Sen. Lieberman and The Diversity Dilemma
T he conventional political wisdom about the major political parties is that Republicans ignore African Americans, and Democrats take us for granted. Thus, 84 percent of us voted Democratic in 1996, because, according to the adage, we had nowhere else to go. But earlier this month, the Republican National Convention was a showcase for diversity, making coverage look more like BET than the RNC.
The Republican nod at diversity challenges Democrats, since it forces them to do more than “show and tell” when it comes to the matter of inclusion.
The gas tank had barely been filled on the “Bush Express” when Vice President Al Gore fired back with a diversity challenge of his own. His pick for vice president was Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who cleaves more firmly to his religion than he does to his political career. He strictly observes the Jewish Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, walking three or four miles because Jewish law forbids driving, and relying on others to turn on lights because he cannot use electricity.
If someone wanted to contrast Republican diversity with Democratic diversity, one might note that Republicans put on a show, but Democrats put diversity on their ticket.
If one is a left-of-center Democrat like me, though, it doesn’t take much scrutiny to raise questions about the Lieberman record. He opposes affirmative action, once calling it “patently unfair.” He is a supporter of capital gains and small business tax cuts, a proponent of welfare reform.
And, Lieberman is a bit of a scold — a right-leaning scold at that — using his platform to uplift issues of morality and culture. Of course, Lieberman is too affable and spiritual to be considered an ideologue.
Indeed, most of his colleagues agree that he has garnered influence far greater than that of the average second-term senator because of his friendly collegiality with both Republicans and Democrats.
Still, as affable as he may be, Lieberman is a right-leaning centrist. Is he the right person for the Democratic ticket? Those of us who value inclusion ought to be delighted about the barrier that Lieberman has shattered by being the first Jewish person on the presidential ticket. At the same time, our own ideology forces us to look past Lieberman’s religion to ask how congruent his philosophy is with all of ours.
Religion aside, would we have chosen Lieberman for the ticket given his current positions? Religion aside, has Gore made such a bold move in putting another middle-aged White man from New England on the ticket?
My dilemma with Lieberman is the dilemma that Republicans played to when they turned their national convention into the Motown Review. Republicans have long been criticized for running an all-White show so hostile that African Americans have almost fled their conventions in repulsion (I kid you not — Oakland’s Carol Ward Allen lasted a whole 24 hours at a Republican convention a decade or so ago. She returned to Oakland midway through the conventio n rebuffed by the hostility that she perceived).
Now instead of slamming doors, they have opened them, or at least changed the window dressing. And some of us have the nerve to question their motives!
The appropriate questions that were raised about the GOP convention related to the terms and conditions of their diversity, not simply the fact of it. Some Republicans said the party was “trying,” sending a message of what they wanted to be, not what they were. Critics like me said there were more Black folks on stage than in the audience, and then analyzed those on stage for good measure.
We were saying that more than numerical diversity was required of Republicans. We weren’t just asking for African American representation, we were asking for the appropriate representation. Been there, done that. Remember Clarence Thomas?
A few African Americans really thought that race mattered more to Thomas than his ideology did. They were convinced that, in the clinch, race would trump his conservatism. Quite the opposite has been true.
But the diversity dilemma is that if diversity is nothing more than a headcount, then Clarence Thomas was as good as anyone. But I’d rather have Justice Stephen Breyer than Injustice Clarence Thomas any day.
These real-world political fights have parallels in academia. We insist on diversity in hiring, then grumble when the diversity hire isn’t “Black enough” for the rest of us. Or we chafe when ill-meaning administrators take the diversity imperative literally, and hire anyone, regardless of qualifications.
In a representative world we wouldn’t have a diversity dilemma. Campuses would look so much like America that there would be room for African American liberals and conservatives, and we wouldn’t have to swallow our criticisms about a particular African American for fear that no other Black would ever get an appointment.
In our less than perfect world, though, race matters, and the diversity dilemma is something that must often be muddled through.
Both Republicans and Democrats must struggle with the diversity dilemma. What role does racial symbolism play in our pageantry? What kind of inclusion is most important — inclusion by race, or by ideology? Would we answer these questions about Lieberman differently if we were talking about Colin Powell? Can we talk our way out of the diversity dilemma?
Every time our society experiences a breakthrough, as with the Lieberman nomination, we wonder how much ground we have broken. And we grapple, again, with the diversity dilemma. We’ll have to grapple with it until our political structure resembles America a great deal more than it does now.
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