By John D. Skrentny

Harvard Univ. 473 pp. $35


The Invention of a Concept

By Peter Wood

Encounter. 351 pp. $24.95

These thoughtful books could not be more timely. The Rehnquist Court is about to rule on the University of Michigan Law School's admissions policy. Given the Court's makeup and record, it seems probable that the Justices will overturn Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which permitted the use of race as a criterion in admissions decisions, and extend the principles stated by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. Texas (2000), which held that, absent a specific finding of discrimination, the goal of racial diversity could not justify affirmative action. If they do, sociologist John D. Skrentny of the University of California, San Diego, will probably sigh but regard the decision as just a setback on the way to a permanent change in American public life. Meanwhile, anthropologist Peter Wood of Boston University will cheer the authoritative destruction of a notion that he believes deserves no place in public policy.

The "minority rights revolution" of Skrentny's title was accomplished during the years of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It began with the great struggle that destroyed legally supported white supremacy over African Americans. By the end of the Nixon presidency, a legacy of minority oppression had been extended to include Native Americans, Latinos, disabled Americans and women of all races and groups. My use of the passive voice is deliberate. Skrentny argues that except for black Americans, these changes came about for reasons other than action by the oppressed people themselves. After its beginning, this was a revolution driven largely from the top.

Its starting point was the conjuncture of genuine, massive black pressure for change with Cold War foreign policy needs. Whether through the NAACP's long march through the courts that led to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), or through the mass mobilization against Southern Jim Crow, or through Northern urban uprisings, African Americans made themselves heard and seen. Republicans and non-Southern Democrats alike understood the importance of countering Soviet propaganda about American racism. Despite the rebirth and flourishing of American feminism, the leadership of Cesar Chavez, the pressure exerted by the American Indian Movement and their like, the expansion of minority rights came about because inside-the-Beltway politicians and staffers believed it was possible and desirable.

The key to both this revolution's achievements and its limitations was the perceived likeness of a given oppressed group to African Americans. Some groups with genuine complaints, particularly white ethnic males and gay men and lesbians, gained little in terms of public policy because their cases did not seem to fit the black model.

Skrentny develops this interpretation in dense and sometimes academic prose. But for all his tight focus on bureaucratic developments, he offers a strong and well-supported argument about how a general, permanent change took place in the terms on which different kinds of people "belong" to the American polity.

Peter Wood also sees the source of change as having been inside Washington. Both writers lay strong emphasis on Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in Bakke, but Wood sees it as determinative virtually on its own. Prior to Bakke, he argues, the concept of diversity as a policy goal did not exist; after it, "diversiphiles" (meaning an amorphous "left" of closet Marxists, feminists and outright anti-Americans) imposed it upon an unwilling populace.

Skrentny's demonstration of how specific people brought about specific changes is far more persuasive than Wood's vague and undocumented assigning of blame. But Wood is worth reading. His anthropologist's sense of how things fit together overcomes his polemic. He may (or may not) be pleased that salsa has displaced ketchup as the foremost American condiment, but he understands that contemporary American foodways are related to the policy changes he dislikes. Nor is he against all diversity. He understands the appeal of the policies he condemns, even as he argues that they lead only to quotas and ethnic favoritism at the expense of shared identity and values.

Wood opens his book with an image from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in order to suggest that diversity "bids us to think of America not as a single garment, but as divided into separate groups." He uses King to evoke Edmund Burke's basic conservative insight that for a society to work its members must recognize what they have in common. But in 1790 Burke himself suggested that "through . . . diversity . . . general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views." Reversing Wood's rhetorical strategy, Skrentny shows Barry Goldwater telling the incoming Nixon administration that he wanted serious action on candidate Nixon's promises to Mexican Americans and that "the faster you move, the less bother I will be." Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the Michigan law school case, the changes that Skrentny describes seem here to stay. But whether those changes express or contradict the ideals of a republic whose motto is e pluribus unum seems likely to remain a matter for argument. *

Edward Countryman teaches at Southern Methodist University and is the author of "Americans: A Collision of Histories."