By David M. Greenwald
Much of the discussion from Tuesday focused on the issue of whether the council’s selections or non-selections of commissioners were in retribution for opposition to Measure B. But lost in that discussion was the stated goal of Councilmember Dan Carson along with Mayor Gloria Partida to recruit a more diverse pool of commissioners and then appoint them.
According to Councilmember Dan Carson’s count: of the 23 new commissioners being recommended are six people of color, 11 women, and five students. That’s a good start.
I have often marveled at the wealth of talent Davis has. People come up who have put in applications with tremendous credentials that blow you away. But even more so than the normal population of Davis, that population skews white.
I don’t have an exact count of the racial/ethnic breakdown of the commissions, but my observation is that they are heavily white. Looking at a few: Planning was all white, six of the seven regular members of Finance and Budget were white, even more equity-oriented commissions like Social Services (five of seven), HRC (all), and Police (six of eight) were heavily white.
The Davis Police Accountability Commission had just two people of color—Dillan Horton and Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald. That is a group that is charged with dealing with issues of racial equity where one of the major complaints about the police is biased policing and people of color experience a disproportionate impact.
This is not a new problem. In 2011, I attended the city’s MLK Day event for the first time in several years. I was stunned to see it nearly all white at the event. The Black community, which used to come out in numbers, was gone for the most part.
That gave me the incentive to get on the HRC to attempt to reinvigorate things. During my seven years on that commission, one of the things I worked hard to try to do was get more people of color to apply. We were able to get a few—like Gloria Partida. But it was a struggle.
Before Tuesday, the membership, filled with a lot of great people, was nevertheless white. Thus it was good to see NJ Mvondo, who has served on the Vanguard board for several years, get an appointment to the HRC. She has been heavily involved in working on behalf of Black lives.
But of course, six people of color out of 23 new appointments is just a start.
Gloria Partida, who also served on the subcommittee, said, “The city has a treasure trove of qualified people to serve on commission—and it’s always difficult to choose from this qualified group of people.”
She reiterated Councilmember Carson’s point: “This year we made a concerted effort to cast a very wide net in recruitment of commissioners. We were successful in recruiting a very large and diverse group of applicants.
“I think that it’s important to open the door to people who are underrepresented,” she said. “People at the margins of our community have a hard time seeing themselves reflected in even the most mundane city activities.”
The goals of diversity are laudable. But invariably, such calls reverberate back to the notion that inclusion also means exclusion of white voices. I don’t see it that way. I think for too long we have excluded qualified people of color from jobs, educational opportunities, and civic engagement. Opening doors for more people does not close doors for others.
This week, I came across a quote from Stephen Jay Gould: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
The first part of that quote quite obviously refers to the pseudo-scientific backing of racial notions of brain size. It is the second part that really stands out—we have most likely wasted huge amounts of talent by consigning people to menial jobs without assessing their actual talent.
We hear people say, (more?) qualified white people get denied when we open the doors to people of color. But who is to say they are more qualified, and is qualification merely the embedded construct of structural racism?
Underrepresented groups face a tougher path, in many cases, to educational and professional achievement, and exclusion therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, we have to open the doors.
Diversity is misunderstood. Diversity in the workplace, according to one source, “refers to an organization that intentionally employs a workforce comprised of individuals of varying gender, religion, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, and other attributes.”
Unfortunately, we cannot reach a diverse workforce or set of commissioners by continuing the same practices that created the current arrangement.
That is the point that Martin Luther King makes in his 1967 work, “Where Do We Go From Here.”
King is often quoted out of context as opposing things like affirmative action by pulling from his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
He eloquently stated, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
But that was an aspirational goal. To get there, he believed that we had to affirmatively act to make that dream a reality.
In his 1967 work, he wrote, “It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment. I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits.
“But this is a day which demands new thinking and the reevaluation of old concepts. A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
King recognized that business as usual was not enough to level the playing field. We had to make affirmative changes to our workforce, our education system, and our commission bodies.
The council took the first step this week. It was a modest one. Even that ruffled feathers. There is more work to be done.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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