Professor Ellen Berrey and the Enigma of Diversity

September 6, 2016 by Sherri Klassen

We are pleased to welcome Professor Ellen Berrey to the Department of Sociology. Professor Berrey is teaching undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto, Mississauga and is a member of the graduate faculty of the tri-campus Sociology Department.

We are also very happy to congratulate Professor Berrey on the awards and accolades that her first book, The Enigma of Diversity, has recently been receiving.

In The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Professor Berrey probes the meaning of “diversity” in the United States. This book has been described by leading scholars as “vibrant, vital and incisive,” (Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University), “keen” and “compelling” (Michèle Lamont, Harvard University), and “a remarkable contribution” (Osagie Obasogie, Univesrity of California- Berkeley). It has recently received the 2016 Herbert Jacob Book Prize of the Law & Society Association; the 2016 Distinguished Book Award of the Sociology of Law section of the American Sociological Association (ASA); and the 2016 Mary Douglas Book Prize Honorable Mention of the Sociology of Culture section of the ASA. It also had the distinction of being featured in an Author-Meets-Critics session at the 2016 meetings of the ASA.

As the back of the book explains:

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: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, May 2015). 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—affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, 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.

Professor Berrey’s second book, coauthored with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: How Employment Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality, will be out in 2017 with the University of Chicago Press’s Law & Society series. Her current research looks at universities' and colleges' responses to the fall 2015 anti-racism student protests, holistic admissions and racial ideology in public higher education, and benefit corporations and the politics of sustainability.