Problem Solvers

Thoughts on diversity education

By Jaime M.W. Sanders

There was once a large family of cousins, the descendants of four sisters, who gathered once a year at Thanksgiving. For many years some of the cousins had been excluded from the family gathering. They were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Aunt Ingrid, who had lost her share of the family inheritance and moved away from the parents' farm. At least that is how the descendants of Aunt Cecily described it. Aunt Ingrid's descendants remembered (more accurately, I fear) that Aunt Cecily had stolen her sister's birthright and poisoned her parents' minds against Aunt Ingrid. This is not something you boast about to your children, so Aunt Cecily always referred to her sister as 'your poor Aunt Ingrid,' and Aunt Cecily's children were taught to look down on their less well-off cousins. Aunt Cecily's children, enjoying the fruits of two portions, ascribed their wealth to their own industry, and saw in their cousin's poverty proof of the poor choices natural to the offspring of 'poor Aunt Ingrid.'

Many years had passed, and some of the cousins decided it was time to let bygones be bygones and invite all the cousins to Thanksgiving, which was held on the ancestral farm owned by Aunt Cecily's descendants. Things were a little awkward, of course. Some of the ruder boys taunted Aunt Ingrid's descendants - but they made sure to do it out of hearing of the parents, and the cousins who were the victims felt shamed and didn't like to complain. When Aunt Ingrid's descendants tried to talk about their great-grandmother, whom they had loved and were proud of, the hosts quickly changed the subject - they had been taught that Aunt Ingrid was shameful - a taboo subject. When Aunt Cecily's descendants talked about their great-grandmother, Aunt Ingrid's descendants bit their tongues because it would have been rude to point out that Aunt Cecily was a liar and a thief. So there was awkward general conversation, and the evening ended with Aunt Cecily's descendants feeling generous about letting 'poor Aunt Ingrid's' family attend, (and a little hurt that they weren't more grateful), and Aunt Ingrid's descendants feeling angry at the condescension of their hosts and the insults to their children.

This parable is suggested as a metaphor for where the Oregon State Bar is with respect to race. Readers who missed them should read the recent letters to the editor on this issue in the December 2000 and February/March 2001 issues of the OSB Bulletin. One writer questioned the need for an MCLE credit requirement for 'a serious [sic] of 'do good, feel good' training classes' on diversity. 'Most of us, even old goobers like me, have figured out that gender, race and the rest of the litany don't make any difference in the work place….' Another writer rejoined that 'I can tell you without hesitation and without qualification that minority lawyers are the subject of racial discrimination in Oregon.' In the context of the parable, one person is saying 'What is the issue - everyone is invited to the party now.' Another is saying 'We are at the party, but often ignored and condescended to, and sometimes insulted.'

The parable is inaccurate, however, in that the 'party' we are dealing with is not an optional family Thanksgiving celebration, but the exclusive means of justice in our society. In May 1994, the Oregon Judicial Department published the 'Report of the Oregon Supreme Court Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System.' The finding of the study was: 'While overt, intended discrimination against minorities by nonminority judges, prosecutors, lawyers and court staff is not common, strong evidence demonstrates that racial minorities are at a disadvantage in virtually all aspects of the Oregon court system.' (Task Force Report, p. 2). It did not find that the disadvantages facing racial minorities were the result of conscious bias. The report agreed with both writers to the Bulletin that by and large lawyers have learned to not consciously discriminate on the basis of race:

If a poll were taken of all the lawyers, court staff and judges in Oregon, it is doubtful that even one person would admit that he or she discriminates against minorities in any way. 'Sure,' they might say, 'there's a problem. But someone else is causing it. Not me.' [Task Force Report, p. vi]

But the report also found wide ignorance by non-minorities of the basic realities of minority experience and culture. And it found unrecognized racial stereotypes affecting decisions. And it found that because the vast majority of lawyers and court personnel are non-minorities, this ignorance and stereotyping created results that 'should dismay all persons dedicated to the concept of equal justice for all.' (Task Force Report, p.3). The report concluded that the task of creating equal justice required that non-minorities assume responsibility for being part of the solution:

Non-minorities have brought about many of the problems that minorities encounter and are discussed in this report. Addressing these problems, and ultimately solving them, is the joint responsibility of non-minorities and minorities. [Task Force Report, p. v]

This requires non-minorities to recognize what minorities already know - that minority lawyers are the subject of racial discrimination in Oregon, and that although the party is open to all, not everyone is treated as an honored guest.

Recognition is painful for non-minorities. It requires examining the habits and attitudes learned as children, and maybe recognizing that our Grandmother Cecily lied to us. What is the objective? Is it just to encourage chronic complainers or to force us into 'political correctness?' No, it is to turn us from being co-creators of the problem to being problem-solvers. That requires not the lip service of 'political correctness,' but an active search for truth and vision. That challenges us to recognize both that gender, race and the rest of the litany don't make any difference in ability and that they nevertheless make a difference in the present workplace. It challenges us to examine whether we really are as color-blind in our hiring and promotion decisions as we think we are, or whether our racial blinders are affecting our perception of the job or of the individuals doing or seeking the job. It challenges us to create a workplace and a judicial system of true equality. 'The goal is to achieve a heterogeneous culture, one in which racial prejudice and bias, overt or covert, intended or unintended, no longer exists. How can this be achieved? By education, education and more education.' (Task Force Report, p. 21)

In promulgating the new MCLE requirement, the Oregon Supreme Court took one big step toward encouraging dialogue and education. (The new MCLE requirement was described in an article by Sylvia Stevens in the May 2001 Bulletin). The rest is up to all of us, the members of this bar. We have a choice. We can sign up for the minimum course to get MCLE credit, sit with closed ears and closed mouth, and afterwards complain to friends about the 'politically correct BS.' Or we can listen, share and learn. We can each bring our life experience and knowledge actively to bear on the issue of race. The members of this bar are a group of smart problem-solvers. Imagine the difference we could make if we each take responsibility for making this party truly open and belonging to all. +


The Understanding Racism Foundation sponsors discussions of racial issues. Small groups meet with volunteer facilitators once a week for six weeks. The curriculum includes some assigned reading and reports on reading done outside of class. All viewpoints are welcome. The class is qualified for the new MCLE credit, but the foundation is not here to 'train' participants into political correctness. Volunteers help participants talk about a subject - race - that we have mostly been taught to be silent about; to encourage people to open their own eyes and ears. The foundation welcomes your participation in the dialogue.

The members of the board of directors of the Understanding Racism are Justice Edwin Peterson, Hon. Cynthia D. Carlson, Duane Bosworth, Ken Boddie, Roger Luedtke, Chris Lundberg, Lili Olberding, Joseph A. Pugh, Joseph M. Quinones and Jaime Sanders. For information about classes, contact Mary Dail, director, Understanding Racism Foundation, P.O. Box 1089, Portland, Ore. 97207-1089; phone: (503) 274-1747; or e-mail: understandracism@qwest.net.

-Jaime Sanders


Jaime M.W. Sanders practices tax law as a member of Stoel Rives and learns about race and society as a member of the Understanding Racism Foundation.

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