“The most difficult stage in the struggle for justice in America will be when it is clear that fundamental inequalities persist in spite of litigation, legislation, and direct confrontation.”
-W.E.B. Du Bois
The quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, an African American educator, civil rights activist, historian and sociologist, should serve as a warning that diversity is not the cure-all to resolve the social, economic and political barriers that are rooted in America’s historical legacy of institutional and structural racism.
Despite progress initiated by the civil rights movement and other social change and justice movements, we are, as DuBois pointed out, in “the most difficult stage in the struggle for justice” for all in America. It’s clear, in Milwaukee and around the country that deep racial disparities continue to exist despite legislation and confrontation.
It is imperative that those who have benefited from racist policies and are promoting diversity as a solution recognize how racism is viewed by the various communities of color who are marginalized by it.
For example, despite progress, many African Americans have not reaped the economic, political or social benefits of civil rights legislation. Even those who have reached economic parity still face the stigma of being “black in America.” Hence, why should African Americans believe the conversation about diversity is any different, especially when Reconstruction, civil rights laws and the end of Jim Crow have simply resulted in the repackaging of racist economic and political oppression?
It doesn’t matter whether these policies are intentional or not. What matters is that these policies are barriers to economic, political and social justice for those communities.
Moreover, it is important that those who come from outside the communities to “help” try to understand their own motivations and expectations. The motivation behind diversity supporters should not be to make a particular community fit into their vision of what the community should be or do.
Diversity should be about empowering communities to reach their full potential. It should not be a tool to boost someone else’s agenda.
Furthermore, because the face of a particular program, policy, organization, product, etc. happens to be a person of color, woman, gay person, etc. does not mean that program, policy, organization, product, etc. is in a community’s best interest.
I don’t bring these concerns up because I feel Milwaukee will not benefit from embracing a diverse society, but because I have reservations about how these conversations have been framed. Framing these conversations around diversity and segregation demonstrates a misunderstanding of the root of the problems that plague disenfranchised communities.
I have witnessed in my community, the African American community, where organizations, businesses, social service agencies, etc. have used diversity and the problems in the community to financially and politically benefit themselves.
More important than embracing diversity is to embrace the truth about why these communities are disenfranchised. Diversity will not empower disenfranchised communities until we cut out the roots of structural racism. And to do that we must first look within ourselves and understand how we either benefit or don’t benefit from it. Until then, we shall remain stuck in the period that Du Bois called “the most difficult stage in the struggle for justice in America.”