MAINTAINING THE CIRCLE: CULTURE IN PLACE OF RACE IS THE KEY TO ACHIEVING DIVERSITY

Stephen M. Sachs*

This writing was prepared for the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Meeting

Albuquerque, NM, February 21-24, 2024. It is an updated and expanded version of an Op-ed in the last issue of IPJ.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down any use of race as a factor in achieving diversity in education or for other purposes in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. V. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1 it is time to focus on culture as the best means of achieving diversity. Differences in culture involve differences in experience, and different ways of seeing. That is precisely what diversity involves. It is necessary for providing well-rounded education, achieving a just society, and for realizing E Pluribus Unum: unity in diversity.

Culture should not be confused with race. Where race simply involves identifying people by skin color or an extremely broad general background, culture is particular to experience and way of seeing. People who are Black - of a general and often distant African origin - encompass persons of many distinct cultures. The child of parents from Nigeria, who are upper middle-class dwellers of New York City, are of a different culture from the African American of a poor family living on the South side of Chicago, and one of a low-income farm family in rural Mississippi, though there may be some experiences that they may all share to different degrees.

The same is the case with Native Americans. Each Indian nation has a different culture, and after the experience of colonial genocide. even on reservation there often are numerous cultural groups within each nation. Now, with the vast majority of Indians living off reservation with many of their children raised there, a wide range of cultural experience now exists across Indigenous America.

This point about culture was made before the Supreme Court in the oral argument in Bracken v. Haaland, 2 in which a strong majority of justices upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), in June 2023. Justice Kavanaugh had expressed concern that the act was racist in providing that if a family to take a removed Indian Child on its reservation could not be found, then the next choice was to find a foster parent or adopting family on another Indian reservation. Kavanaugh said, "Congress couldn't give a preference for white families for white children, for black families for black children, for Latino families for Latino children, for Asian families for Asian children." 3 Council defending ICWA pointed out that the provision was not racial, but cultural, as there were numerous Indian reservations of what had been a single or closely related people. It allowed, for example, if a foster parent could not be found on one Lakota reservation, one could be found on one of the other Lakota reservations. To correct Kavanaugh, if one were dealing with a child who happened to be White, one would not attempt to place them with a White family as such, but rather with one of their own culture. An example, is trying to place a Ukrainian child now in the U.S., who had no relative available. One would first look for a good Ukrainian family. If one were not available, then it would be proper to look for a family of a similar culture, perhaps Belorussian.

Culture involves many factors. Some of these involve ethnic background or religion, but within these there are subcultures, family and individual variations. Socio-economic status and geography, among many others, are also factors to be considered. Ultimately, culture varies with the person - their experience and reaction to it - which can often be taken into account in a complex process of making diversity decisions. An important point in decision making about diversity is in reading the individual essays of applicants. This is the one place the Supreme Court majority allowed consideration of race in overturing its general use in admissions in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. Reading those essays will usually indicate specifics of culture, especially if admissions and hiring personnel make known that cultural difference is a factor being considered. Other information concerning culture can be discerned in other parts of the admissions and hiring process, including in interviews, if decision makers clearly make culture a concern in the process,

The first purpose in making admissions and other decisions to achieve diversity is to broaden the understanding and thinking of each person involved, leading to better decision making, individually and collectively. The ultimate purpose is to achieve people understanding and respecting each other - despite differences of views - making effective democracy and a peaceful, harmonious, society a reality. This is something that we very much need in the current era.

This approach to diversity is central to Indigenous cultures. 4 Moreover, the current concern in the mainstream with achieving diversity has arisen partly from American Indian influence throughout the entire history of European-Indian interaction. 5 The traditional Indigenous approach to diversity is based on mutual respect following from the realization that all beings, indeed all that is, are related. To actualize diversity a number of crucial skills are necessary that are often lacking in current mainstream attempts to achieve it. 6 These begin with respectful, careful, empathetic, supportive listening to each person to understand their concerns and reinforce their participation in the dialogue. Too often today, people do not listen to and understand each other and engage in attacking each other on the points they agree on, instead of finding common ground while illuminating the points on which they disagree. This is necessary to include everyone's concerns, so far as possible, in any decision, making it a better course of action. Further, it is important to speak supportively to one another to build and maintain trust in each other and in the process. Finally, good facilitating is necessary to guide the discussion, keeping it focused and participants acting respectively and supportively. This usually means having a fine facilitator, but once participants are skilled in the process anyone can assist in facilitating if discussion becomes bogged down or off track.

