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May 21, 2021

2019 Winter Chair's Column

The “Diversity” Deception: Accomplishing True Inclusion when Diversity is Often a Mirage-in-the-Desert Facing African Americans

By Section Chair Wilson Adam Schooley

Kress Department store in Montgomery, Alabama etched indelibly, and eternally, into solid marble that “colored” could never drink from “white” water fountains. Years later, how far are we from overcoming the permanence of that etched-in-marble prejudice? We’ll come back to that question. 

We hear a lot these days about achieving “diversity.” In our workplaces, our schools, our organizations, our society. But we don’t, as a society, think enough about what achieving diversity really means.

What is the goal of diversity?

Answering that question starts with asking this one:  What is the circumstance that led us to seek diversity—the precipitating reason we seek it?

Is it that, living in an ideal world, we want to fill in colors of the rainbow so we have the full spectrum represented to make us all feel good, and for our office photographs?

Or is it that we live in a country that has systematically excluded and discriminated against people of color just because of their color, and we are long, long overdue not just to balance the scales, but to ensure recompense for centuries of opportunities lost?

The answer, of course, is we are not merely endeavoring to have a happy variety of folks that will make all our lives more interesting and vibrant. We are trying to rectify and repair centuries of intentionally invidious exclusionary racism against particular peoples.

So, why do we—or why should we—seek “diversity”? To make white people feel good about having a variety of faces included? Or to not only “include” a variety of people, but actually include those people, and insure they feel truly included? The most simply stated answer is that the true goal of “diversity” is justice, and equity. And we are nowhere near that goal.

So, we need to employ what I would call dynamic diversity, or “inclusion.” In other words, much more aggressive and inclusive efforts to insure all African Americans in particular are and feel fully a part of our society. Inclusion may be the more apt term. But the primary point is that we need to focus, hard, not on the word or expression but on the reason.

We need to acknowledge that treating unequally positioned people equally does not create equality. Bringing African Americans into a group in a number proportional to their percentage in the populations dues not cure centuries of excluding them entirely.

“Diversity” has come to be an almost empty word wielded by corporations and entities to burnish their image. A euphemism. Companies and schools plan to “diversify” instead of consciously striving to overcome centuries of racist exclusion. Inclusion is about people long excluded finally feeling and being recognized, valued, and welcomed. Inclusion does not necessarily flow from “diversity.”  Millions of dollars can be, and are, spent—for example in Silicon Valley—to achieve “diversity” in the workplace, without ever altering the work environment. As Verna Myers says: “Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”  

It is easy to get lost in, or fooled by, the terminology in this area (e.g., affirmative action versus reverse discrimination). So, we should not use words like diversity without being honest about what must really be achieved to reach justice. We have to look at the underlying problem, and what we need to do to solve it.

The purpose of diversity, or of pursuing diversity, is to rectify historic imbalances and to rectify historic wrongs. No group has been more wronged in and by this country then African Americans. And that wrong has not only gone on without being righted, it actively persists.

Even after decades of affirmative action, Black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to a New York Times analysis.

A study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau, finds that in 99 percent of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

Black wealth in the U.S. is five percent of white wealth.

The parade of stark statistics marches on, and all of those statistics belie the now widely-held belief that class, not race, is the most fundamental predictor of economic outcomes in the U.S.

Affirming the emotional truth of the statistics are personal stories. Just last October, 2018, a black doctor’s application to join an all-white club in Charleston, South Carolina was flatly refused. And this is a man whose father founded a military contractor that once employed more than 300 people, served on civic boards and commissions and was eulogized by Charleston’s mayor. At the doctor’s prep school, he was one of less than 10 black students on a campus of 750, played football, and sang in the glee club. He went to the Naval Academy, earned a medical degree, served two tours in Afghanistan, and retired from military service in 2015 to return to Charleston, becoming a respected emergency room doctor. Still, of the 14 club applicants, he was the only one rejected. With searing symbolism, the vote was via 14 small boxes, each marked with an applicant’s name: A white marble dropped in was a yes vote, a black one meant no. Six or more black marbles spelled rejection. Dr. Brown was the only African-American nominee, and the only one rejected: Eleven black marbles were dropped in his box. Yet he says a white girl in the eighth grade hurt him more than the club’s racist refusal did. There was something between them and he asked her to be his girlfriend. She answered: “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

There is a lot of wrong still to remedy. If we are not going to pay reparations to black Americans—which I confess I think our country should—the very least we can do is aggressively promote African American inclusion in the society from which Black people have so long been excluded and by which they have so long been oppressed.

