IN THEORY, AMERICANS like diversity. We try to see the world through Captain Noah multicolored glasses. But when we actually get down to practicing what's preached, the fallacy of social pluralism emerges in all its sordid hypocrisy.

Take Sarah Palin. (And don't say "Please!") For all their admirable rhetoric about the value of being an independent woman with strongly held convictions, the professional feminists were appalled at the rise of this pro-life, pro-gun female pit bull.

Ever since she roared onto the scene in 2008, Palin has been ridiculed and vilified for many things, not the least of which are her decidedly anti-liberal-establishment positions on "women's issues" like abortion (and abortion and abortion). Feminism started to look like communism, fascism, secularism and all the other "isms" that have room for only one specific set of beliefs. The mantra should have been, "I am woman, hear me regurgitate."

But it's not just the progressive ladies who have a hard time with dissenters. A lot of activists actually look disparagingly on rebels. The world of "Hispanic advocacy" was overwhelmingly critical of Miguel Estrada and Alberto Gonzales, accomplished men who happened to diverge from the party line by being Republicans.

Log Cabin Republicans have always been marginalized by the gay-rights movement because they have the guts to wear their conservative credentials on their arms alongside the rainbow.

And then we have Herman Cain. Let me state at the outset that I'm not rooting for Cain to win the GOP nomination. I love his style and like much of his message, but I don't think he has the ability to either beat President Obama in the general election or to govern effectively, given his lack of experience in politics.

But Cain is smart, fluent in both the language of business and politically incorrect common sense. He's the child of a sharecropper and knows something about Jim Crow, which makes the attacks on his authenticity as a black man particularly repugnant. Harry Belafonte, noted calypso singer and civil-rights activist, calls him a "bad apple" because he dares to criticize some members of the black community as lazy.

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, touring the country with their dog and pony show, imply that he's not a legitimate spokesman for blacks because he supposedly thinks racism is a thing of the past. Only that's not what Cain really thinks. His obvious point (obvious, that is, to the people who never put on their parochial blinders) is that you can't continue forever to blame racism for your failures. Some might take exception to that concept. But it's not all that revolutionary coming from a self-made millionaire who managed to put himself through prestigious Morehouse College.

Cain should take some comfort from the experience of another allegedly illegitimate black man, Clarence Thomas. To this day, most liberals, many of them privileged, educated and white, continue to refer to Thomas as the stupid justice, the one who got onto the Supreme Court because of his skin color and his ability to lie convincingly about his taste in videos and sodas. He has been caricatured by some members of the black community as well, who call him a hypocrite for getting into Yale law as a result of affirmative action and then criticizing the system that opened the Ivy doors to him.

But Thomas has always used himself as an example of the dangers of quotas, pointing to his diploma and saying it wasn't as valuable as a white man's. And that's because, as he notes, everyone used to assume that he was admitted over better-qualified non-minorities. The irony in all of this is that Thomas is increasingly looked upon as the most original and brilliant mind on the court, as Jeffrey Toobin recently observed in the New Yorker.

This goes to show that exiling someone from the ethnic or sexual fold because they don't align with their perceived roles as victims is not only wrong, but ultimately self-defeating. Women might not agree with Palin, but they should exult in her success. Hispanics should be proud of a Mexican migrant worker's child who became the most powerful lawyer in the land. And African-Americans should claim both Cain and Thomas as favorite - not prodigal - sons.

And now, a personal note. Over the years that I've been writing this column, I've had the support of a wise, brilliant and witty man, Michael Schefer. This week is his last one editing my words. Which is sadly fitting, since I have no words to express how much he'll be missed.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.