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Diversity dead-end: Inclusiveness without accountability PDF Print E-mail
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by Robert Jensen   
19 April 2010

After a recent talk on racism and other illegitimate hierarchies at a diversity conference in Dallas, I received a letter from one of the people who had attended that asked "why you feel it necessary to perpetuate and even exacerbate the divisiveness of language when addressing a group of people assembled to learn how to live better together and be more accepting of differences?" He suggested that by being so sharply critical, I was part of the problem not the solution

Calls for diversity and inclusiveness from people with privilege (such as a white man with a professional job living in the United States) are meaningful only when we are willing to address the systems and structures of power in which inequality and discrimination are rooted. But because such a critique strikes many people as too radical, crafting a response to those who want to avoid that analysis is crucial to the struggle for progressive social change. Below is my letter to him.

Dear ____: Thanks for the note and the challenge to my presentation. It's clear we disagree, and getting clearer about where we differ is important. First, I disagree with your suggestion that we should not assess blame for existing patterns of racial inequality and injustice, though I would substitute the word "accountability" for "blame." I can't imagine how we could move forward on any question of injustice without holding those responsible for the injustice accountable, which means holding ourselves accountable. This reflects a basic moral principle -- those who inflict injuries, or turn away when they see others inflicting injuries, must be accountable for their behavior.

To recognize the injustice, as you do, but then demand that we ignore the patterns at the root of the injustice in order to reach a state of inclusiveness is counterproductive. That simply allows people in positions of power and privilege to escape accountability, which inevitably places the political and psychological burdens on those with less power and privilege. That's simply not fair.

So, if your suggestion lets white people off the hook and puts the burden on non-white people to cope with the ongoing manifestations of white supremacy, would it not be better for those of us who are white to be accountable? Is that not the base from which real social change becomes possible? I recognize that most white people don't like that call for accountability, just as most men don't like the call for accountability when it comes to sexism, for example. But the core values we claim to hold -- dignity, solidarity, and equality -- require that we not avoid that kind of honesty. If we do this, as several people suggested in the conference session, many poor and working-class white people will point out that they don't feel particularly privileged. That's why we have to connect the struggle against white supremacy to the struggle against economic inequality in capitalism. To raise questions about injustice in our economy isn't to foment class warfare, as some argue, but is rather to recognize that people with a disproportionate share of the world's wealth tend to pursue policies to protect that state of affairs. The wealthy engage in class warfare on a daily basis, and hope that those on the bottom will acquiesce.

You suggest that that I "perpetuate and even exacerbate the divisiveness" but I think that misunderstands the nature of the problem. The divisiveness comes from the injustice, not from naming the injustice. People in the United States are divided by the inequality inherent in patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. Naming those systems and the inequality they produce isn't divisive but rather an attempt to understand the systems so that we can change them. Just as we need accountability we also need analysis to make it possible to move toward justice. How can problems be solved if causes are not identified and critiqued?

None of this has anything to do with stereotyping individuals. There is a difference between identifying patterns in how wealth and power are distributed in a society and making unsupported claims about individuals. In analyzing how unconscious and institutionalized racism operate, and then asking white people to be accountable, we are talking about how systems operate. I didn't claim that all white people are overt racists, for example, but instead talked about how our society is white supremacist in material and ideological terms. That's an analysis of systems, not stereotyping of individuals.

Finally, I think your hope for "a softening" of my heart misses the point. I don't have a hard heart, if by that you mean I am bitter or hateful. The work I do is grounded in love, which leads to a rejection of injustice. My heart softened long ago when I began to look honestly at the extent of that injustice and my own complicity in it. To be "part of the solution," as you urge, demands that we be honest about that injustice. I would challenge you to think about whether by ignoring these patterns of injustice you might be part of the problem.

I do take a bit of offense at one thing you wrote, the claim that I "find great satisfaction in stirring things up," as if this is all some kind of game that I play for my personal pleasure. I have been actively involved for the past two decades in movements for justice involving sexism, racism, economic inequality, and the barbarism of war. There isn't a day that I don't feel a sense of profound grief about the pain that these systems cause. The luck of the draw left me in a position of relative privilege, which means I escape virtually all of the suffering imposed by those systems. What satisfaction I find in this world comes from trying to be part of movements that struggle for something better. In those efforts, things inevitably get stirred up. I take no particular pleasure in that and wish it could be otherwise. But none of us get to choose the world into which we are born. All we get to choose is how we respond to it.

In my experience, the position you advocate is the one that is neither constructive nor practical. We cannot ignore the systems from which injustice emerges and expect injustice magically to disappear. I agree that our goal is inclusiveness -- the recognition that we are one human family in which all have exactly the same standing -- but I disagree that we can move toward that by turning away from the painful truths about the broken world in which we live.

-----------------------

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film "Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing," which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Information about the film, distributed by the Media Education Foundation, and an extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff are online at thirdcoastactivist.org/osheroff.html.

Jensen can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it and his articles can be found online at uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.

