Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shifting the Focus of Inquiry

I wonder how White people learn about Black people?  I just came from a meeting dealing with diversity in STEM fields in the United States.  There was significant emphasis on the challenges of implicit biases that rest in the emotional black box of all individuals.  The thrust of the meeting was how to overcome the effects of those biases that so often negatively affect people of color and women.  It is impolite; however, in circles of such high erudition to ask the question directly:

How do White people learn about Black and Hispanic people?

Of course the broader issues are far more complex than that, but this is one of the core questions at the heart of the national challenge for diversity.  It was crystalized for me when a discussant said that, “we need to find a way to get people not to see diversity as a counter narrative to excellence.”  It was immediately clear to me, that is not my challenge.  I humbly profess that I embody both in the professional environments in which I exist.  In fact, because I know something about the path to get to the professional levels I aspire to, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for the taxes my Black and Hispanic colleagues had to pay to get to the positions they hold.  I do not need to be convinced that diversity and excellence are intimately interwoven.

But what of my White counterparts?

I really do not know how White people learn about Black or Hispanic people in ways that are honest.  From what I see, and ample evidence from the Pew Research Center, our lives are stunningly segregated.  For Black educated middle class people, it is essentially inescapable that we interact with and ultimately befriend White people.  This is true by virtue of the schools that we attend and the professional environments in which we invariably exist.  The converse, however, is not true.  It is quite easy for many White people to go through their entire educational experience, including college, and never have more than just a few Black or Hispanic students in any of their classes – indeed to never have Black or Hispanic friends at all.  Having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in Engineering, I was often one of only two or three Black students in my classes so I know this is true. Upon graduation, my White counterparts could live in Midtown Atlanta, Central City Philadelphia, San Francisco California, Piedmont Oakland, Park Slope Brooklyn, Ballston Virginia, Gentrified Anywhere USA, and live, work and play and have no meaningful interactions with Black or Hispanic people.  Essentially, they could live their entire lives and not really know anyone who is Black or Hispanic.

This is also not merely a numerical issue.  It is potentially an issue of preference. Gentrified Anywhere USA is not on a separate planet.  It exists in and among, and often displaces and destroys communities of color.  In schools and stores and bars and restaurants, there are ample opportunities for interaction, but they often simply do not occur.  So where does this leave my White counterparts? What data from their lived experiences, do they have to bring to bear on the complicated issues of diversity in professional settings?  I am not sure.  There is a cottage industry dedicated to researching everything associated with Black and Hispanic youth.  Perhaps it is time to focus the inquiry on our White counterparts.  They may well feel marginalized by the shortage of academic inquiry into the complexity of their changing American citizenship alongside people of color.  Their sense of self-efficacy may be undermined by their pending loss of majority status. Their segregation may not be based on malice or racial animus,  maybe just a lack of exposure and insufficient cultural tools.  Perhaps.

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I am sure though, that the answers would shed some light on the dark road ahead to real diversity in STEM fields and more importantly to a more cohesive country.



JB said...

I get tired of pat analysis like "we're scared to talk about race," but I think there's a nugget of truth there. A lot of well-meaning white people burn their hand when they extend themselves to learn from black folks, so they pull back that hand, reluctant to risk being labeled ignorant, tone-deaf or racist. At the same time, in no way do I intend to absolve white people of their role in our shared struggle to dialogue productively. I feel like many whites should take to heart the adage that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. The truth is we have more opportunity than ever to learn from one another because we are more integrated than ever - everything's relative - and because of the 21st century media landscape. If you're white and you want to learn about your black and brown brothers and sisters, you have ample opportunity. Per the Civil Rights Project, the average white student attends a school that is 73% white, 8% black, 12% Latino and 4% Asian. Meanwhile, about 40% of black kids go to a school that's x>90% black; these schools are overwhelmingly poor. Conclusion: The middle class is more integrated than ever, and despite your higher-ed and professional experiences, the upper echelons of education and career paths are, too. The numbers are woefully inadequate but do represent progress. Let me end by reframing the question: If it's hard for whites to learn about blacks, wasn't it harder before?

kamau said...

jb.... http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-most-diverse-cities-are-often-the-most-segregated/?ex_cid=538fb

JB said...

Yep. Two explanations come to mind, one often innocuous and the other highly problematic. 1) Areas become segregated when there's a critical mass of minority groups. There never could have been a Little Italy if there weren't lots of Italians in Lower Manhattan in the early 20th century, for example. Other Italians ended up there, too, as the decades passed. Counterexample: If a place is 100% white and five black families trickle in, they're probably not going to end up in the same subdivision or apartment complex. I consider this innocuous except in the case of redlining, pressure from HOAs, etc. These factors are present in some cases but certainly not all. There is an aspect of self-selection/self-segregation, too. Is it bad that a lot of black folks with major money choose to live in South DeKalb when they have options in less homogeneous areas? 2) There's a well-documented tipping point at which white people tend to move out. It's something like when an area becomes x>40% black, substantial white flight occurs. The last 50 years are full of sequences around the US where an area is all white, then mixed, then mostly or all black. (Then the pendulum can swing the other way. Exhibit A: Harlem. Exhibit B: Atlanta.) This helps explain the segregation data you linked to as well.
I would also suggest that residential segregation and diversity are not mutually exclusive. Heterogeneous groups of people share lots of spaces besides neighborhoods - workplace, recreational facilities, shopping/dining areas, social organizations, and even places of worship. K-12 schools sometimes fit the bill, but colleges almost always do. All of these are examples of how different people can get to know one other. Let's face it, there are plenty of places where people don't know their neighbors, anyway, so it's not like a multi-racial street guarantees anything. Sharing an office with somebody or being on the same work crew can be much more fruitful in terms of breaking down the barriers of ignorance and mistrust that too often divide us.

The Truth Helps said...
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