The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States will be viewed by many as accomplishing racial diversity’s last frontier. The politics of diversity carries a heavy stigma, particularly in the post-affirmative action era.
Like the post civil rights era (1980 to the present), the post affirmative action era (1989 to the present) has been framed as an obsolete endeavor in America’s “colorblind” social construct. Colorblindness – the notion that race was no longer relevant and race policies (best faith efforts, set-asides and “quota” policies) were no longer needed as America had become the great melting pot it was designed to be.
By the end of the 20th Century, we had found out that racial disparities were just as great, white women had been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action and colorblindness had become the new Jim Crow, as educational, wealth and income inequality created separate societies. This was despite significant political gains in representation throughout the nation. The only real conclusion that can be derived is that political diversity was the only real gain of the civil rights movement. The more political breakthroughs that occurred (three decades of “firsts”), the more regression occurred in graduate and professional schools, employment management gains and business growth.
Now the last glass ceiling in politics, the Presidency of the United States, is being tapped. It is yet to be seen whether it will be broken, but you already have people suggesting that equal access in our society means equal opportunity, and thus no more need for “special” programs for the historically disadvantaged. Of course we know it’s not true, and study after study validates that the more things should be equal, the more we find they are not. We find that we have to advance diversity as a staple to the promotion of inclusion.
In Los Angeles last week, the whole notion of dispelling the need for diversity training came to a head when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) Commission sought to approve its 2008-2009 budget. The Commission President, Nick Patsaorus, in a publicly televised meeting, berated staff for not bringing forth the expected budget cuts to help the city make-up its huge deficit for the upcoming year.
He specifically called out why diversity training was still in the budget. DWP is one of the city’s proprietary departments, meaning they have their own stand alone budgets, board and operations. Of the three proprietary departments (the other two being the Airport and the Harbor), DWP is the most lucrative and the most discriminatory. It is known as the city’s “slush fund” where mayor after mayor pulled on DWP purse strings when they wanted to get something done. It was also run by mostly white males, who hired mostly white males and who gave to mostly white males when the community needed assistance. It earned the names “the glass house” and “the Ivory Tower” not for its structural architecture but for racial nomenclature. As DWP staff remained silent, Patsaorus, a politically connected Greek businessman known for his impolitic behavior, said that since we are about to have an African American as President and a woman “almost made it,” why do we need diversity training?
The inference, of course, is why do we need entitlement programming in this era of apparent equal entitlement? Typical illogic, questioning inclusion, that we’ve heard before by segments who have rarely been excluded in our racially sensitive social contract.
Most every time that there has been a historical political event, the politics of inclusion takes a hit. The most memorable of which was the election of Douglas Wilder as the first black Governor of a U.S. state in November of 1989. In anticipation of Wilder’s election, a case filed a few years earlier against the City of Richmond’s minority set-aside program that guaranteed minorities, specifically African Americans 30% of city contracts, came before the U.S. Supreme Court that decided that racial set-asides of historically excluded populations were unconstitutional unless the affected class could prove that they, personally, were discriminated against by a white owned firm during business with the city of Richmond.
The plaintiff in the case, of course, stated that he had never discriminated against an African American firm and therefore should not be penalized in having to set aside 30% of his contract. The High Court agreed with him. The case came to be known as Croson v. The City of Richmond, and it essentially wiped out every mandatory set-aside program in the nation.
Every other program is now “best faith effort” which is hard as heck to prove that you discriminated against someone if you go through the motions. This followed by a deluge of anti-Affirmation Action referendums that, state by state, attacked mandatory diversity hiring. Whether Croson happened in correlation to Wilder’s election or was a causal factor in Wilder’s election, the case will be 20 years old next February, a month into a new administration. Is Nick Patsaorus’ attitude symptomatic of a larger social shift in waiting?
We cannot backslide on diversity and the politics of inclusion every time there is a major political breakthrough in our society. There will always be a need to gain more understanding about races and cultures we don’t know and to guard against xenophobia, and more critically, Negro-phobia, that seems to arise every time an individual African American is about to over come a major socio-political barrier. The individual gain seems to inspire a collective opposition toward social and racial progress as if to say a political concession here requires a racial regression someplace else.
And there are people, like Nick Patsaorus, that are perfectly fine with that. However, the community is not and, though not one major press organization reported this item, it spread like fire throughout the city that Patsaorus tried to cut diversity out of the DWP budget. We also know that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa knew about the comments and wasn’t prepared to react to them if they didn’t show up in the mainstream press. “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a noise when it hits the ground?” Of course it does. Just as when someone retracts on diversity and nobody speaks of it, does it represent an attitude of regression? Of course it does.
Now the question is, what is Villaraigosa prepared to do with the commission head of his most visible (and problematic) proprietary department? Will DWP, and agencies throughout the nation, change course on diversity if Barack Obama is elected President of the United States?
It is something we all need to pay attention to, and be prepared to watch.
by Anthony Asadullah Samad
Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is an author, scholar and the co-founder, Managing Director and host of the Urban Issues Forum. He has authored several books including, “50 Years After Brown” and “Souls For Sale”. Dr. Samad’s most recent book is entitled “Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom”. His national column can be read in newspapers and cyber-sites nationwide. His weekly writings can be read at www.blackcommentator.com.
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