Standing in the way of our achieving true African American inclusion is not just the blatant and overt racism we have seen resurfacing in the current political climate. Perhaps even more invidious, and dangerous, is ignorance, or lack of understanding.

Conveniently for most white Americans, being white means not having—or having to worry about—a racial identity. It means living and experiencing the world as an individual. Essentially, white people in this country don’t have to think about race except in the abstract. We white folks have no real idea of what it is like to be Black in America. We don’t have to make the daily, infinitesimal adjustments African Americans do in order to live while black in a white country—to achieve in education and employment, all while making white people feel comfortable around them. We wholly lack the instinctive, reactive muscle memory of America’s perpetrated evil and promise betrayed. The privileges of whiteness produce a societal resistance to comprehending the soul-toll taken by racism. 

As a result, many apparently well-intentioned white Americans who outwardly support “diversity” balk at dynamic diversity—at any efforts that, for example, produce African American inclusion at rates greater than their percentage of the population or that prefer black candidates over white candidates.

Theirs is essentially the “reverse discrimination” argument. In other words, it is the notion that we should now treat all people equally—even though all people are not equally positioned. Any efforts to balance these egregiously unbalanced racial scales are seen as “reverse discrimination.” There was a recent viral social media post that said something like: “I didn’t own any slaves, you didn’t pick any cotton. Case closed.”

That viewpoint is wrong on the face of the undisputed facts—the statistics of African American employment, education, incarceration, and victimization in the U.S. You can’t promote and celebrate “letting everyone run” in a supposedly fair 100-yard dash if some of those newly allowed to enter the race are wearing ankle weights or have to start 30 yards behind everyone else. But most folks just don’t know the facts. And even more importantly, they don’t feel the daily pains, slights, and disadvantages of being Black in this country. How could they? We have not taught it to them in school nor disclosed it in society. The enormity of the disadvantage is not discussed or understood outside those who shoulder it.

Plain and simple, the problem is not one afflicting white folks. That doesn’t mean white folks don’t have problems. It just means America did not enslave them for 250 years and then systematically terrorize and oppress them for 150 more.

This is a topic about which I’m passionate. I am likely not the best person to talk about it both because I feel so strongly, and because I’m white—so even with my strong feelings, I cannot fully comprehend or articulate how difficult it still is to be Black. This, though, is a deficit of understanding the white folks who balk at dynamic diversity efforts clearly share, however good-hearted and well-intentioned they otherwise may be.

In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (1967), Martin Luther King wrote: “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro….They believe that America is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

Dr. King’s words then still ring true today, and remind me of interviews the New York Times did in Milwaukee after the election. One fellow in a barbershop, for example, Mr. Tarvus Hawthorne, 45, a program coordinator at a local nonprofit, said of President Trump: “He was real, unlike a lot of liberal Democrats who are just as racist” but keep it hidden. “You can reason with them all day long, but they think they know it all. They want to have control. That they know what’s best for ‘those people.’”

In the wake of both President Obama, whose election made people believe we were in a post-racial, or post-assimilation, society, and President Trump, who has shown us how stark is that lie, Dr. King’s words are truer than ever.

Half of all Americans, 57 percent of the white population, and 66 percent of the white working-class, believe discrimination against white people is just as bad a problem as racism against black people. White belief in “reverse racism” has built since the civil-rights movement to become arguably the predominant racial bias in America. Trump voters think anti-white discrimination is a much more prevalent problem than is discrimination against any minority group.

But the myth of reverse racism is just that, a myth, utterly unsupported by the facts. White students remain three fourths of all private scholarship recipients in four-year bachelor programs; almost two-thirds of all institutional scholarship recipients; and over three-quarters of all merit-based grants and scholarships, although they are only about 60 percent of the college student population. White students are more likely than Black, Latino, and Asian students to receive scholarships.

