Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Superstition Pure and Simple



As some of you may know, I'm an adjunct faculty member at Boston University's School of Social Work. I've been teaching a course about the implications of racism for social work practice. At our last class we watched and discussed a lecture given by Tim Wise (you can watch the lecture here and I highly recommend that you do so). One of the things that Tim Wise talked about was the denial of white Americans of the reality of racism, citing recent poll data and polling done in the 1960's.

Today, Charles Blow of the New York Times offers commentary on another poll with some data you might find interesting:

"The poll found that 62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.

It’s an extraordinary set of responses. And my question is the same one used by the right to defend the Tea Party against claims of racism: Where’s the proof? There’s a mound of scientific evidence a mile high that documents the broad, systematic and structural discrimination against minorities. Where’s the comparable mound of documentation for discrimination against whites? There isn’t one." (read the whole column here)

What I would say is that Charles, there doesn't need to be a mound of documentation for discrimination against whites. People just have to believe it to be so. I would also say that this represents not only an intellectual or political problem but a deeply spiritual one. Baha'u'llah put it this way:

"People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude...God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 57)

Superstition is a term that I rarely hear used in the context of discussing race and racism in the United States, but I think it is a good fit for the beliefs of many white Americans (and Americans of color too for that matter but that's for another post). Speaking in Paris in the early 20th century, 'Abdu'l-Baha made the following statement: "Concerning the prejudice of race: it is an illusion, a superstition pure and simple!" (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 148)

Denial is an accurate, but insufficient term to describe the phenomenon reflected in polls like the ones that Charles Blow and Tim Wise are referring to. Superstition may be a better term because it speaks to the inherent irrationality of such beliefs and the commitment people have to upholding those beliefs in spite of the evidence. Superstition also goes beyond beliefs and is enacted in behaviors, rituals, practices. The beliefs reflected in such polls become personal behaviors and public policy which is where their true power finds expression. Perhaps superstition is a word that needs to be introduced into our discourse about race and racism in America.





23 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:24 PM

    Talk to an American, Middle-Class White Male and he'll tell you about the discrimination he faces due to Affirmative Action and other programs.

    Middle-class White Males are fortunate to receive any sort of funding to go into college. It is disappointing because they didn't choose to be male, white, or middle class either.

    There shouldn't be discrimination against ANYONE, and this just continues the anger in the United States. How do you say that's fair that everyone else that some air of minority about them (female, ethnicity, etc) gets funding, but the White Middle class males hardly do?

    Affirmative action has done more harm than good by trying to bring balance, but then creating imbalance instead. The pendulum continues to swing back and forth...

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  2. Anonymous I have talked to American middle class white males and many of them would disagree with you (Including Tim Wise if you watched his lecture). The evidence simply does not support what you are saying, which is my point. That is the problem, not affirmative action or so called discrimination against white males. What you are suggesting reflects a narrative which is a reaction to the modest gains of the civil rights movement which directly challenged a system of white supremacy which was the norm for the entire history of this country up until that point. Since that time there has a been a systematic manipulation of whites by those who have never supported the goals of the civil rights movement to encourage a culture of grievance against alleged wrongs that are being perpetrated against them. By the way, if affirmative action is so bad for the country, what do you suggest as an alternative that would actually result in greater racial equity and justice?

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  3. This reminds me of what I heard a fellow white student said in a sociology class, once. "If black people want to form a Black Club at a highschool, they are encouraged. But if I founded a White Club, I would be called a racist!" It's the kind of argument that only looks at the surface of things, but doesn't go beyond that. Yes, given no context whatsoever, if black people were allowed to form a Black Club at a school and white people weren't allowed to form a White Club, that would be systematic prejudice.

    In the context of the discourse, however, our class was talking about a school that was mostly represented of white people, and only had a handful of black students. In such a context, what would be the purpose of forming a "White Club" if whites were the overwhelming majority of the student population? Also, the charge that "we would be called racists" is a common refrain among people who are racially prejudiced, and are projecting their own racism by claiming that other people will call them racists if they were to do the same things that "all the minorities" are allowed to do.

    At the same time, it is important to note that prejudice comes in all colors, sizes, religions, etc. Just because someone is white, that doesn't mean they don't have feelings and those feelings don't get hurt. White people have racial epithets thrown at them, too. But as far as "widespread" discrimination against whites is concerned, I'm not seeing it. Prejudice from some people, most definitely. But state and corporate racism, not at all.

