The American melting pot seems to be alternating between a steady simmer and boiling over. Our newspapers carry the latest stories about one diversity issue or another: immigration, racial harassment, hate crimes, prejudice and discrimination in the workplace, reflections on Obama's historic election, speculation about the First Lady's influence on the self-image of women of color, as well as the outrage that erupts whenever a celebrity or politician utters an inappropriate comment. As public discussion about race and gender in America continues in press conferences, speeches and town hall meetings, I've been reflecting on the "gospel of diversity" as it is preached in boardrooms, seminars, conferences, pulpits and court rooms around the country.
I'm struck by how particularly American the issue of diversity is. It is part and parcel of our democratic society, with our belief in the inherent value of each individual, regardless of race, religion, skin color, gender, age or national origin. Our history of welcoming immigration provides the back story for today's diversity movement. We are a nation immigrants - people in search of freedom from all types of oppression, including oppression by any kind of majority. Our constitution and laws contain provisions designed to protect individuals' freedom to live as they please, so long as their rights do not impinge upon the rights of others.
But there is a wide gap between our espoused values and our historical track record. For instance, the same Founding Fathers who wrote "all men are created equal," also owned slaves. For much of our history, women could not vote. Property rights, voting rights, privacy rights and many others were accorded only to free white males. Our nation has always espoused freedom and individual rights, but we have never walked our talk - politically, socially, religiously, or in any other arena of life, including business. Our national track record on human rights - whether we're talking about interment of Japanese Americans in WWII, or slavery, or child labor laws, or women's suffrage - is less than stellar.
I sometimes wonder whether the diversity movement isn't just the latest manifestation of our national schizophrenia - the schism between what we believe as idealists and what we do as realists. We see a group of people who feel oppressed rallying together to lobby for alleviation of that oppression. "America, you're not walking your talk," they chant as they march in protest.
The oppression itself is nothing new, of course. Irish Catholic immigrants experienced it; Polish immigrants felt it; Jewish immigrants know it well, too. Today, it is Latin Americans who are feeling the pain of being the economic and political underdog. On the one hand, we pride ourselves on being a country that values individualism, but at the same time exerts enormous pressure on people to assimilate, to give up their differences and become "American." And even when we become American, we discover that, alas, some Americans are created more equal than others.
The push for pluralism in our businesses, organizations and political offices mirrors the longing for equality and opportunity in society at large. We may be diverse in terms of our skin color, gender, national origin, cultural background, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, values, lifestyles etc., but deep down inside we are remarkably similar. We all want honesty and fair treatment. We value family and friends. We want to be valued for our contributions. We want to be successful in life and have a good standard of living. We want to feel we are participating in our own destiny. We are all very different from one another - and at the same time we are all alike. We are Everyman and Everywoman.
This paradox of uniqueness/similarity is a core issue in American history and in the diversity movement. We want to be seen as special and unique and we want to fit in. We want to share in the American experience and we want to hold onto our own unique cultural and personal identities. We want both assimilation and pluralism at the same time. Achieving some healthy measure of balance between individuality and conformity - between assimilation and pluralism - is the central challenge for American businesses, organizations, politics and our society at large.