Saturday, March 1, 2014

Strength through diversity

(William of Rubruck, swiped from

Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, this week vetoed a bill that would have allowed commercial establishments to refuse service to gays and lesbians. The veto was urged by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which feared the potential economic consequences if tourists and businesses carried through on threats to boycott the state if the bill became law (which is not to suggest that was their only consideration). The last two Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and John McCain, also weighed in against it. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested "This bill instinctively struck people as a violation of individual liberty... The notion that because of your orientation or your religion that you can be denied food service because of someone else's sincere religious belief went too far" (Quoted in Adam Nagourney, "Arizona Bill Stirred Alarm in the G.O.P," New York Times, 28 February 2014, A11, A16).

Brewer won election in 2010 riding a wave of resentment against a variety of groups. The famous crackdown on illegal immigration was accompanied by other laws aimed at non-Anglos, including restricting the official use of languages other than English and the teaching of Mexican-American "ethnic studies" in public schools. (Yet another bill, ending state recognition of "birthright citizenship," was ultimately defeated by the Arizona Senate in 2011.) She is now having trouble reining in these emotionally satisfying but contentious moves. Wednesday she chided her fellow Republicans in the legislature for focusing on hot-button issues instead of her budget and administrative agenda (See Fernanda Santos, "Day After Veto, Arizona Takes Up Abortion Clinics," New York Times, 28 February 2014, A16).

To conservative consultant Nelson Warfield, quoted in Nagourney's column, supporters of the latest Arizona effort were doomed by how the issue was framed. "It became about human rights and human dignity and not religious conscience. As soon as it shifted from a debate about religious conscience to a respect for human dignity, it was a loser." The rhetorical use of religious freedom must be taken seriously, as this is a core American value... even when it's used as a tool for 'in' groups to use against 'out' groups. If the essence of free expression is "freedom for the thought we hate," don't we have to tolerate intolerance? Taking the thought to action, does that mean there is a religion-based right to discriminate?

I like rights, but am concerned that their assertion stops conversations. Sometimes there are conversations that should be stopped, like whether blacks should have the right to vote (1965), but a lot of times we wind up asserting and counter-asserting when we should be discussing. This applies today to a wide swath of issues related to meaningful inclusion a.k.a. the accommodation of diversity.

The importance of inclusion to excluded groups can't be difficult to see. The pursuit of happiness proclaimed as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence is an empty promise unless there is full access to the benefits and opportunities of membership in society. Suffrage is pretty close to universal in America today, but many people live in ghettos physically cut off from economic opportunity. Many people materially suffer because, in the words of Greg Brown, "the color of your skin or who you choose to love" don't match the ideal of the established in group. Now if one crotchety baker doesn't want to make me a wedding cake, I can always go to another baker, but if this is systematically happening it's clear I am not a full and equal member of society. And that feeling matters too.

There are also advantages to society as a whole for accommodating diversity. William of Rubruck, pictured at the top of this post, was a Dutch monk whose 1253 journey to the Mongol Empire made the remarkable discovery that the Khan's strategy for holding his great empire together and maintaining its strength was to tolerate and even encourage a variety of languages, customs and religions.

  1. First, you draw on a broader base of talent. The victory of the basketball team from Texas Western over the all-white team from Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championships was a pretty clear message (and not the first, either) that racist societies that excluded talent were handicapping themselves. This is borne out by Richard Florida's "gay-bohemian index" correlating with local housing values: communities that value diversity are more energetic and ultimately more successful. 
  2. Secondly, you don't spend scarce resources keeping people separated or away. Keeping gated communities gated, and "gated communities of the mind" safe from new ideas, sucks up energy and resources that could be better spent innovating solutions and improving quality of life.

To torment an old metaphor, this is the "salad bowl" vision of diversity, not the "melting pot." The melting pot concept dates from the 19th century, the idea being that America could draw immigrants from far and wide but they had to learn how to be Americans before they could fully play (and we who were already here would be the judge of that). Maybe it's because I like food better than candles, but I see advantages to a society that celebrates difference and draws on a variety of flavor contributions to one based on conformity.

Which brings us to the question I was stuck on last July: "Are there practical consequences for drawing the circle too small? If some part of a city or metropolitan area isn't flourishing, does that materially impact the rest of it? If Detroit is dying, does that affect Grosse Pointe? Does it [harm] the rest of Cedar Rapids if people in Wellington Heights or the Taylor Area aren't thriving?"

Where I'm stuck, and would like some help from the blogosphere, is what the advantages are for the currently-enclaved to leave their enclaves and join the rest of us. Maybe they should want to, but why would they want to? I have some thoughts on this, but they're not fully formed, and anyhow this post has gone on long enough, so I think I'll let this question hang.


  1. Quite thought provoking and one that will make my ponderer ponder. When you ask the question about the enclaved, are you referring to anyone that draws barriers in their mind or are you referring to physical barriers i.e. gated communities that have a respect of wealth associated with it. And does wealth have to play into the picture? Whay about the soith side of Chicago that is enclaved because as a white guy I don't feel like I am welcomed there? Is it my responsibility to go there or not?

  2. Great questions, Bill! Thanks for your comment.
    1. I'd say this refers to all barriers, but that the physical are hardest to break down.
    2. Re the South Side, this is a difficult question I'd prefer to avoid, not only out of laziness, but because I think on this issue it's best to start with easier changes. I've been to the South Side, most recently to attend a meeting on Oakwood Blvd (which is quite nice). It matters to the question, too, whether you're invited (as I was) or feel like you're forcing yourself into a situation where you're unwanted (as your question implies).


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