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Jonathan Zimmerman: A focus on diversity is keeping us apart

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (Harvard University Press). E-mail him at jlzimm@aol.com.]

Several years ago, during a class on the history of race in America, I asked a group of students whether white parents should be encouraged to adopt African American children.

Most of the students were white, and most of them said no. "Black and white culture are too different," one student explained. "The kids would feel out of place."

I thought of this remark as I watched Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination for president. In a luminous speech, dazzling with inspiration and intelligence, Obama called upon citizens to "come together as one American family." For too many Americans, however, family ends where race begins.

That's particularly ironic, given Obama's own biracial background. But it's predictable, too. The more that Americans "celebrate diversity," the less they seem to have in common. And that's very bad news for Barack Obama, who needs to persuade millions of white voters that we're all in this together.

It's a tough sell. Invoking their own family metaphor, large numbers of whites still say they can't "relate" to Obama. Although it's tempting to ascribe that sentiment to simple racism, my students' remarks point to a more subtle culprit - the ideal of diversity itself.

By underscoring our differences, it drives us apart.

Consider the concept of racial "learning styles," which Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., proferred earlier this year. According to this theory, black students learn better in groups, not alone; they prefer to move about the classroom rather than sit at their desks; and they are more impulsive - and less cerebral - than other children.

Wright's comments sparked an inferno of popular ridicule and a small political firestorm for Obama, who quickly distanced himself from his longtime minister. But the idea of racial learning styles remains accepted wisdom at institutions such as my own, where students often tell me that Asians, Hispanics and blacks acquire knowledge differently from white people.

Or consider the continued resistance to white adoptions of black children. To the National Association of Black Social Workers, interracial adoption threatens nothing less than the "cultural genocide" of African Americans. "Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as black people," the association says.

We are family? I think not.

Beneath all of this talk, of course, lies the fallacy of race itself. Although America is a richly diverse place, we're told, people belonging to any given race are the same - or should be. That's why you still hear whispers in the African American community about whether Obama is "really" black.

He isn't. And you're not "really" white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or whatever it is you say you are. We're all mongrels. But the concept of race masks the diversity inside each group, even as it exaggerates the differences outside them.

For most of U.S. history, of course, white people presumed that the country was theirs. The ideal of diversity arose to challenge white supremacy, reminding us that Americans come in many colors - and that all of them deserve equal rights and respect.

Along the way, however, it also reinforced the same racial categories that had bedeviled us for so long. And that helps explain why so many white voters - and even a few black ones - see Obama as strange, exotic or alien. Not evil or threatening, necessarily. Just different. Unfamiliar. Or should I say un-familial?

Don't get me wrong. There's still plenty of old-fashioned racism out there. When Obama faced off against Hillary Rodham Clinton here in Pennsylvania, one in six white voters told exit pollsters that race influenced their decision. Nationwide, 5 percent of white voters say they would never vote for a black candidate. The real number is probably higher.

But the problem isn't just racism. It's race, and the doctrine of diversity. If we teach our children to celebrate racial differences, they'll never see themselves as a single national family. And they won't elect leaders like Obama, who reminds us about the common humanity that should unite us all.