For more than 35 years, Hollywood has been creating films to examine the history of slavery in America. In 1977, the movie “Roots” gripped America. In 1989, “Glory” riveted the screen. In 1997, “Amistad” captivated audiences. And in 2013, “12 Years a Slave” torments critics and reignites racial tensions.
Why is this relevant to the current state of diversity and inclusion? For one, as we think about slavery, and its vestiges in America, it’s important for all of us to remember that the black experience in the United States goes beyond slavery. Outside of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, there were and are, notable blacks who have made significant contributions to their fields, as well as left groundbreaking imprints on American culture. For example,
- Elijah McCoy (1843–1929) invented an oil-dripping cup for trains.Other inventors tried to copy McCoy’s oil-dripping cup. But none of the other cups worked as well as his, so customers started asking for “the real McCoy.” That’s where the expression comes from.
- Garrett Morgan (1877–1963) invented the gas mask and the first traffic signal.
- Dr. Patricia E. Bath (1949–) invented a method of eye surgery that has helped many blind people to see.
In addition to thousands of inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs, there are also notable firsts, such as the first black to receive a Ph.D. degree, the first black to trade on Wall Street, and the first black to lead a Fortune 500 company. The standards for these “firsts” were high, and ultimately paved the way for other blacks to enter into different professions.
Nevertheless, because these contributions are often omitted, there exists a misnomer that educating or employing a black person equates to “inferior standards”, “lower performance”, “quotas” and “unqualified persons”. Case in point, UCLA recently conducted a study which found that the university inadequately handled racial bias and discrimination complaints by faculty members. In the reader comments on one online site, an alumni said, “I graduated from UCLA a few years ago with a B+ average. For the most part I thought I was smarter than my “black” professors . . . I couldn’t help but think they got their jobs as a gift to make up for past injustices.”
In Philadelphia, a K-12 teacher told me that she had an Asian student who had straight A’s. But in her class, he was disengaged and distracted, to the point where he had a ‘D’ average. Once, before a holiday, she let the kids have a ‘free’ day and this particular Asian student decided to play chess. The teacher, who was an expert in chess, played him…and won. After that, she never had a problem with that student again. Without saying a word, the student completed her class with an ‘A’.
In our classrooms and workplaces, there are people who are preoccupied with slavery and Affirmative Action or WHO works harder and is smarter. There will be some who make faulty hiring or promotion decisions based on these ideas. There will be others who advocate for divisive policies and the elimination of equity workers. And there will be a few who alienate customers, students or constituents.
The challenge is, do we accept the fact that this nation will always be divided on race, or do we attempt to move toward a more equitable and complete educational/professional experience? Read Part II.
By Leah Smiley