Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Diversity looks much like segregation

"I suppose you're headed to that big diversity conference," the cabby said when I gave him the address. "Seems like only yesterday I was driving you to integration conferences. Is there really much difference?"

I couldn't tell if he was yanking my chain or seriously looking for enlightenment on one of the serious issues of our time. I gambled it was the latter.

"Night and day," I told him, "or rather, then and now. Back then, we were trying to buy into the white man's culture and institutions. Now, we're about establishing our own. That's the only way we'll ever really get beyond this whole race thing."

The cabby still didn't quite grasp the concept. "Weren't we about establishing our own institutions when we started the black churches and black press clubs and black professional organizations?"

"No," I explained. "Those organizations were a product of segregation. We started them because white people wouldn't let us in theirs."

"I see," the cabby said, "but as you say that was then, this is now. I believe the National Press Club and the American Bar Association have dropped their racial restrictions _ in fact, I hear they're trying to recruit qualified members of all groups. Isn't that what we were fighting for?"

"Come on, man," I said. "Surely you're not saying we should shut down our own organizations just because white people have grudgingly desegregated theirs. There's room in the American society for all sorts of affiliations. Maybe you've heard of the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association. Now that's diversity."

"Let me see if I get this," the cabby said. "If white people start white organizations, that's segregation. If minorities start minority organizations, that's diversity?"

"That is not it," I shouted. "It's about being included in the American society in our own right, not at the pleasure of the dominant group. That's why we've fought for Asian and African and women's studies in the universities, that's why we've established the right of historically black fraternities and sororities to have their place on campus, and that's why we've created social and professional and political organizations to look after our group interests. This meeting I'm going to right now will be about increasing the amount of diversity in this still too-Eurocentric land."

"What more could you do?" the cabby said. "I mean, we've got our own organizations, university courses, and separate tables in the cafeteria ... "

"Consider the little matter of television," I said as calmly as I could manage. "Perhaps you read about the NAACP's righteous challenge of the networks because black people have basically been written out of prime-time entertainment."

"Read it," the cabby said. "I also read that The Parkers, the No. 1 television show among black viewers, doesn't make the top 100 among whites. And the top shows among whites hardly get a look from black viewers. Looks like the diverser we get, the less we find to share."

"Well, just look at Frasier or Friends or Seinfeld," I said. "You think the folks who put out those lily-white shows want black people to watch?"

"Do the folk who bring us Nikki Parker and Moesha and Steve Harvey want white people to watch?" the cabby said.

"You miss the point," I told him. "They don't want to integrate their shows, so we create our own shows. That's diversity."

"I think I'm starting to get it now," the cabby said. "Diversity means having our own entertainment and organizations and dormitories so we don't have to wait for white people to be fair."

"Good," I said.

"So why don't we go all the way and shoot for our own universities and public schools, our own neighborhoods, our own African-American end of the bus?"

"Now you're cooking!" I exulted, but then I caught myself. "What we're promoting is diversity. What you're talking about is nothing but old-fashioned segregation. I find it amazing that you can't see the difference."

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group