Straight Talk On Race and American Society

From the January 2000 AAHE Bulletin

Angela Oh has traveled the country listening to Americans’ ideas about race. As a speaker at the 2000 National Conference on Higher Education, she’ll share some of what she’s heard. Here’s a preview.

Interview by Vicky Hendley

Angela Oh, a lecturer, visiting scholar, and lawyer-in-residence at the University of California-Los Angeles, is on a national speaking tour, where she leads discussions on race and the future of American society. President Clinton appointed Oh, a longtime civil rights advocate, to the President’s Initiative on Race Advisory Board, a group established in 1997 to counsel the President on ways to improve the quality of American race relations. The Board ended its work in 1998 after issuing several reports, including, "One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future."

Oh will be the speaker at the Celebration of Diversity Breakfast, April 1 at AAHE’s 2000 National Conference in Anaheim, CA.

HENDLEY: What can you tell me about your experience on the President’s Initiative on Race?

OH: The experience was extraordinary. We were able to raise such a difficult issue at the national level, and to have the support of the President. One of the things that people forget, and I think it doesn’t get said enough, is that before the President’s Initiative on Race, there already were really extraordinary things going on. One of the main values of the Race Initiative was that it affirmed the work of some terrific leadership going on at a grassroots level, at a community level, at an institutional level, and in the private sector. This is important to do, because the climate has been so contentious around issues of this country’s growing diversity.

We, as Americans, are struggling with how we feel about diversity. We say it’s at once our greatest gift, but also our most formidable challenge. We haven’t decided how we feel about our diversity, but the truth of the matter is it is our diversity that has made us innovative and successful, has allowed us to assert ourselves as a world leader. We’re the last remaining superpower. This didn’t happen on the shoulders of just a very small group of men. It happened on the shoulders of many different kinds of people contributing in many different ways, and it is that very tension, I guess you could call it, that has given us the ability to be as creative and successful as we’ve been in the world community.

HENDLEY: What were some of the unifying themes that came out of the "One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future" report issued by the President’s Initiative on Race?

OH: I think we all understood that one of the major vehicles of the Initiative was education, so there was a real focus on that. There was also a whole effort that looked at what we can do about disparities in the areas of economic opportunity, access to higher education opportunities, housing, and in the impact of our criminal justice system. These were some of the areas where we really wanted to get at some of the current and best thinking and research that’s available.

We found that a lot of people have opinions about race and race relations, but their opinions are not necessarily founded on any information to speak of, just what they’ve heard or what they see on TV or something. But when you ask people fundamental questions, like what percentage of the American population is African American, do you know that 15 percent of the people who responded to the White House survey before the Initiative was started said that they thought half the country was black?

HENDLEY: That’s interesting.

OH: It’s sad. Because the fact is, of course, that African Americans make up 12 or 13 percent of the population. (See graph, page 9.)

HENDLEY: The report looked beyond the "black and white" issue, to issues between ethnic and minority groups and also issues between white Americans and all other people of color in the United States. Do you think those concerns receive enough attention? Or do the media, in general, look only at "black vs. white" issues?

OH: I don’t think that there is enough attention paid to conversations that go beyond "black and white." Yes, it’s partly because I’m Asian American, and I know that there are many, many compelling examples that come out of the experience of Asian Americans. But I also know that enough of us haven’t written about these issues or gone into the public space with the idea that we need to look beyond just "black and white."

I also understand why we’re stuck in "black and white." It’s because more than 80 percent of our population is black or white. Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans are a small segment of the population. And it’s also because the deepest disparities are seen among African Americans, in particular young African American males. So it gives you a very specific focus for action. And when it comes to questions of what are we going to do, priorities have to be set. So it’s a compelling argument to say that we need to set priorities where there is the deepest need.

There is another way of looking at it. In behavioral sciences, you identify where you can go with the best models. This is part of what we tried to do with the President’s Initiative on Race. We tried to identify promising practices. In addition to the "One America" report, we produced another publication, which got no press, called "Pathways to One America in the 21st Century: Promising Practices for Racial Reconciliation." This is a compilation of the best practices that we found around the country related to advancing race relations and racial understanding.

That document, though it’s about the same size as the report we sent to the President, is actually a more useful document because it provides concrete examples of what has worked elsewhere.

HENDLEY: Could you give us an update on what you’ve been doing since you completed your work on the President’s Initiative on Race?

OH: I’m engaged in a national lecture tour on the subject of race and the future of American society. My full-time endeavor right now is lecturing. I’ve also been teaching at UCLA, and I will be teaching at UC-Irvine this year in the School of Social Sciences, covering current issues surrounding the whole question of race relations in America.

HENDLEY: Which leads me to my next question, which is what do you think education institutions should do to improve race relations?

OH: This conversation cannot happen just in the media, in the public space, because it would become, I think, very counterproductive. But if you were to get some thoughtful committed people, who are members of organizations like the American Association for Higher Education, to really focus on a way to balance what the interests are here, we might be able to come up with some new vehicles, some new policies, some new ways of introducing the concept of the necessity for unity.

The available data today suggests that there continues to be a divide based on color. And it’s not just performance, it’s actual access to opportunity. These are really complex issues. I left my law practice after 12 years because I knew, after working with the President’s Initiative on Race, that this conversation is going to become more complex. It’s going to become more contentious and it’s going to present greater challenges, not just for individuals, but for communities, political leaders, and people who are in positions of being able to make major institutions in our society run properly.

