Affirmative Action, English Grammar and Usage, Minority Issues, Politics, Racism

Grammer Pole of the Weak: The Meaning of ‘Diversity’

In Grammer Pole of the Weak, we typically tackle issues of English grammar and usage, as well as questions of style (in terms of legal writing, not fashion). Last week, we delved into the fun topic of em-dash spacing, and learned that our readers are essentially deadlocked on whether to use a space before and after an em dash. In the end, using spaces prevailed by a margin as narrow as Mitt Romney’s Iowa caucus victory.

Our latest grammar poll pertains to usage, but it has a political component to it as well. It touches on hot-button issues like affirmative action and racial preferences, about which our readers have passionate opinions.

The question, in a nutshell: What does it mean to be a “diverse” individual?

Here’s a question that we received from a reader who’s in law school:


I just saw this in my inbox: “Perkins Coie’s Chicago office is offering a fellowship for diverse law students this summer.”


I mean, an office or a law school class can be diverse, if it includes people from a diversity of backgrounds. That’s a sound grammatical construction.

But a diverse law student? So like maybe a law student with mixed racial heritage? I guess Barack Obama or Tiger Woods? Cubans or Brazilians?

I mean, I get what they’re trying to get at: persons who would increase the diversity of their office. But can you attach diverse as a modifier to an individual? At least not without changing the meaning to “of mixed heritage”?

Okay, let’s cut the cuteness. When we speak of “diverse” individuals, we’re not talking about people with multiple personality disorder, or multitude-containing Walt Whitmans. Nor are we referring exclusively to biracial or multiracial individuals (although some of them might qualify as “diverse,” depending on the components of their racial mix).

As we all know, the word “diverse” is just a code word for “minority” — and not just any member of a racial or ethnic minority group, but certain coveted individuals who are sometimes called URMs, or “under-represented minorities.” Asians or Jews might be “minorities,” but they don’t count as minorities for purposes of this calculus.

Speaking for myself, I’m not a big fan of affirmative action as a policy matter, but I don’t have a huge problem with using “diverse” as a euphemism for “URM.” First, everybody knows what it means; nobody’s going to be genuinely confused by this locution. Second, it’s pleasant and genteel. Saying “we are seeking diverse law students” sounds much nicer and more tasteful than “we are seeking African-American, Latino, and Native American law students” — or, for that matter, “we are seeking dark-skinned law students whose skin color was not acquired via excessive tanning.”

But that’s just my view. Some people might object to applying “diverse” to a single individual either because (1) it’s not grammatical or logical to call one person “diverse,” or (2) it conceals the ugly reality of affirmative action, which should be exposed rather than hidden. (In other words, if you want to have affirmative action, fine — but then you should own it, instead of being disingenuous or sheepish about it.)

Now that we’ve laid out the diverse viewpoints on this issue, it’s time for you to vote:

Is it acceptable to use 'diverse' as a synonym for 'under-represented minority'?

View Results

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Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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