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  4. James you are making a good point. When people make such statements they are suggesting that there is a moral equivalency between racism (whites only spaces) and responses to or outcomes of racism (people of color creating spaces where they can experience affirmation, safety and healing). On the surface the behaviors look similar but have completely different causes, motives and outcomes. To suggest otherwise doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, it doesn't have to make sense which is what this post is all about.

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  5. Peter7:15 PM

    A brilliant delineation of the historical and current basis for views which affirm the alleged harm of affirmative action is to be found in Charles W. Mill's The Racial Contract. This seminal work and academic bestseller is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand these and other related issues.

    As Professor Pateman put it in her review of the book: "Fish don't see water, men don't see patriarchy, and white philosophers don't see white supremacy. We can do little about fish. Carole Pateman and others have made the sexual contract visible for those who care to look. Now Charles Mills has made it equally clear how whites dominate people of color, even (or especially) when they have no such intention..." I would add to white philosphers the many whites like "Anonymous" who have no idea of the extent of their domination or what underpins their strongly held negative views of affirmative action.

    Some reviews can be found here: http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/cup_detail.taf?ti_id=2961 and here: http://www.amazon.com/Racial-Contract-Charles-W-Mills/dp/0801484634/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1290463530&sr=1-1. Professor Mills's proifile at Northwestern: http://www.philosophy.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/mills.html

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  6. Peter7:16 PM

    A brilliant delineation of the historical and current basis for views which affirm the alleged harm of affiramtive action is to be found in Charles W. Mill's The Racial Contract. This seminal work and academic bestseller is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand these and other related issues.

    As Professor Pateman put it in her review of the book: "Fish don't see water, men don't see patriarchy, and white philosophers don't see white supremacy. We can do little about fish. Carole Pateman and others have made the sexual contract visible for those who care to look. Now Charles Mills has made it equally clear how whites dominate people of color, even (or especially) when they have no such intention..."

    I would add to white philosphers the many whites who have no idea of the extent of their domination or what underpins their strongly held negative views of affirmative action.

    Some reviews can be found here: http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/cup_detail.taf?ti_id=2961 and here: http://www.amazon.com/Racial-Contract-Charles-W-Mills/dp/0801484634/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1290463530&sr=1-1. Professor Mills's proifile at Northwestern: http://www.philosophy.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/mills.html

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  7. Affirmative Action, as it is typically implemented, is by its nature divisive. Any instance in which people are pre-selected by skin color, gender, culture, or ethnicity will be seen as "racist"... because it is. Worse, it is patronizingly so. The immediate assumption one can/should make when seeing grants, scholarships, internships, etc. open only to the melanin-rich, is that the sponsors believe that Negroid people are unable to compete with their Caucasoid neighbors.

    The affected minorities should be the first to reject all such discrimination based upon race/color/gender. This discrimination was exactly what the civil rights movement of the 1960's was fighting. The fight then was to be recognized for "the content of your character", not the color of your skin.

    So, do the whites who protest affirmative action when they find themselves excluded for their skin color have a legitimate grievance? Certainly. And so do the intended targets of the largess who are being treated as inferior.

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  8. Anonymous6:08 AM

    I just don't see why it is such a huge problem to select people based on their skills and that only. Who cares who they are? Why not just let the best person receive the job? Why not let the best person receive the scholarship? These attempts at causing social change just cause bitterness in others. By giving other groups more than others is demoralizing for those who truly try to succeed.

    It is unfair to a person who is qualified for a position to not get it just because the employer must fill a quota and place a possibly less-qualified person in that place just to satisfy the mandates of affirmative action. There shouldn't have to be anything in place in government like affirmative action. A woman is just as qualified as a man to perform a job. If one tries hard, it is not an issue. The same goes for anyone else that is considered a minority. While their culture may undermine them, it is ultimately up to them to try hard and succeed. We've already seen the damage caused by the Welfare system on Black families.

    Fairness should be expressed in all ways, and that means one group of people should not receive more benefits than the other. While we should remember the past, and take consideration of it, that should not mean it dominates the future and prevents completely equal change.