When I told my partners that I was hitting the road to continue the conversation I began with the President’s Initiative on Race, they suggested I just take a year leave of absence. But I told them, "What I’m about to do is not going to take a year." What’s happening in America, what’s happening in California, what’s happening in L.A. County, Orange County, San Diego County, what’s happening right now is transformative. My interest is in pulling communities together, pulling American society and its consciousness of what it means to be "an American" together.

The New Face of 21st-Century America

HENDLEY: Tell me a little bit about how you think the changing demographics are going to affect race relations. I grew up in southern California, where two languages was just something I accepted as the norm. It’s not like that in the rest of the United States.

OH: That’s right. That’s something that I have learned, and it’s pretty dramatic when you go to the East Coast and the South. When people talk about "diversity" or "people of color" in the East and in the South, it always means black. If you try to assert that it means anything else, people don’t get it. They really don’t get it. So you have to look at that reality and understand something that I learned about a year ago: Americans believe America is whatever it is that they live in their daily experience.

In other words, in L.A., we think this is what America is, diversity. But in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a city of 52,000 people, which is mostly white, very few Latinos, zero Asians that I saw, and zero blacks, they think that’s America. And when you go to New York City, they think they’re the most diverse place in the world. And when you go to places like Miami, Miami thinks they’re the ones that are the real America of the future because we’ve all heard what’s going to happen with the Latino population.

What do I think is going to happen with the growing diversity of our population? It’s anybody’s guess, but I would say it could go in two directions. One is that we could take advantage of, and really understand and recognize, that America is a young and unique country. When people come here, they are very willing to leave certain aspects of their old culture behind. They are very willing, especially when it comes to questions of democracy, fundamental principles of fairness, and due process. These are issues that people elsewhere are literally dying to have incorporated in their lives.

On the other hand, you have people here who are afraid of the migration of populations. They think it’s happening only in the U.S. It’s not. It’s happening all over the world, and this is why you’re seeing the kinds of conflicts that you’re seeing, because political leadership hasn’t gotten a handle on what you do with this diversity.

Affirmative Action

HENDLEY: Speaking of politics, what do you think of the recent flurry of antiÐaffirmative action sentiment and legislation, particularly its impact on higher education?

OH: I am a proponent of affirmative action. I believe that I benefitted from those programs as an undergraduate, graduate, and law student. I would not say that I was given an unfair shot or preference; I would not say I was a quota person. I would say that one of the things that was taken into consideration, at the time that I was applying to various schools, was my ethnicity, and there were very few Koreans at the time. Now, you’ve got a lot of Koreans.

I think it’s bad that states have passed these antiÐaffirmative action initiatives. I really do, because it sends a message that we have somehow convinced ourselves that we don’t have to think about historical discrimination or what we as a society should do to change it.

HENDLEY: Is affirmative action an issue that we should continue to fight for, or should we accept its demise and look for alternative methods of improving access?

OH: While we still need to take a position that affirmative action is a necessary and positive tool, I believe we get trapped when we think that it is the only tool for opening up equality of opportunity. There are other tools that should be considered.

HENDLEY: You’re someone who has obviously been involved with race issues in America for a long time, and you seem very positive and upbeat about the future of race relations in America.

OH: Not always. When the shootings happen, I just think, "God, when are we going to be able to get our arms around this?" But probably there will always be those incidents that will remind us what can happen if Americans don’t figure out how to make peace with our diversity.

HENDLEY: At our conference, you’ll be speaking at the Celebration of Diversity Breakfast, which is sponsored by our Asian and Pacific, Hispanic, and Women’s Caucuses for all conferees to attend. I understand your speech is going to be titled "The Politics of Possibilities."

OH: That is right.

HENDLEY: A very positive title. Can you tell me a little bit about what your speech will cover, to give a preview for our attendees?

OH: Sure. I will talk about what I see happening around the country. For your particular group, I will share some of the things that I’m hearing from young people, and from people who are actually involved in work that supports what goes on in institutions of higher learning. I’ll talk about mentorship programs, youth leadership development programs, and other efforts designed to expand opportunities, especially for minorities and other people who historically have been left on the margin.

I’ll also address America’s changing demographics, and what it means to be working in a field that everyone agrees is the only place where an answer that makes sense resides — and that’s in education.

HENDLEY: We certainly look forward to hearing your presentation. I thank you very much for your time.

OH: You’re welcome. I’ll see you in Anaheim.

This Spring’s National Conference Emphasizes Diversity & Learning

Angela Oh is one of several interesting speakers at AAHE’s 2000 National Conference, March 29–April 2 in Anaheim, CA. "Diversity & Learning" is this year’s conference theme, and activist, author, and scholar Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is the conference’s keynote speaker.

More than 150 sessions and workshops will be offered and will focus on four areas: Ensuring Access, Supporting Student Success, Creating Inclusive Curricula and Pedagogies, and Building a Diverse Faculty and Staff. Special sessions are planned for department chairs and provosts, as well as for conferees interested in service-learning or educational technology.

Featured session speakers include Gail Mellow, president of Gloucester County College, and Toni M. Forsyth, executive director of the Center for the Study of Diversity in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Foothill-DeAnza Community College District, on supporting student success; and Bob H. Suzuki, president of California Polytechnic University-Pomona, on building a diverse faculty and staff.

Special events include the Tom’s Rivera Lecture, presented by David Hayes-Bautista, professor of medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine, on Friday, March 31; AAHE’s 30th Anniversary Gala at the J. Paul Getty Museum on Saturday, April 1; and Friday’s Multicultural Celebration and Dinner, which will feature a diverse group of area students, artists, and community groups performing culturally significant orations, dances, and songs, including material written specifically for the event.

For more information, contact the conferences and meetings department, 202/293-6440 (x793).

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