Diversity Is Work

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Conor, responding to this Charles Blow piece, asserts:


It's this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they're damned if they do, and they're damned if they don't -- if they don't make efforts to include non-whites they're unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they're the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.

I think what Conor is missing here is a real historical context for the exchange between modern liberalism and black America. Old school liberals will recall exceedingly nasty conversations between blacks and their would-be white allies stretching back to the days of the Scottsboro Boys through the James Baldwin's meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, to the Weathermen and the Panthers, through Hillary's run against Obama. 

The sense among some white liberals that they were "damned if they do, damned if they don't" was part of the work. The sense among some blacks that white liberals didn't actually get it, and were just rebelling against Daddy, (or some such) was part of the work. In a modern context, many of us who supported Obama thought that Bill Clinton's Jesse Jackson riff was appalling and low. And many of us who supported Hillary thought that, while liberals had an eye out for any whiff of racism, sexism was basically yawned at.

And yet through it all, blacks have allied themselves, in the main, with liberals. They haven't done this because they support the entire liberal agenda, or because they think liberalism is an implicit cure-all for racism. They've done it because because reconciling the country to its own diversity is at the core of modern liberalism--it's the foundation to the house, not the paint-job. This is about history. Lyndon Johnson didn't simply look for black people to window-dress existing policy, he expanded existing policy in a way that showed a policy commitment--at great political cost--to healing the country's oldest wound, and, in the process, he purged the party of people who had vested interest in jabbing at the wound.

I understand that Conor is talking about something slightly different--the negative effect of what he sees as bad faith criticism of any right-wing efforts to diversify. But the point I'm making is that diversity--for lack of a better word--is a long-term, ongoing process, one that rarely includes merit badges from your friends or foes. I wrote this before, but diversity and tolerance are about..

...attempting to understand people who are radically different from you, and saying to them you want their voice in the process. Tolerance isn't just a value you hold, so much as it's something you do repeatedly. It's uncomfortable. You fuck up. You go to parties where they play music that you don't know how to dance to. You go to restaurants where the food is difference. You go to neighborhoods, where no one speaks English. The whole time people on the outside are laughing at you. The people you're trying to understand get pissed at you, and call you racist, homophobe, bigot, sexist etc. 

 But they ultimately respect you for trying. And you get better. You pick up bits of a second language. You learn to like the food, to enjoy the music. And then one day you look up, and lo and behold, it seems like the whole world is dancing to that same music, eating that same food.

More to the point, a mature and serious diversity doesn't simply try to find people who already agree with the agenda, instead it opens the agenda--not merely the color of the people reading it--to change. I think Blow's most strongest point was here:


It was a farce. This Tea Party wanted to project a mainstream image of a group that is anything but. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday found that only 1 percent of Tea Party supporters are black and only 1 percent are Hispanic.

It's almost all white. And even when compared to other whites, their views are extreme and marginal. For instance, white Tea Party supporters are twice as likely as white independents and eight times as likely as white Democrats to believe that Barack Obama was born in another country.

Furthermore, they were more than eight times as likely as white independents and six times as likely as white Democrats to think that the Obama administration favors blacks over whites.

A serious campaign of diversity would have to open itself not simply to blacks who are worried about the deficit, and think that health care reform was a bad idea, but those who also think that birtherism is insane, that the notion that Obama favors blacks says more about the beholder than Obama. And then it would have to actually broaden its policy reach--the Drug War and incarceration rates seem like a natural fit. Or even representation for Chocolate City.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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