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Real Diversity Requires Diverse Thinking

Progressives value diversity. But do they understand its importance?

A provocative item posted recently by Ashindi Maxton on the website of the NOI Education Fund, a Washington-based social justice and community organizing group, challenges progressives to refresh our thinking about the value we place on racial and ethnic diversity.

“I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone who didn’t ‘value’ diversity,” writes Ashindi, who goes by a single moniker, suggesting a familiarity to her peers just like Oprah and Bono to the masses. “In fact, among organizers and political types, racial diversity in particular is practically a fetish.”

But, she argues, those same progressive groups fail to walk the walk. “While there are growing numbers of leaders from diverse backgrounds, I can use one hand (with fingers to spare) to count the organizations and issue-based coalitions that are representatively diverse, from their leadership to their base,” she writes.

Wow! How often have I encountered that phenomenon. I called her to see if she knew what she was talking about. Goodness, she does.

“Even on the right, people will say they value diversity and do nothing to promote it,” she said. “But I was talking directly to the progressive community because that’s where I’ve been the past few years. It’s one of our problems. I’m not sure there is anyone harder to talk about race with than white progressives.”

Ashindi should know. Since graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College and earning a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley, she has worked for a variety of progressive groups and issues, including Teach for America, the NAACP, the Democracy Alliance, and now as a senior fellow at the NOI Education Fund.

At nearly every stop of her varied career, Ashindi has encountered a familiar and frustrating irony. The white progressives surrounding her, often the very people who share her values on politics, social justice, environmental concerns, and the like, react strongly when she offers an opinion that diverges from the majority view of these white progressives.

She related the personal experience of being the only African-American person in a meeting designed to create messaging targeted to low-income black audiences, only to find her voice the lonely one in disagreement of what was being planned.

“As irrational as it might sound to write off the input of the person most likely to relate to the core audience, it happens all the time if that person is in the minority inside that room,” she writes. “Further, if that person expresses dissent, they may well end up being labeled as personally difficult to work with, especially if they express any frustration in addition to a difference of opinion.”

Ashindi said people of color working within mainstream progressive organizations frequently have the same out-of-body experience, struggling to be seen and valued for their viewpoints in an environment of activists and decision makers who share a commitment to social change.

“That’s what I was writing about,” she said during a quick phone interview. “The essence of it is that people love diversity as long as you’re just like us. But the value of diverse voices is that we bring a different perspective into the room.”

The article struck a nerve, generating record traffic for the NOI website, and drawing wide circulation among some in progressive circles. “I didn’t expect the reactions the post received because diversity is, well, let’s face it, a ‘turn-off word,’” Ashindi told me.

In my experience few people really understand the basis of the diversity argument at all, despite a number of solid studies. Added Ashindi: “There’s a niche of people who want to have that conversation, but not a lot of people want to get into the details of what it means.”

Ashindi, who is black, said her essay was born of her own painful working experiences and those of scores of her friends, who are people of color, toiling in predominantly white progressive circles. Their collective concerns, articulated in quiet anger and rarely given voice in public, led her to an unsettling theory: Diversity is inefficient and therefore, she writes, “the thing is, we shouldn’t bother with diversity unless we plan to make the time to be inclusive.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Making time to deal with the inclusive nature of diversity distracts from the important work that progressives—and conservatives—are nose-to-the-grindstone doing. Diversity becomes a distraction and hence an afterthought or luxury.

This isn’t a new argument.

Hugh Raffles, an anthropologist at the New School in New York, wrote recently in The New York Times that diversity in the natural world is a messy, chaotic affair that ultimately yields a healthy ecology.

“But just as America is a nation built by waves of immigrants, our natural landscape is a shifting mosaic of plant and animal life,” he wrote. “Like humans, plants and animals travel, often in ways beyond our knowledge and control. They arrive unannounced, encounter unfamiliar conditions and proceed to remake each other and their surroundings.”

Returning to the nation’s political circles, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam—famous for his 2000 book Bowling Alone—recently put forth an interesting social theory, suggesting that America’s civic health declines in the most diverse settings. As Putnam described it, diversity makes people uncomfortable because it produces culture clashes that distract from other tasks.

But isn’t that what representative democracy is all about? Isn’t it in our national character to find common ground amid the hurly-burly of strong and often dissenting views? There’s no turning back from the fact that we are becoming more and more a nation of minority cultures. And what hope exists if progressives, of all Americans, can’t be bothered to find the time and space to civilly manage dissenting voices?

“For those of us who talk a lot about diversity, this can sound like whining,” Ashindi said with a heavy sigh. “But it’s not. Anyone who isn’t willing to take this up doesn’t realize how huge the consequences really are.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.