What ensued initially was a period at the agency that can best be described by the word "tokenism." With one black person in a program, they became the voice for all African Americans to the rest of the staff. I remember one young woman explaining to me what it was like in her exit interview. She said she was going to scream the next time a white person expected her to be the one to explain African American's response to the O.J. Simpson verdict.
Then I remember a moment when we crossed that threshold beyond tokenism to real diversity. A conflict arose between two of our African American staff that required some mediation by management. I told them that while it was important for us to handle this conflict well, we should also celebrate the fact that we had reached the point where we had enough diversity that conflicts between African Americans had surfaced - much like they were always popping up between white staff.
That's at least part of the lens through which I view political conflict between African Americans these days. And its also why I totally disagree with what African American columnist Bill Maxwell wrote today.
Lets deconstruct what he says. Here is his opening paragraph.
When Barack Obama was elected president, millions of Americans believed that the United States finally was entering a postracial period when race no longer mattered in any serious way. But the Obama presidency has, ironically, heightened racial tensions, and we are seeing old divisions return.
I know that some people talked about a "postracial" period. But that's definitely not what I heard from most African Americans. Quite the contrary. What I heard most immediately after Obama's election was the very real fear that he would be assassinated. That demonstrates how "postracial" they were feeling.
Then comes this old canard.
Life has not improved for blacks under Obama. The unemployment rate among blacks is 16.7 percent, nearly double the national average. Forty percent of black children are living in poverty, and the housing crisis has hit blacks harder than other groups.
Of course he fails to point out that African American unemployment HAS ALWAYS been double the national average...and that the reason the housing crisis hit blacks harder than other groups is that banks like Wells Fargo were targeting the people one of their employees referred to as "mud people" for high-cost subprime loans. These things didn't start with President Obama - they've been going on for decades.
But then Mr. Maxwell makes the case he's been building up to...the one about the infighting going on in the African American community. He goes through the typical players - Tavis Smiley, Cornell West, Maxine Waters, and Herman Cain. Now there's an interesting cast of characters, huh? But it just shows that President Obama is getting it from both the left and right in the African American community. I fail to see how disagreement in the African American community is supposed to demonstrate that electing Obama heightened racial tensions? The only time it does that is when white people prey on the differences for their own purposes or when one side calls the other "inauthentic."
When it comes to these disagreements, I know where I stand and it certainly isn't a position that equally credits all sides. But if, as I said in my last post, those disagreements could be aired the way they are in the white community - void of characterizations about authenticity - we could all celebrate the fact that African Americans have reached a level of participation in the leadership of this country where disagreements can emerge. If we can let that happen, we might be about to move from tokenism to real diversity.