CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community University of California, Santa Cruz
CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community

Publications

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Diversity Isn’t Just Skin Deep

By Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh and Manuel Pastor
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, January 7, 2001

Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Alberto R. Gonzalez, Mel Martinez, Rod Paige. All well-qualified, all minority, all early appointments to serve in prominent positions in the incoming administration of President-elect Bush. While some may question his commitment to diversity — arguing that leading with Powell and Rice was a ploy to assuage the anger of African Americans who felt that Florida’s electoral miscounts were rigged against them — we applaud the president-elect’s actions. After all, these are not new faces: Powell and Rice advised Bush during his campaign, and Gonzales and Paige are longtime allies from Texas.

Moreover, the president-elect’s leanings in this direction are not new or one-shot: It was candidate Bush who insisted that the Republican convention prominently feature African American, Latino and Asian American leaders, creating a sort of pageantry of American multi-culturalism — at least on stage. Bush has followed up his earlier actions with minority appointments to head the departments of Labor and Transportation, resulting in a Cabinet with as many people of color as President Clinton offered in his first Cabinet.

It is not the commitment to diversity that we question. It is the commitment to justice.

There is a tendency in the U.S. to think that changing the hue of those on top changes the fortune of those on the bottom. There certainly is a connection: Minority politicians generally are more likely to represent minority interests; ethnic businesses are more likely to hire from and serve ethnic communities, and each successful Venus Williams, Alex Rodriguez or Tiger Woods brings new acceptance in the broader U.S. Society.

Yet the last few decades have brought little progress on closing the gaps in income, education and wealth for the average African American or Latino family. Only in the last several years of President Clinton’s term, in part because of the continuing economic recovery, have we seen a shrinking of the racial gap in poverty and unemployment. Some Asian ethnic groups have fared better economically, but social and legal discrimination, such as the case of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, show that racial profiling is not limited to urban teenagers.

So we need not just an agenda for diversity but a strategy for economic and social justice. The need will be particularly pressing if the economy slows, as most analysts expect.

The president-elect’s commitment to education, particularly for minority youngsters, is a positive sign. But what will the new administration do about job training — the key to advancing up career ladders? Will we see continued progress on targeting transit funding to support reverse commuting and other ways of better connecting inner-city residents with suburban employment? What about steady increases in the minimum wage and other measures to alleviate the working poverty plaguing many communities of color?

How will minority small businesses be encouraged, particularly given Bush’s apparent support for “ending, not mending” affirmative action? What about environmental justice to provide some relief from the toxics disproportionately damaging the health of many minority communities? And will the new president — and his nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft — take an honest look at the widening disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly the lack of compassion in treating juveniles as adults?

Tackling many of these issues might annoy some entrenched conservatives. At the same time, such an agenda could pose an opportunity to build new coalitions. There are many things that Bush can do. In California, for example, state Treasurer Phil Angelides has launched a campaign to ensure that public infrastructure spending targets older, often minority areas, noting that this also limits sprawl and helps environment. He has followed up with a campaign to encourage corporations to make similar investments to encourage inner-city development. Surely this sort of program could fit a Republican as well as a Democratic perspective.

Angelides’ agenda is one that promotes fairness and real inclusion for all. And this is the message that Bush should get: Celebrating diversity is just the first step. The more difficult challenge is promoting equity.

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Angela Glover Blackwell is president of PolicyLink, a social equity think tank in Oakland. Stewart Kwoh is executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. Manuel Pastor is director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community at UC Santa Cruz.