Valley Voices

Sameness is boring: Let’s unite for civil rights and equal opportunity

Kathryn Forbes
Kathryn Forbes Central Valley magazine

Victor Davis Hanson’s essay on Aug. 28, “Campuses desperately need unity czars, not diversity czars,” laments the lack of unity in society and especially on college campuses. He credits this disharmony to the rise of liberal diversity politics. I offer a different opinion.

The diversity programs and rhetoric that pervade bureaucratic organizations today, especially universities, is rooted in Ronald Reagan-era politics. Reagan and his fellow Republicans radically changed the institutional and cultural landscape by declaring that employment discrimination and discrimination within schools were no longer problems.

Reagan cut funding and staffing for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He tried to end the requirement that federal contractors create affirmative-action plans that laid out how a company would diversify the racial and gender composition of its workforce. Reagan’s political rhetoric was even sharper, as he was openly hostile to a wide range of civil rights issues, and he kindled white antipathy toward equal opportunity by spreading a myth of reverse racism.

His optimism about fairness was pretty astounding. Just 20 years before Reagan was elected, racial and gender segregation in the workplace was near total, with white men dominating managerial, professional and skilled craft jobs. After Reagan was elected, black-employment integration with white men came to a halt, as did black women’s employment integration with white women.

The result of these acts was to make speaking of equal opportunity and taking affirmative steps to curtail discrimination within bureaucratic organizations taboo.

What, then, did this mean for the field of and departments of human resources that had crafted themselves as the interpreters of civil rights laws for corporations and schools?

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, human resources professionals invented a whole range of employment practices that we use today to guide hiring and promotion decisions so that they comply with the law.

Human resources departments were not about to be eliminated or even cut. So they rebranded their work as diversity management and strengthened their institutional foothold. Human resource professionals no longer talked about the necessity of equal opportunity; instead, they argued that having a diversified workforce was good business, for it made use of all available talent.

This “valuing differences” paradigm spread across industries and became the norm.

What was lost in this diversity rhetoric, a loss that began in Reagan’s deregulation frenzy, is an understanding of civic culture and of civil rights. We need a discourse about our obligations to one another as employees, as managers, as students. And these obligations should be framed in light of the spirit and principles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is this commitment that binds us together.

Hanson is wrong in thinking that unity only comes from sameness. Not only would we become bored to death by our radical similarities but it also just isn’t necessary.

Though we may not share demographic histories, we can choose to share a commitment to civil rights. And this commitment necessitates that we understand our histories and the contemporary realities of the structural socioeconomic hierarchies that partially shape the trajectories of our lives.

How we handle these differences in the civic space of the school, the government office, the corporation should be part of our ongoing conversation about how to live up to the promise of the Civil Rights Act.

Hanson is right in saying that university campuses don’t need diversity czars but not, as he argues, because we need inclusion czars to create a common culture. There is a wealth of evidence that shows campus diversity offices do little more than symbolize a university’s dedication to racial and gender inclusivity.

Diversity officers often have little power to turn lofty rhetoric into material realities. What is more, the diversity discourse fails to address structural inequalities or offer any measures of racial or gender inequality. Indeed, in diversity discourse, inclusion is achieved by writing that it is an aspiration.

But what we do need are equal-opportunity offices – ones with real power to monitor institutional compliance with anti-discrimination law and to bring back a shared understanding of civil rights and civic culture.

Kathryn Forbes, Ph.D., is a professor in the Women’s Studies Program at Fresno State. Connect with her at kathrynf@csufresno.edu.

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