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  9. Reed and Anonymous, the problem with what you are saying is the affirmative action has actually worked as far as promoting at least some degree of racial equity. As I've said you offer no meaningful alternative that would have that outcome (so called race neutral policies do not). Secondly, affirmative action is not just about so called less qualified people getting jobs. The idea that it is is part of the narrative that has been created by people who have long sought to undermine the gains of the civil rights movement by manipulating white resentments. Third, you fail to acknowledge the source of the differences when they do exist in qualifications of applicants whether for jobs or schools, namely 400 years of systemic racial discrimination. You are confusing racism with efforts to combat it which is illogical and exactly my point. The notion that whites are suffering discrimination when on every conceivable measure of well-being they are doing better than racial minorities (even with affirmative action by the way) simply makes no sense. But it doesn't have to make sense which is what I'm getting at. Your arguments are making my point for me. We will never be able to solve the problem of racism until we start telling the truth about what has actually happened and what is actually happening. Whites have been complaining that they are somehow being victimized by people of color sense they first got off the boat in North America. It wasn't true then and it is not true now.

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  10. I've heard the 'we're the ones who suffer' speech before... In 1930 Germany.

    Look at the ACTUAL numbers of Black students, Latino students going to college versus White. The numbers don't even match up with population demographics as a whole.

    Now, I'll grant you that there has been problems with Affirmative Action. "Injustices" as it were... But here is how WARPED we are as a society (and we ARE a society): we hear of these INDIVIDUAL stories where a 'less qualified beat out a more qualified...' and we are utterly blind to seeing that this is NOT an 'individual -vs- individual' issue, which is what it's been MADE INTO by those desiring to destroy racial unity - instead of being seen for what it is - a NEED in American SOCIETY to try and bring BALANCE to this society - so that there ARE no permanent underclass...

    What those with power and money have done beautifully over the past 30 years has pitted the dwindling Middle Class against both the lower class and members of it's OWN economic class - as the pie shrank - instead of looking at who was stealing the pie.

    "Oh, it's the fault of the unqualified Black single mom taking my White dad's job!"

    NO! It's the fact that the corporate powers-that-be came in and convinced the local and state government that, in exchange for 'jobs' the company wouldn't be paying ANY taxes... So the burden of covering the costs of the "Commons" the roads, the sewers, water supply, power grid, schools, libraries, etc., etc., etc., fell on the rest of us... Fewer and fewer taxes to go around. So now, Affirmative Action, the law of the land continues to operate and your father, who worked for the county 'loses' his job... He wouldn't have lost it AT ALL had the damn corporation been paying IT'S FAIR SHARE of taxes...

    This is happening all across America. The 'economic royalists' have done a marvelous job of turning us, one against the other.

    Jim Harrison

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  11. Thanks for weighing in Jim.

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  12. It certainly feels unimpressive, unexotic to scroll down the list of ethnicities and backgrounds on my PhD application, and beneath the multi-hyphenated/dashed worldly self descriptions to check the radio button next to "White." Perhaps if I choose not to answer they'll think I'm possibly something different, or perhaps they'll know that I'm hiding and count that against me?

    I was riding the subway back from class today in Cairo, Egypt. As usual, the car was squished full of men, and although I was standing next to my husband I could feel the eyes of some young men next to us staring at me; it was itching on my skin. I could hear their whispers as they leaned into each other's ears, and their mocking of the tone of my voice. I wanted to stop smiling and laughing with my husband, and look away silent. Taking advantage of an exiting shuffle, I pulled my husband in between me and their stare. At his quizzical look I said, "you don't notice those comments, do you?" He thought and responded, "well I guess I'm not looking to notice them." I wondered if I were simply hyper-sensitive, but shook away that thought, saying: "I suppose it's easier to do that when they aren't about you."

    What privilege is is the privilege to not know about the struggles and sufferings of others. Perhaps you think that you are all on an equal plane, and the fiction of rugged individualism makes it seem clear that our rewards should be simply based on merit. And perhaps you did work hard for all of the things that you've done to get you to this point. But that obscures the fact that your high powered aunt got you that internship on your resume, or your well-functioning high school prepared you for college and helped you apply, or your family taught you how to dress and speak at interviews so as to best seem "professional."

    It is incumbent upon those of us who come from any sort of privilege to strive to learn about the condition of the other members of our human family, and strive when we are able (sometimes even using our privilege) to work towards equality. If that means that a minority candidate is preferenced over me because of race, the least I can do is accept that and take advantage of one of the other opportunities available to me, and then go home and encourage the minority members of my neighborhood's youth group to attend college.

    As was inevitable, more young men appeared on the other side of my husband, staring me up and down and whispering. I looked up at my husband, who empathetically said, "I noticed that." There wasn't much to be done, but at least he understood and was on my side.

