Monday, June 16, 2008

The invitation is the challenge

I went to a diversity discussion this evening sponsored by the Detroit Grosse Pointe Collaborative aimed at educating and sparking dialogue about issues of race.

The program started with a video, one that was well done I might add, which covered the issue of race as a social construct invented to empower some while placing others at a tremendous disadvantage. I was delightfully surprised to see that it documented at length the role of our government in placing people of color at a disadvantage during the 20th century by denying blacks, and transplants from Japan and India citizenship rights, and through mortgage lending practices to GI's following World War II, that were adopted by the mortgage industry broadly.

The mortgage issue material was interesting because, as the film detailed, giving GI's low-cost mortgages was the first step to making home ownership to all Americans affordable. Prior to the 1940's people had to put down half the cost of a home in order to get mortgage, but the government wanted war veterans to be able to buy a house in a good neighborhood, start a family and build a life. To do this, the government created a policy that allowed them to buy homes with 10-20 percent down. The housing boom was on after that. One woman in the film said she and her husband, who was a veteran, looked for apartments when he returned from the war, but couldn't find one for less than $150 -- quite expensive for the time. They were able to buy a home in a newly built suburban subdivision with a monthly payment of $65.

Unfortunately, that policy benefited mostly whites, led to sprawl and cultivated the system of red-lining, which disproportionally affects people of color. It also continues to affect the ability of blacks and Hispanics, particularly, to accumulate wealth. Denying people an opportunity to build equity in homes in solid neighborhoods with good schools and city services has adverse affects on their children and their grandchildren. They can't use that equity to pay for college tuition or pass on to their kids after they are gone.

Much of the material was also covered in the incredible exhibit on race that was hosted by the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit last year. So, for me, the evening's content felt familiar. A dinner and discussion followed, during which we were asked by a moderator to talk about our "a-ha" moments realized during the film.

The greatest moment for me came during the discussion, when I thought about the fact that this somewhat diverse group (it was only black and white, but from a wide demographic), shared an interest in the subject. But I had a problem. These folks wanted to be there. They were part of the choir, and I was hoping -- okay call me naive -- that there would be some people there who weren't into the "diversity thing."

As a result, I've got a new mission in the diversity and inclusion projects that I'm involved in, and that is to find an effective way of bringing critics into the fold. In fact, I'd like racists, the universally insensitive, the un-politically correct, sexists, homophobes, and anyone else who is against the idea of bringing people who are different together. I want to get people who could care less about valuing my differences into a room to talk about why. I yearn to bring folks who don't believe that race is a social construct, that race is real and that some races are superior to others, into one of these types of diversity events and get them to engage in dialogue.

I've asked some of the region's leading diversity experts how to get over this hump ... how to get more of the uninterested to the table. But I have yet to get a satisfactory answer. The best I've heard is "you have to ask them." I don't know of any who would except my invitation. I am willing to ask, and I am willing to take that on as a personal challenge. Are you?

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