On my second day at the University of Illinois, I walked into the gym to play basketball and saw three games going on – a black game, an Asian game and a white game. I instinctively started walking over to the white game, stopped, and looked back at the black and Asian guys and said (in my mind) -- hey, they look nice, they’ll let us play.
It took a minute for it to occur to me that the black and Asian guys were playing in their own games because they wanted to.
The next question hit me like a ton of bricks – why had I always walked away from the games played by the people who looked most like me, had names like mine, who called their nanima’s nanima, not grandma?
Why had I spent my whole life walking towards the white game?
And then I left the gym, because my brain about froze up.
That’s the day I became a diversity progressive -- someone who recognizes how central race, gender, sexuality and religious identity are to the shape of people’s lived experience and to the structure of our society. I started an organization, Interfaith Youth Core, that sought to address those issues on the landscape where I first discovered them myself -- the American college campus. And I’ve been involved in one cause or another related to diversity issues for something like a quarter century.
The diversity progressive movement took a giant step forward with the election of Barack Obama. But by the end of the Obama years, many of us were frustrated. We were marching about the matter of black lives and tweeting about the whiteness of the Oscars.
Right about this time -- in November of 2015, to be precise -- I read a front-page story in The New York Times that reported that the mortality rate for working-class white Americans had spiked so dramatically that the only recent reference point was AIDS in the 80's.
Suicide, alcoholism, opioids. Scholars dubbed these "deaths of despair." I recognized almost nothing of the territory being described. It might as well have been Mars. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t think the term "opioid" really registered with me until I read that article.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was often physically proximate to these environments, but psychologically and emotionally removed.
I spend a good part of my life being driven from airports to college campuses, through rural and exurban landscapes that the knowledge economy has either eaten alive or left behind, paying precisely zero attention to the lives of the inhabitants.
A few months after I read that article -- about the time that the campaign of one Donald J. Trump had transformed from a menacing cartoon to a lived horror movie -- I found myself in the back of a black car being driven to a fancy campus by an openly Trump-supporting white guy. He was perfectly polite to me, and we bantered back and forth for a while. I listed off 10 racist things that Trump said and challenged him to justify them.
Instead of answering, he asked me a question. “Hey, do you remember when Hillary said that she was going to put a whole lot of coal miners out of work?”
I thought for a minute, and then admitted I didn’t recall.
“Yeah, nobody I drive to Princeton remembers that,” he muttered.
It occurred to me that I had been derelict in a principal duty. I was a citizen of this nation and knew nothing of the lives of half its inhabitants. Moreover, I had shown no curiosity.
I set out to correct that. I started reading more about the world beyond Whole Foods America, tried my hand at conversations with people who lived around the college towns that I regularly visited. Maybe I’m just bad at it, but I got the cold shoulder a lot. It was like those people looked at me and said, “You’re an alien.”
As I shared these efforts with my diversity progressive friends, a look of disgust would cross some of their faces, and the word “traitor” came out of some mouths.
David Brooks writes about being a “boundary stalker.” I love that; it’s the poetic way of putting things. But traitor/alien for me captures the sense of isolation, and sometimes the pain, of actually doing the work.
My college-era commitments to race, gender, sexuality and religious diversity are still very much alive -- these identity categories matter. But if we want to build a functioning diverse democracy, we have to pay attention to a whole range of other categories -- geography, education level, age and health as well.
Diversity is not just about the differences we like.
Diversity work in contemporary America is really about engaging marginalization in a way that doesn’t exacerbate tribalism, dealing with tribalism in a way that doesn’t paper over marginalization and recognizing that deep disagreements will always exist and we have to build a sense of beloved community that can hold the tension.