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  13. Thanks Caity for offering your thoughts all the way from Cairo. An articulate reflection on the nature of white privilege indeed.

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  14. Phillipe,

    You didn't address the points I made but tried to pigeonhole my "position". That, BTW, is divisive, serving only to avoid discourse.

    You wish to "start telling the truth about what has actually happened and what is actually happening" ? Okay, I did. What many of us fought to achieve in the 1960's was to provide an environment for real equality of the "races" (we know there is only one race, but we will use the terms "races" for ease). When the Supreme Court determined that separate was inherently unequal in Brown v. Board of Education it was said in part:

    "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group...Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. ”
    —Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

    Now you would have it that that decision is wrong. You wish, through Affirmative Action, for there to always exist "separate but unequal"; that is, you want separate opportunities based upon skin color or ethnicity.

    "the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group...Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected." That is what I was alluding to: by using Affirmative Action, the dominant force (is that white?) is telling the other races that they are unable to compete fairly because they are inferior. Any who accept such handouts are tacitly agreeing.

    This is not "fair play". Fair play would be if we all had the same opportunity to prepare for the game. That will never be the case. For the fifty white, Hispanic, and black youths in the inner city who can't do their high school math homework because their neighbor is being beaten, their power was turned off, or they are just too hungry...
    there are fifty black, Hispanic, and white youth of entitlement in the suburbs who can't get their math homework done because their parents are fighting again and screaming divorce...

    Asians face discrimination as well. And Affirmative Action accords them minority status. Yet, since you wish to look at people by color rather than as individuals, statistics show that the Asian people in the US consistently score the highest in standardized tests. They have no need for Affirmative Action. Now, the white inner-city poor might be better candidates for your pity; except that they are, lamentably, white.

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  15. There are different ethnic groups out there, but there is only one race and that's human. On aplication forms in the blank space sometimes provided, I put Human. Discrimination is based on fear and ignorance. Educate yourselves and your ingorance dissapears and the fear has no power over you. Treat everyone the same and their and your character will be revealed. It's not always pretty, and emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically someone will get hurt. But how can you grow as an individual, as a society, if you don't?

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  16. Phillipe,
    You wish to "start telling the truth about what has actually happened and what is actually happening" ? Okay, I did. What many of us sought to achieve in the 1960's was to provide an environment for real equality of the "races" (we know there is only one race, but we will use the terms "races" for ease). When the Supreme Court determined that separate was inherently unequal in Brown v. Board of Education it was said in part:

    "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group...Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. ”
    —Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

    Now you would have it that that decision is wrong. You wish, through Affirmative Action, for there to always exist "separate but unequal"; that is, you want separate opportunities based upon skin color or ethnicity.

    "the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group...Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected." That is what I was alluding to: by using Affirmative Action, the dominant force (is that white?) is telling the other races that they are unable to compete fairly because they are inferior. Any who accept such handouts are tacitly agreeing.

    This is not "fair play". Fair play would be if we all had the same opportunity to prepare for the game. That will never be the case. For the fifty white, Hispanic, and black youths in the inner city who can't do their high school math homework because their neighbor is being beaten, their power was turned off, or they are just too hungry...
    there are fifty black, Hispanic, and white youth of entitlement in the suburbs who can't get their math homework done because their parents are fighting again and screaming divorce...

    Asians face discrimination as well. And Affirmative Action accords them minority status. Yet, since you wish to look at people by color rather than as individuals, statistics show that the Asian people in the US consistently score the highest in standardized tests. They have no need for Affirmative Action. Now, the white inner-city poor might be better candidates for your pity; except that they are, lamentably, white.

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  17. I'll take justice over fairness every time. Thanks for the posting.

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  18. Reed you are trotting out every anti-affirmative action talking point in the book. Affirmative action is not a hand out and not tacit agreement that minorities are inferior, nor is it bad for their self-esteem or anything else that you claim. Also, you might want to read some Tim Wise because he does a great job of bursting the "Asians are all doing better" bubble that again is simply repeated over and over without taking the time to look a little deeper. Your fair play approach doesn't work in reality, but that doesn't really matter because affirmative action is just bad, bad, bad. Pity? No it's about power. Power requires real changes in social policy. Without affirmative action virtually none of the modest progress made regarding racial equity in the past 40 years would have been made. Not one. There would be no Oprahs, Obamas, Powells, Rices and so on. But apparently none of that matters because all that matters is fair play. I have to respectfully disagree. Even if what you were saying were accurate, to suggest that the country is not better off because of affirmative action is to suggest that it would be better if things hadn't changed since the 60's. I doubt that is what you believe but that is the implication of your argument.