Where good process has been used in public meetings and on workplace teams with diverse participants meaningful discussion and very good decisions have almost always emerged. By contrast, recent clashes on U.S. college campuses over the Israeli-Hamas conflict and relating to other issues over which there are major splits indicate 7 it is not enough to achieve the ends of diversity just by bringing together people of differing views and experiences. That often leads to conflict, at least in the short to medium run.

To achieve the full potential of diversity, we have to educate people to understand its purposes, to have mutual respect and to learn and apply the skills necessary for good dialogue. When this is the case, interaction produces a most positive synergy. The full potential of diversity includes achieving equality. While some efforts at the inclusiveness that underly diversity have been genuine, there are complaints that too many others have been limited to tokenism. 8 That is insufficient. However, tokenism can be a step toward inclusiveness and equality if those finding themselves tokens use their position strategically and do not become coopted. Vine Deloria indicated this in saying in a general session at a meeting of the Western Social Science Association that it was not a bad thing being a 'token Indian,' if one remembered who one was. As the sole Native on the board of what later became the National Museum of the American Indian, Deloria saw that a leverage moment existed in a board meeting just before a press conference launching an important exhibit opening. This enabled him to force the appointment of more Indians to the board, under threat of his embarrassing the board with a statement at the Press conference, with other Native leaders prepared to publicly support his statement. That began the turnover of board members that soon brought Native people into the majority, setting the stage for the eventual development of the National Museum. 9

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Professor Victor Wallis for helpful comments relating to the writing of this paper.

Notes

1 . Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. V. President and Fellows of Harvard College, October 2022 term No. 20-1199.

2. in Bracken v. Haaland, U.S. Supreme Court No. 21-376 (2022).

3. Both an audio recording and a transcript of the oral argument are available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2022/21-376_k536.pdf, with the cited discussion on p. 32.

4. Stephen M. Sachs, et al, Honoring the Circle: Ongoing Learning from American Indians on Politics and Society (Cardiff by the Sea: Waterside Productions, 2021), Vol I, Ch. 1; and LaDonna Harris, Stephen M. Sachs, Barbara Morris, et al, Recreating the Circle: The Renewal of American Indian Self-Determination (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011), Ch. 1 and 4.

5. Sachs, et al, Honoring the Circle, Vol. I and II.

6. Stephen M. Sachs, "Building Trust in in Democratic Organizations," Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 2, 1994; Sachs, et al, Honoring the Circle, Vol. II, Ch. 5, and Harris, Sachs and Morris, Recreating the Circle, Chapter 4, Section 1 concerning the process used by the Comanche Nation to return to inclusive participatory governance.

7. For example see, Rachel Treisman and Elissa Nadworny, "U.S. students are clashing over the Israel-Hamas war. What can colleges do?" Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR, October 14, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/10/14/1205809697/israel-gaza-college-campus-protests-statements; and Johanna Alonso, Ryan Quinn, Katherine Knott and Susan H. Greenberg, "A Day of Tension and Protests on Campus: Days after the Hamas terror attacks on Israeli civilians, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups of college students clashed on campuses across the U.S.," Inside Higher Ed, October 13, 2023, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/students/free-speech/2023/10/13/tension-over-israel-hamas-war-grows-college-campuses.

8. For example see, Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

9. The author attended the session, likely in 2006, in which Deloria made the statement. It was in answer to an Indian academic's complaint that he found himself limited by being a token. Deloria's response was recorded by this author in, "Power and Sovereignty: The Changing Realities of American Indian Nations," paper presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 30th-September 3, 2006. An up dated version of that paper was given at the 2008 Western Social Science Meeting and included in Proceedings of 2008 Western Social Science Association Meeting American Indian Studies Section, Indigenous Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 2, summer 2008.

*Stephen Sachs is the Senior Editor and Chair of the Editorial Board of IPJ. An applied philosopher with home in Political Science, he has long been active as researcher, writer and academic activist in Indigenous affairs. Officially, he is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Indiana University-Indianapolis.