Too Diverse For Our Own Good? Affirmative action is out. Diversity is in. That's not always so hot for minorities.
By Cora Daniels

(FORTUNE Magazine) – In this multicultural, minority-majority, more-than-one-census-box world we now live in, it is hard to find a company that is not talking about diversity. More than 75% of FORTUNE 1,000 companies boast some sort of diversity initiative. Some, like BellSouth, Kodak, and Advantica, even have a CDO, as in chief diversity officer, in the executive suite.

But try getting all the companies that now hail diversity as a way of opening doors for minorities to utter last decade's name for, well, opening doors for minorities--affirmative action. They'd rather not. "We support affirmative action," says Juan Johnson, head of diversity strategies at Coke, "but it's true that the term meets with concern in some organizations because of the polarization that surrounds it."

The issue is more than a semantic one. "Diversity" has become the word du jour by evolving into a term that means all things to all people--a move that pushes race to the fringes. Just six years ago the diversity initiative of Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy's and Bloomingdales, covered two groups: women and minorities. Today the number has swelled to 26, and now includes seniors, the disabled, homosexuals, atheists, the devout, marrieds, singles, introverts, extroverts, you name it. So, while "diversity" in its latest incarnation may be good for groups added under the catch-all term, it doesn't necessarily benefit African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans. How can it when--in this example at least--the same human resources chief who originally handled just two programs now administers all 26? Says the Society for Human Resource Management's diversity chair, Lisa Willis Johnson: "Race was the sacrificial lamb to launch diversity and make it palatable to corporate America."

What's next? Even in its watered-down form, "diversity" may prove too potent a term for corporate America to swallow. Some diversity pundits fear that a backlash--like the one that hit "affirmative action" a decade ago--is already brewing. They're now calling themselves "inclusion" experts instead.

--Cora Daniels