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  19. There are blacks who are prejudiced against whites and whites who are prejudiced against blacks. That is prejudice. Racism used in a sociological context is different as it applies to the societal structure. There is racism and sexism in our societal structure. It might be less emotional to look at it from a gender perspective. Over the last forty years, women went from a minority group on college campuses to a majority at most institutions and there are more employed working women then men. However, you see far fewer women in the highest positions in the workplace and in colleges. The majority of professors are men. Despite the gains made by women, they are still not making it to the top of corporations, politics, college Presidents and professors, and even in the historically female dominated institution of public education. Why? Because the top power position in those institution are male dominated and they have a pro-male bias. Even with affirmative action, the power brokers are not choosing women. It is very difficult to change the top POWER corporate culture. And, the women making it to the top are put in a position of negating their feminine qualities which are seen as negative.

    It is very difficult to change the structure of an organization and our society is made up of large, medium and small organizations. We are seeing more family structures changing to include family members of different 'races', religions and ethnic groups which is changing our neighborhoods and local schools. However, the very large and powerful institutions are slower to change and that is evident in the fact that majority of these institutions power-brokers are white males.

    As a white woman, I have seen positive changes in the gender and racial attitudes within the USA. However, I still hear racist and sexist comments and the election of President Obama has brought out the worst in some people. But, in many ways, it is a good thing because it is the poison rising to the surface where it can be seen rather then hidden.

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  20. Phillipe,

    As you are a scholar, I expect better application of logic and citing from you. Your response is a compendium of logical fallacies:
    1. Guilt by Association - "trotting our talking points"
    2. Begging the Question - "Affirmative action is not a hand out and not tacit agreement that minorities are inferior, nor is it bad for their self-esteem or anything else that you claim."
    3. Begging the Question - "Without Affirmative Action..."
    4. Appeal to Common Practice - "Oprah,..."
    5. Strawman - "But apparently none of that matters because..."

    Your major logical fallacy, however, is the "Two Wrongs Make A Right" argument; i.e.,
    a/ All discrimination is wrong
    b/ Whites discriminated in favor of whites; which is wrong
    c/ Therefore, discrimination against whites is right.

    More discrimination does not bring justice; if an action is wrong, the outcome is tainted, even if the outcome is "desirable." Surely you don't need quotes from the Writings of the Manifestations of God to support this, that would be volumes. And the taint of Affirmative Action is evident. Would you rather trust your son to a heart specialist who was admitted to medical school based upon his skin color, or one who made it entirely through merit? Wouldn't doubts always linger about the qualifications of a doctor, policeman, fireman, etc. who was allowed to enter the field with 60% when those of a lighter hue required 90%? They are tainted by Affirmative Action. They needed the rules relaxed because they are inherently inferior --- isn't that the real message of Affirmative Action?

    Finally, punishing the son for the sins of the father does not bring justice; i.e., considering Affirmative Action as "reparations" for past injustices.

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  21. Reed I've been reading your comments for years now. Each time your comments provide an illustration of the very things that I'm raising in the original post. You're still doing it now. That's fine because you're entitled to your opinions like anyone else. I'll leave to readers to decide if they agree with your arguments or not. I'm moving on. Thanks.

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  22. I find that the issue is multi-faceted.
    There are those who believe they are looking to hire people from all backgrounds, but do not allow for experience to replace a lack of University Degree. In some fields that's not possible but in many, such as I.T., experience is worth more than degrees a lot of times. Take for example the guy who couldn't afford the 4-year university, who went to community college and got an AA, but who has 10 years of experience now managing a datacenter, trying to move up and applies for a job requiring a bachelor's degree and 5 years experience. This person would be over-qualified in reality, but many HR departments will drop the resume because he has no BS, leaving such an applicant out in the cold.

    Affirmative action works because it forces managers who are stuck in a paradigm of 'qualification' to hire outside their comfort zone, and to hopefully discover more about what an employee can truly contribute to an organization

    As I look around my own department, the black folks are few and far between, scattered between a handful of asians, and a whole mess of white folk. If there was really no discrimination, then the department would at least represent something closer to the racial breakdown for the town. it's not even close.

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