Christine M. Flowers: AN ODD KIND OF 'DIVERSITY'

Posted: July 11, 2008

DIVERSITY is like Weight Watchers: You pick one dish from each category for a well-balanced diet. But while that might be fine for the waistline and nutrition, force-feeding can be dangerous to our civic health.

I'm not talking about the magnificent melting-pot stew created by immigrants who, through the generations, layered their own rich experiences over the bedrock of American principles. That's an undisputable source of our strength.

I'm referring to something newer and more insidious, something that values tolerance over unity and gives inordinate importance to color, creed, gender and sexual orientation. I like to call it "diversity by design."

A perfect example is Mayor Nutter's newly reconstituted Human Relations Commission. Hizzoner appointed eight new commissioners to the HRC, leaving only chairman James S. Allen as a holdover. The new commission is a potpourri of diversity, including the agency's first Muslim, first female rabbi, first disabled person, first set of "out" commissioners.

According to Nutter, "We have Muslims, physically challenged people, in Philadelphia . . . blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians. That's our city."

Indeed it is. We're a municipal rainbow. But, I wonder, where is everyone else, the people who aren't "minority" or "special needs" or "culturally distinct" but who still make up a core contingent of the population? They all belong in this family snapshot, but they didn't seem to make the cut.

I have a problem with picking people based on their identities in the first place. It's as if we're saying that just because I'm straight, I can't support gay causes, or just because I'm white, I can't empathize with black concerns, or just because I'm a man, I wouldn't fight for the rights of abused women.

That aside, if you're going to pick people based on the way their name sounds or who they're likely to fall in love with or what their physical capabilities are, you're inevitably going to leave someone out of the mix.

That's the problem with diversity by design. When we set out to pick one from each group, the picker is usually motivated by his own preferences. Instead of creating something truly representative of society as it is, we end up with what the picker thinks society should look like. So Philly's new HRC looks a lot like a "Free to Be You and Me" poster and less a reflection of the reality that fills our neighborhoods.

Yes, there is a vibrant gay community. And a thriving Latino community. Yes, there are accomplished people who struggle with physical handicaps. And Asians and Muslims and all sorts of underdogs who feel exposed to the cruelty of society. They deserve representation on a commission created to mediate community disputes and enforce civil-rights laws.

But so do the thousands of Catholics who have given this city its unique flavor. So do the Quakers without whom we might not even have a city. So do conservatives, clearly missing from the HRC lineup. (Heaven forbid there'd be a Bush supporter in there.) So do those white heterosexual men who felt most at home in the 700 section of the Vet.

Every one of them deserves a voice on the commission, especially if its goal is to "mediate community disputes." Unless you think members of those excluded groups aren't going to be part of any of the disputes.

But I don't think this type of inclusiveness was the mayor's goal, despite his claim that "we shall demonstrate to the city, the region, the country and the world that we are intolerant about intolerance here in Philadelphia."

By many people's lights, gay activists have shown intolerance for the beliefs of the Boy Scouts under the guise of promoting their own agenda, and it is doubtful that the new and improved HRC has anyone on board to look after their interests.

That's just one example of how the city has a very specific idea of what we should tolerate, and what is intolerable.

Remember Joey Vento? Some felt his request that patrons "speak English" was discriminatory. The old HRC found otherwise (through gritted teeth). Who is there on today's commission who would've defended this member of the community?

Unless we all have a voice on that commission, it doesn't live up to its name.

So let's expand the menu, Mayor. This diet is too restrictive. *

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.


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