U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia)
Using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a catalyst for examining growth and continued disparity, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) hosted the panel Civil Rights: A Transformative Fight for Justice during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Convention. Citing increased attempts to prohibit voting eligibility for African Americans and Latinos, Lewis, along with a distinguished panel of thinkers, including Renku Sen and Michelle Alexander, addressed strategies to assure both equal access and racial equality in the 21st century.
For Sen, executive director of Race Forward – an organization that advances racial justice through research, media, and practice – diversity and inclusion have become hallmarks for creatively sidestepping equity. In the shift of perception, many Whites, she said, view the inclusion of various ethnicities in school, work, and housing as a sign that equality exists.
“The problem is that diversity and inclusion have become the proxies for racial equity and racial justice. They are not the same thing. Diversity is about variety – getting the bodies into the room; equity is about power and what people are able to do once they are in the room,” Sen said. “In a professional context that looks like you people of color can go to the meeting, but no one will listen to a word you say. Diversity isn’t enough, but it’s what we’ve hung our hats on as a society.”
In another example, Sen discussed the belief that there is no real need for discussions of equality and equity when famous African Americans appeared to have proven the possibilities. Recounting the words of a Fox News producer who told her he didn’t really ‘get’ the whole idea of racial justice because after all, “You’ve got Oprah and you’ve got Obama, what more do you want?,” Sen said that even conversations about race can make those in power, defensive. “As the mayor of a major metropolitan city explained to her, ‘Talking about diversity is okay, even implicit or unconscious bias is okay to discuss, but when you start talking about equity things get really dicey. People don’t want to talk about it because as much as Whites value fairness, they just don’t agree that it is missing on questions of race,’” she said.
Yet, as the panelists uncovered, race, equity, and fairness cannot be easily separated from each other as components to larger issues of power. In the past, the panel pointed out while talking about the vote, access to the ballot was limited by fees, tests, and brutish violence and terrorists acts to intimidate non-Whites.
Today, that intimidation comes in the form of restrictions, including one that denies those without state-issued picture identification cards to vote. Lewis cited a Wisconsin study that found 78 percent of African-American males between the ages of 18-24 did not have state issued identification cards; nor did 60 percent of Latino males.
“This is important because these state laws were crafted to keep certain segments of America from voting. We’re not there yet. We still have rivers to cross and bridges to cross as a nation and as a people before we get there. Maybe we can emerge as a model for the rest of the world and if we can lay down the burden of race, I believe we can get there,” Lewis said.