For Richard Bucher, diversity isn't just about racial differences and feel-good politics, it is about being able to succeed in a changing world. "Diversity is the difference in all things, in people and nature, and so on," says Bucher, a sociology professor at Baltimore City Community College. "The individual must understand diversity and use it to his or her advantage, because that's the way the world is going."
Bucher's new book, "Diversity Consciousness," is aimed at helping people see that being comfortable with diversity is crucial to success in college and in the workplace.
"Business is saying, 'If you can't recognize the differences among people -- whether it be race, appearance, culture, disability or whatever -- and get along with those who are different from you, we don't want you,'" Bucher, 50, says in a recent interview.
"Multinational companies abound, and they can't survive without dealing with diversity," he says. "Their employees must adjust and understand the different cultures they deal with."
For Bucher, promoting diversity as a key component to business success is more compelling than simply saying that it is "a good thing."
"A lot of people don't think it is a good thing," he says. "A lot of people shy away from diversity in the classroom and the work force because they see it as divisive, as something that is going to open up a whole can of worms and create more problems than it's worth."
Bucher has been interested in diversity since his undergraduate days at Colgate University in the late 1960s. Campus life during the turbulent period was an awakening for the young man from the predominantly white confines of Westchester County, N.Y.
"We had some unrest at Colgate during the 1960s, and that opened my eyes. Some legitimate problems were raised," Bucher says. "Until then, I had been insulated from these problems. Race had been a nonissue to me, and I began to think about the issues of race, prejudice and power."
As a freshman, Bucher read Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul On Ice," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." He says he decided against pledging a fraternity because of its homogeneity clause.
Bucher graduated from Colgate in 1971 and received a master's degree in sociology from New York University in 1974. His growing interest in race relations led him to historically black Howard University, where he earned his doctorate in 1983.
Bucher says a pickup basketball game in the mid-1970s at Baltimore City Community College gave him with a major lesson in understanding differences and the way people behave.
"I was the only white face on the court," he recalls. "They decided to choose up sides, and I was the last one picked. After a few minutes someone yelled, 'Hey, white boy!' I looked around and that was me."
It was a new, unsettling experience for Bucher.
"That was the first time I stood back and said 'hey,' " he says. "I was offended, but I guess I shouldn't have been. That was their way, and they were just talking trash. Nothing personal. I know that now."
About 85 percent of BCCC's 6,000 students are black, and Bucher says the campus environment helps feed his intellectual growth.
"My views continue to evolve," he says. "Diversity is a process. You can't learn its value in a one-hour class."
Several years ago, Bucher became the first director of the school's Institute for Intercultural Understanding. He held the position from 1991 to 1996 and helped bring in speakers such as Harvard professor Cornel West and performers including the Gallaudet University dance company.
In talking about diversity's impact on the country, Bucher notes that history is on his side. Many examples can be found, from black slaves clearing fields to Chinese immigrants laying down railroads. The American Revolution was indebted to foreign aid; thousands of men who died in the Civil War spoke little English; America's Industrial Revolution was built on the sturdy backs of immigrants, who represented cheap and willing labor.
But with diversity comes opposition. Presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan says he would halt immigration and erect a tariff wall around the country. Nationwide, subtle and not-so-subtle slights of people who have visible differences exist.
Lessons from life
Bucher had only to look at his personal life for another lesson in understanding people's differences and the harm that can be done through exclusion. His 23-year-old son, Jimmy, is autistic.
"That has personalized it for me," he says. "It's one thing to lecture about this stuff and go to Howard and major in this, but it's quite another thing to live it 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Jimmy Bucher leads a full life, but it has not been easy. Richard Bucher says he cannot remember his son ever being invited as a child to play with another youngster. During those years, he became his son's only playmate.
"It was a powerful lesson to know what it was like to be on the outside," Bucher says. "There is much that is in that book that wouldn't be there if it wasn't for Jimmy. He has been as big a part of my education as anything else."
Bucher says another chapter in his education came in the mid-1970s when he and his wife, Pat, went to a Black Muslim temple at the invitation of one of his students .
"When we arrived, we were frisked for our own safety; at that time there were concerns about threats of violence. My wife was seated with women, and I was seated with the men. We were the only white faces among 300 people," he says.
"The sermon was powerful and positive. Everybody tried to make us feel welcome. After the service, a number of people came up and invited us back. I had fully expected to be surrounded by angry people scornful of white people, but that wasn't the case."
Included throughout Bucher's book are students' views on diversity compiled during his 25 years in the classroom. The students don't pull any punches, as one example shows:
"A man called my house taking a survey, and he started asking me questions. Before I got a chance to tell him my race, he had written down that I was white. I told him I was black, and he apologized and said that I sounded white. I wondered, what do whites sound like."
Student perspectives can have a hard edge, as this one did:
"There are people who assume certain things about me because I'm white. Even though they don't know me, they act like they're angry at me. They assume I think I'm superior. They assume my parents did not have to struggle to make ends meet. They assume that being white is a ticket to success."
Bucher understands that he has an uphill struggle in getting people to understand the varied forms diversity can take.
"Some students see it as fluff," he says. "Others see it as not really important and [that] it doesn't lie at the heart of success. Then there are those who value it as crucial to their success. I just want everyone to think seriously about it."
And he wants people to think inclusively.
"We tend to see diversity as being limited to people of color: If you're white, you're not a part of this thing we call diversity," he says. "That's another reason why we need to define it inclusively so there aren't a lot of people on the sidelines saying, 'Hey, how do I fit in here? What does this have to do with me?'"