Americans couch feelings about race in 'happy talk' of diversity-speak

According to a new study by researchers in the University of Minnesota's sociology department, Americans are generally positive -- even optimistic -- about the word 'diversity,' but when asked, even those working in the field of race relations have trouble describing diversity's value and stumble when giving real life examples.

The desire to appear color-blind leads most Americans to prefer the standardized language of diversity-speak when addressing issues of race, rather than the other way around. The researchers conclude that American diversity-speak is a sort of 'happy talk,' an upbeat language in which everyone has a place, everyone is welcome and even celebrated.

The study takes its conclusions from a telephone survey of more than 2,000 households across the country and nearly 150 hour-long interviews with adults from a wide range of backgrounds living in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The study found a majority of Americans - cutting across race, class and gender lines -- value diversity, but their upbeat responses to the term contradict tensions between individual values and fears that cultural disunity could threaten the stability of American society. Also regardless of race, Americans' definition of diversity places white people at the neutral center and all other groups of people as outside contributors.

"The public debates and talk-show lamentations about immigration and political correctness leave many Americans to assume there's a big divide in the country between those who value diversity and those who reject it," said Doug Hartmann, associate sociology professor, who coauthored the study with graduate student Joyce Bell. "The fact is, most Americans value diversity - but they see it as a benefit with the potential cost of cultural disunity and social instability."

The study also found that most Americans use platitudes when describing diversity. "The topic of race lies outside the realm of polite conversation," said Bell. "Everyone in the study -- regardless of race, political affiliation and even level of rhetorical ability -- had real trouble talking about the inequities and injustices that typically accompany diversity in the United States."

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of American Sociological Review and is part of the sociology department's American Mosaic Project, an ongoing project funded by the Minneapolis-based David Edelstein Family Foundation that looks at race, religion and cultural diversity in the contemporary United States.-University of Minnesota