Title

Minority Report

I’m interested in asking hard questions about the diversity progressive paradigm, but it’s important to remember why that paradigm is justified in the first place.

 

March 12, 2018
 
 

Last week, I had a conversation with my friend Rahuldeep Gill, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at California Lutheran University. “What is it exactly you are trying to accomplish with this new blog you are writing?” he asked. “Because you are making the kind of diversity work I am trying to do harder,” he continued.

I was glad for the question. It forced me to explain out loud what the purpose of this little noise parade I’m attempting here is all about.

Let me begin with this: I am – intellectually, politically and temperamentally - a diversity progressive located about two inches left of center, more or less where Barack Obama is positioned. I believe that America is a broken promise that can be reformed rather than a lie that needs to be exposed. I believe the key fracture in American history is the exclusion of various identity groups from the American promise, and the great genius of America is in the way it nurtures positive relationships between communities that are at war elsewhere in a way that helps them build up their new nation. I believe that both areas count as ‘diversity work’, and that there are interesting overlaps and also important tensions between the two.

I believe intellectuals play an important role in social change, and that the principal objective of an intellectual is to think well. I have been concerned about the quality of my own thinking in recent years. I am afraid that I have shrunk the world to fit my worldview.

There is a great line by the writer Emily Roller: “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.”  I believe that in recent years I have been a victim of my own confirmation bias as a diversity progressive. I have turned up the volume in my echo chamber, heard the stories I’ve wanted to hear and paid principal attention to the populations for whom I have natural empathy (people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ folks, women, immigrants - basically the standard diversity progressive litany).

The Trump movement highlighted for me the dangers of my shrinking worldview, both intellectually and politically. Here is an illustration. In 2015 I must have read dozens of stories about #oscarssowhite. I care deeply about the representation of people of color. This is also a principal concern of the people I’m around and the publications I read (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education).

Sometime over the course of that year, I saw a report about Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s research on the spike in the mortality rate for middle aged, working class whites . The death rate for this population had risen so dramatically that the closest comparison was AIDS in the 1980s. That was probably the first time that the term ‘opioid’ registered for me. I’m sure I had heard it before, but I hadn’t really heard it, if you know what I mean.

I had to ask myself an uncomfortable question: had my emphasis on the issues related to some populations obscured – even biased me against – the kinds of challenges faced by other groups. I viewed this as an intellectual, moral and civic failing on my part. And I resolved to do better.  

I think doing better means asking more uncomfortable questions. The philosopher Karl Popper encouraged intellectuals to be especially rigorous about their own theories, to actually go looking for evidence that falsified, or at least complicated, their paradigms. If your investigations into the world only turn up cases that affirm your worldview, you are probably not investigating hard enough.

This blog is the place where I write about cases that challenge and complicate my diversity progressive worldview.

But my friend Rahuldeep makes an important point. While all worldviews ought to be challenged and complicated, the diversity progressive paradigm still explains much about the world and points us in the right direction on many issues. And the things I’ve written about in this blog give little indication about how important I think those issues are.

So let me tell a story that affirms this important point.

I spend a lot of time with senior administrators in higher education. It is common for me to be in a room where I am the only person of color. I feel my mind instinctively running through a familiar narrative which goes something like this:

Ummm, there’s something about me that doesn’t quite fit here. What is it? Oh yes, my skin is darker, and my name isn’t Dave or Steve or John or Rich. Ok, I’m going to convince myself I deserve to be at this table. Here goes: I’m a Rhodes Scholar. I have a doctorate from Oxford. I’ve written four books and hundreds of articles. I was a Presidential appointee. Hell, I’m the reason these people are gathered – I’m the guest of honor, the keynote speaker. So I do belong here. Hey, I wonder if anybody else here has to do the mental work I just did. Oh well, it’s time to start and I guess I should just be grateful for this opportunity …        

My mind does that loop in a microsecond, mostly because it’s done it literally millions of times before. A standard experience for me is being an ‘other’ who needs to justify and fortify myself in a world that frequently feels like it was built for someone else. Over the course of the past twenty odd years I’ve assembled a resume that makes it easier. But deep in my psyche, multiple times a day, I still do the justification and fortification. 

And I still remember what it felt like to be in eighth grade and have every teacher mispronounce my name. And what it was like to be 18 at a Student Ambassadors meeting at the University of Illinois, one of three people of color in a sea of white fraternity and sorority members, all of them talking about what party they were heading to that weekend, none of them even looking at us.

Back then, the justification and fortification took much longer, and didn’t always end up in the happy ‘So I belong here’ place.

Those are the experiences, I suspect, that my friend Rahuldeep is principally concerned with, and why he is frustrated with some of what I am exploring in this blog. Those experiences are real and they are painful. They make college life – American life, really - harder for lots and lots of people.

I’ve written about these issues at length elsewhere (for example, my books Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground), and they are still significant themes in my public talks on campus. The main purpose of this blog is different. As I said earlier, the sine qua non of intellectual life is rigor about one’s own paradigm, and this blog is where I do that.

But, from time to time, telling the stories about why the diversity progressive paradigm is justified in the first place is important as well. 

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