Q and A with Richard Bucher

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Interview by Garry Boulard

Richard Bucher is a professor of sociology and cultural diversity at Baltimore City Community College and the author of Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures, and Opportunities.

In his work, Bucher explores not just the fact that diversity in an increasingly demographically varied America exists, but why it is a good thing. He argues that understanding the value of diversity, or developing a diversity consciousness, will help virtually every entity—institutions such as education and government—as well as individuals, to become stronger and more resilient in an age that is destined to be filled with demographic upheaval.

Bucher is particularly impressed with the fact that both the membership and leadership in state legislatures is becoming more diverse, arguing that such changes signal to outsiders that state houses across the country really do belong to the people: “Diversity has to happen inside our democratic institutions,” he says. “The electorate has to see that 'that's me' or that they (the legislators) are one of us.”

State Legislatures: We all know that our society is more diverse than ever, but are our institutions, in particular the state legislatures, really reflecting this?

Bucher: There are more changes in some places than other places. But when it happens at the leadership level, which is a very good thing to see because that is the realm that oftentimes changes the most slowly.

SL: If our legislatures and their leaders become more diverse, what does it mean in terms of everyday life?

Bucher: Well, the changes that are now filtering up the hierarchy portend different issues, leadership styles, a different sense of inclusiveness, and different questions such as what do we mean when we talk about the electorate? And who is we? What do we mean when we talk about Americans? There is a whole question now of what is an American. These are questions that are viewed differently by people of different backgrounds and I think exploring such questions will only make the political process more inclusive and that much stronger.

SL: You make the point in your book that society is obviously more diverse than ever and will continue to move in that direction. But are such changes really being reflected at the elective level?

Bucher: It's moving in that direction. This is a very good thing for all of us because it vividly illustrates that our state legislatures as political institutions are open to change. And one of the biggest challenges in our society is the pace of institutional change. It does tend to lag behind changes in the larger society, so much so that when you all of a sudden see the leadership of the state legislatures becoming more diverse, that's big and welcome news.

But when these changes take place, they inevitably change the institutions themselves. This is true in any setting, whether it is in business or education or a state legislature: leadership becomes relational and contextual and situational. The days of our leaders as independent decision-makers is left behind. The public knows, when there is more diversity, that leadership has become more collaborative, more about a “we” than “me.”

SL: Does a more diverse legislature actually produce legislation that reflects a population that is increasingly diverse?

Bucher: One does not necessarily follow the other. In my book, I define diversity in a broad sense and oftentimes we are talking about a certain kinds of diversity but not others. For example, what about the diversity on some issues between African-American legislators and white legislators? Diversity is also looking at where individual legislators stand, what is their background, what is their track record. There are so many things that fold into the whole issues of diversity—and those things are often overlooked.

I would also add that social class should be a part of the discussion. There are differences there in terms of issues of family and views concerning marriage and gender roles and lesbian and gay issues. Age, too, is a part of this, and is crucial in terms of making sense of why people feel the way they do on certain issues.

SL: It sounds like the more we know about diversity, the more complicated it becomes. Are you hopeful that the legislatures are moving in the right direction?

Bucher: It is going to be interesting to see as both legislatures and demographics change, will our elected representatives become more comfortable with the issue of diversity, or will all of these changes light a fire and have the opposite effect? My guess is that we will see moments of conflict, but also moments of greater collaboration, of people walking in the other person's shoes.