Data shows affirmative action is the primary reason enrollment stays even approximately representative of America’s racial demographics. Colleges in states that bar affirmative-action are less representative of state demographics than colleges that allow consideration of race. Colorblind policies that take into account socioeconomic status, rather than race, result in less racial diversity. Without Affirmative Action it is likely the percentage of Black students on campus would fall below two percent.

Why? This brings us back to the question posed at the start of this column: Years after the segregated water fountains you saw in the Alabama photograph above, how far are we from overcoming the permanence of that etched-in-marble racism against African Americans? How far away we are as a country from coming to terms with, much less resolving, the deep and fearsomely enduring legacy of our having stolen, enslaved, and oppressed a race of people 400 years ago.

Today, African Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of whites and have half the median family income, and only five percent white wealth. Deep and entrenched disparities remain between whites and blacks on income, college-graduation levels, employment, and incarceration.

As historian Roger Wilkins has pointed out in 1995, Black Americans have a 400-year history on this continent: 245 involving slavery, 100-plus involving legalized discrimination, and a fraction of that involving anything else. 

Or, as the poet Morgan Parker poignantly put it: “American slavery, the event, begot American white supremacy, the psychology. That psychology provides white Americans with privilege, power and the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, black Americans don’t and will never know their real names; commercials for feel like a personal attack; we are expected to prove to our government that we ‘matter’; and we fear that, in the event of our death, our life will be scrutinized and we will be presumed guilty. Sometimes I think my depression is the most normal thing about me. We should all get therapy. We could call it reparations.”

Our Section’s 2018 Fall Meeting along the Civil Rights Trial, in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, reinforced bitter awareness of just how far we have not come, and how far we have yet to go.

In this context, treating everyone “equally,” when everyone has not been treated equally for 400 years and are not yet close to equality of status, does not result in equality.

We have a long road still to travel to arrive at racial equality in this country. Racism is baked into America’s DNA. It was written into the Constitution. And it goes much deeper than that. It is a yeast-like institutional and cultural ingredient that keeps rising, but which people too often do not see. The Confederate States of America were overtly founded on racial supremacy. The Confederacy lost the war 1865, but its stain remains; it won the peace following white America’s overthrow of Reconstruction, and the long shadow of supremacist sentiment in our society endures.

In such a world, we cannot settle for lip-service to “diversity” a watered-down word adopted and drained of meaning by entities wielding it as a way to paper over deeper inequities with superficial showings of “rainbows.”

We should, instead, embrace an intensive commitment to vigorous and true inclusion. So, for example, we should strive for dynamic chronological diversity—diversity over the years, as well as in a year. If you’ve had 400 years of all or almost all white groups, it hardly seems unfair that there be at least some years of all or almost all Black or all Latino or all Native American groups.

The New York Times just published a piece explaining that though New York City has tried to desegregate its schools since Brown v. Board of Education, the school system is still among the most segregated in the nation. As a result, some Black parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant are pursuing an alternative to integration and “diversity”: Afrocentric schools, which “have been championed by Black educators who had traumatic experiences with integration as far back as the 1960s and by young Black families who say they recently experienced coded racism and marginalization in integrated schools.”

According to a member of the newly formed group of Brooklyn parents, Parenting While Black: ““Even if integrated education worked perfectly—and our society spent the past 60-plus years trying—it’s still not giving black children the kind of education necessary to create the solutions our communities need.” Rafiq Kalam al-Din II, founder of Ember, one of the Afrocentric Charter Schools observes: “Who’s mad at diversity? Nobody’s mad at more different people getting along—that’s a beautiful thing. But if we use it as a strategy for solving the educational crisis in this community, it’s totally misapplied.”

Do we as a bar association, and as a Section, want to pay lip service to flawed and superficial terminology, like “diversity,” or do we want to take the lead in aggressively tackling the historic inequities—as a Civil Rights Section should?

In the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, we are, and should be, about pushing the envelope on justice and civil rights issues. We should be aggressive not tentative. Precisely because I’m an old white guy, I should and can be aggressive on race issues, and about our need to continually combat the enduring, disgraceful, institutional and cultural racism against African Americans (in a way and to a degree that, for example, President Obama was not able to be).

True diversity, I feel strongly, means that since we have had decades—centuries—of all or mostly white groups, it’s only fair we have years of mostly or all black groups. I wouldn’t call that a “lack of diversity.” I’d call that a drop in the bucket, long overdue.