My last piece, Stop Making Race a Divisive Issue, generated a few on-line comments, but depressingly most comments were off-line. I did want to follow-up those comments and explain why I think these attacks on Republican and/or conservative politicians hurt the country and the Democratic party. For me it begins with poverty.
When I was sixteen and seventeen years old I spent two summers working part time in an Episcopal Church program known as Ole. A group of us, all from the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas and most of us from the Highland Park High School, spent a large part of the summer looking after underprivileged elementary and middle school kids during the day. Every morning we fed them a hot breakfast, let them run around on the Church grounds, then took them to community pools or parks, and gave them lunch.
Many days we took them to rich homes with pools. It always struck me that they were more excited to jump into a private pool, then I in my teenage superiority would ever admit about anything. On at least one day a week we would take them to a marquee event, such as Six Flags.
Many of the kids were African-American, but there were Hispanics and some whites. The only commonality was they were often poor beyond any experience I had seen outside poorest Mexico. And regardless of race they were really good kids almost always grateful for food, a bit of kindness, and a day of safe play.
Those two summers changed everything for me in thinking about the poor. They were children. The bore no responsibility for anything. And their parents at pick-up time were so grateful.
When I first became the general counsel of a US public company, I had a colleague that I had trouble working with for reasons of approach. It was nothing more than oil and water. But it did cause a barrier.
I never got a chance to tell her how much I admired her efforts at minority hiring. What she taught me was the much the same as I learned in OLE. If you wanted to attract minority candidates you had to do more than talk about it, you had to physically go to where minority candidates studied and worked. You had to go to historically African-American colleges, to community colleges, churches, and community centers. It was the only company I worked in where minorities and women were truly represented throughout the headquarters.
Today I am a Board Member of the Student Conservation Association. We place high school and college kids as labor crews or interns into the National Parks, other parks, and conservation agencies. Our commitment to diversity starts with our founder’s and board’s commitment to it. But in the end it is the staff of SCA going into urban centers that physically results in poor kids, often minority, entering our programs. It is that physical contact that makes the difference, not federal law or chats at the board level.
These are the types of experiences that in my view awaken in every successful American’s heart a commitment to diversity. They call upon the best of our secular and religious traditions to give unto others, especially others less fortunate than us.
But imagine now that you are a conservative admirer of Representative Paul Ryan who some members of the civil rights community labeled a racist for comments on urban poverty as I described in my last post. Are you more likely or less likely to visit an urban center racked with poverty? Are you more or less likely to invest your time and money in fighting poverty in urban centers?
You need successful and middle-class citizens with time and money regardless of politics to tackle poverty. You need their support to volunteer in the community, to produce innovative solutions for education and jobs in urban centers, or even to pay higher taxes. Whatever the policy differences, calling conservatives racist for their policy views is a pathway to division not unity.
And given midterm Congressional elections are predominantly affluent and middle-class voters with minorities under represented, it is a pathway to more polarization not unity.