Sunday, October 23, 2011

Beyond tokenism

Back in the early 90's I was hired to run a non-profit organization who's mission is to prevent youth involvement in the juvenile justice system. One of my priorities was to diversify an almost all white staff so that we could better serve youth of color (primarily African Americans) who are disproportionately impacted by that system.

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.


  1. Since I'm black, it's quite obvious to me that he doesn't come into contact with many other blacks because he makes the same mistake that many on the PL and RW make: He assumes that these few individuals represent a common POV. I would wager to say that the majority of blacks in America pay little/no attention to what West, Smiley, Waters, or Cain have to say and are intelligent enough to know when someone is peddling lies. The fact that Cain's appearance in Detroit was underwhelming this weekend provides some validity to my assertion. Also, Maxwell ignores the fact that, as you point out so well, blacks have been dealing with unemployment well above the national level since before January 20, 2009. Personally, I never expected PBO to do anything specific for blacks in America, but I did expect him to do something for all Americans, and I think he has kept that promise to the best of his ability considering the constant GOP and Blue Dog obstruction of his policies.

  2. ebogan63 here.

    What your post highlights, is that everyday black folks were ready for a black president, black elites and opinion-shapers, not so much. The critique by Maxwell, as usual these days, lacks nuance and political acumen.

  3. 'Eve'nin', Ms. Pants

    Girl, you are just REALLY gettin' into it. Love it, LOVE it.

    And, you've gotten, on both of your pieces, some very succinct presentation re: how underwhelmed, I would dare say, a VERY good number of black folk feel about The Hermanator and this REALLY lazy analysis by Mr. Maxwell.

    Also, you've seen that there is an understanding that these "characters" are performing. But, they aren't performing for black folk. And, the additional VERY good news is that there are a goodly number of white folk who don't like the minstrel show, either. Not only don't they like it, but they see through it, too.

    SPEAK it, Ms. Pants.

    And, I'm sure you checked out Benen's piece on alumnus Cain and his hand in defeating Health Care back in Clinton's day?

    He is SUCH a self-hating worm.

  4. Evenin' Blackman,

    To be honest, sometimes I'm amazed at the shallowness of people like Mr. Maxwell and why folks think their analysis is worth paying for. But then, I guess that assumes people want actual depth - doesn't it?

    I saw last weekend that your and Ms. Blackman celebrated an anniversary yesterday. Congratulations and I hope it was a grand day!

  5. Indeed, it does. And, we know, often, any number don't.

    And, thank ya, much.

    Actually, the plan is that on 11-7, we are headin' West to Steamboat Springs for a combo celebration of both of our birthdays and our anniversary. For a, hopefully, GLORIOUS week. So, I'm lookin' forward to checkin' in on you from the great state of Colo.

    Age does appear to help in gratification delay :-).