Comments (5)Add Comment
It seems that today, everywhere you care to look, there are powerful groups institutionalizing their escape from accountability. Whether it be the big banks, big oil, gas and coal, agribusiness, including CAFOs, the MIC or their paid for enablers in DC, avoiding accountability is the prime focus. Mr. Jensen certainly should not be amazed by being taken to task for suggesting that those who perpetuate a problem, racism in this case, would attack him for suggesting they hold themselves accountable.
Roger LaPrelle
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Beautifully written - - thank you
janie rezner
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Mr. Jenson. My compliments on a beautifully written article. I am so glad "Culture Change" has You as a contributing author and problem solver.

All you have written in this article, I have to agree with. I too, believe We have to make fundamental changes in Our Cultural Systems in order to make America and Our World, More and Better.

I am sure You could say more regarding these matters and I am sure You will.

One direction You indicated was in the statement:
"We cannot ignore the systems from which injustice emerges and expect injustice magically to disappear. I agree that our goal is inclusiveness -- the recognition that we are one human family in which all have exactly the same standing -- but I disagree that we can move toward that by turning away from the painful truths about the broken world in which we live."

What I focused on,(as needing additional study), in your above statement, is the part of the sentence that says; "...all have exactly the same standing...".

I believe this to be True, but with qualification. We ALL have the same standing, probably, in the Eyes Of Creator. We are ALL Children Of God. But, what causes the differences in Us, that are Gifts Of God, are the various manifestations of these "Gifts" in Our Individual existances.

There are kinds and styles. Levels and degrees. Abilities and shortcomings. Intensities and subtleties...that all contribute to the vast and magnificent Attributes of Uniqueness of Creation that We, Humans Of Mother Earth, are a profound part of. These things result in different strengths.

Then...when one might add to the Creational Attributes of each of Us, the contemplation and understanding, of the influences of the times and cultural circumstances of Our Existances...one begins to appreciate that "Equality" is more valid within the realm of Social Justice and Spiritual Knowledge, as Human Constructs, than a universal given of Creation. Equality, in this sense of Life, is relative to what an Individual may or may not contribute to Life.

It would serve Our Purpose, in the name of fairness to ALL, to try and develope better depths of understanding of these Creational and Life Variables.

Having said the above, I hasten to reassure those of "lesser" abilities, that I fully embrace and support the fair application of Justice and Equality to their existances. And, abhor the misuse of so called superior abilities, in the cause of personal indulgence, that brings so much harm to Other Children Of God. The "elite" need to become Truly Elite, in service to all of God's Children who were also Created in their uniqueness, by the Father Of ALL. To fail in this challenge to Truly Excel, as Elite, is to fail Your Creator. Such has its consequences.
DAN 1
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I absolutely agree and support with what you have said. There is much hypocracy in the way priviledged people in politics, government and business have hijacked the capitalism model to their self-serving greed and sustainable agenda. These people have cleverly devised, developed and institutionalised systems and structures to manipulate and serve the interest of a priviledged race. We have affirmative action programs that pays lip service with redressing the very source where it starts.

I like the term "economic inequality in capitalism". It is something many leaders talk about yet do nothing to shift the paradigm to adopting. My country Malaysia is going through a rennaissance. The silence is broken. Since the 2008 general election we have awakened to the cruel and insidious whiplash of race based politics and governance. The road ahead has now more bumpy and treacherous to navigate as we face conundrum of choice - prefering nationality over race or ...

The more we silence ourselves from standing up against the jaws of inequality and injustice happening before us, the more it gets rooted firmly. There are many people out there who share and feel the same way as us yet remain apathetic and trapped in self-deceit that by overlooking root causes they can become part of the solution. I am in support of positive psychology and solution based thinking. But, how do we know where to go without knowing where we are?. There are many voiceless accomplices who makes the work of people like us all that more difficult in this crusade.

God bless you and your work.
Yuvarajah
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Wow, so you believe that white people are accountable for the lack of supremacy in other ethniticities. The cumulative actions and non-actions of each ethnic group has directly resulted in their position today. However, african americans owe whites a great debt. We have taken them from their natural state of poverty and ignorance, and fought ourselves for their freedom in the greatest country on the planet; and we have attempted to indoctrinate them in the most successful mind of concious on the planet. Never forget where these African americans would be had we not interveined. Unless they start showing some gratitude, I believe they deserve to be taken back to Africa. No living creature, thoughout all of history, has been given more advantage and yet primarily produced destruction. These modern diversity programs, if followed through to conclusion of breeding into one uni-race, will absolutely be the end of diversity. Diversity, historically, has never been anything but a problem. I invite everyone reading this to research the history of Haiti if you have any doubt. White supremacy manifested itself because of our impact on humanity. There is a reason Africans were still attacking Hitler's panzer tanks with spears during WWII..... they were so busy for centuries and millenia trying to appear dominant with tribal warfare, the rest of the world passed them. White people invented electricty, the light bulb, the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, most musical instruments, the stage, art, the space program, modern medicine, nuclear science, modern physics and mathematics, etc... while Africans in their natural state have yet to complete a sewer system in most places. White supremacy exists because our ancestry and heritage and natural drive caused us to focus on creation (which is how we are made in the image of God--Creator). This is why white supremacy exists, and it should be as obvious as night and day. Wake up and smell the crap your shoveling!
Thomas
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