices were in the World Trade Center. Tariq was last heard from when he called his father to say he had seen the first tower collapse

Many innocent Muslims, American and foreign, died on September 11. “An Attack on the World,” headlined the Washington Post, noting that more than 50 countries had lost citizens in the twin towers. The list of countries whose people were murdered began with Argentina and ended with Zimbabwe. For Americans, this was more than a fact. It was a point of pride. More even than that, it was a national characteristic that gave the American system a moral edge in the struggle that the terrorist attacks sparked. When President Bush went to American mosques and invited American Muslims to the White House, he was not only genuflecting toward Muslim opinion but implicitly explaining why American values were worth defending. America, he was saying, is free, open, and—not least important—diverse.

“America is probably the most diverse society on earth; it is certainly the most diverse industrialized one,” writes Peter Schuck, in his forthcoming book Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance (from which his article in this issue is adapted). “This is true almost regardless of how one defines diversity.” Of course, history has thrown up other examples of diverse countries, but in one important respect America today appears to be unique or close to it. Americans do not merely tolerate diversity. As Schuck points out, “We venerate it as a proud element of our national mythos.” Schuck contrasts what he calls diversity-in-fact with diversity-as-ideal. Throughout history, most societies have been preoccupied with diversity-in-fact, which they have tended to view as a problem to be solved or managed. America, by contrast, views diversity as something to be embraced for the cultural and economic benefits it brings—even, for many liberals and multiculturalists, as an end in itself, an ideal. This is not only exceptional, it is new, even in America. In the 1920s and 1930s, H. L. Mencken reveled in ethnic and cultural stereotypes and thought nothing of referring to native-born Americans as, say, Irish or Italian, but it would not have occurred to him to make diversity a goal of public or private policy.

In his book On Toleration, the political philosopher Michael Walzer sorts tolerant regimes into several types. Prominent among them are the multinational empire, which, like the British and Ottomans, gives considerable local autonomy to ethnic and religious groups provided they don’t make trouble; nation-states like France, which publicly and officially enshrine a dominant national culture but leave minorities and dissidents alone; and immigrant societies, which formally proclaim no single ethnic or religious preference and demand merely that everyone tolerate everyone else. Walzer regards America as the world’s preeminent example of the immigrant society. And so it was, in Mencken’s day and through at least the 1950s. Now, however, it is something more akin to a multicultural society, or a rainbow society, or a diversity society: one in which diversity is not only tolerated but encouraged and sometimes even enforced. Except on the far right, even people who have their doubts about diversity typically give it lip service. We are all multiculturalists now.

Even so, a new tension now strains multiculturalism. Diversity in America is increasing—increasing, as Kenneth Prewitt argues in the article following, to the point where standard categories of diversity are breaking down. We are becoming so diverse that we are no longer sure what we mean by diversity. Meanwhile, affirmative action, bilingual education, multiculturalism, and other institutions and ideologies of the rainbow society—new though they may seem—are already three decades old. They are beginning to show their age, and a new generation, less burdened by America’s history of discrimination, increasingly questions their relevance and effectiveness.

How is diversity changing the country? In light of the changes, what next for policy? In this issue of the Brookings Review, an assortment of scholars and analysts considers both questions. Although they do not, and could not, arrive at any one conclusion, they have in common the premise that diversity is not what it was even a decade or so ago. Like the country it shapes and then reshapes, diversity is new every day.