Sunday, September 03, 2006

CMS and Diversity: Paternalism Disguised With Good Intentions

NOTE: Part of the "Observing The Observer" series.

By Warren Smith

Ed Williams’ August 27 editorial in the “Charlotte Observer” on “diversity” highlighted some critical issues for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) system. Williams, editor of the "Observer's" editorial pages, of course wants diversity, and he laments that “[p]ublic opinion no longer considered school diversity a priority. Nor did the law. And neither did school leaders.”

I am not opposed to diversity in our schools. The world is a marvelously diverse place, and to see an accurate and true picture of the world reflected in our schools could not help but be a good thing.

But I would argue that a close look at Williams’ editorial reveals a subtle racist ideology that lovers of true diversity and equality -- not to mention freedom and democracy -- should reject just as forcefully as the overt racism of a white supremacist.

But that may not be so obvious without a closer look at Williams’ arguments.

What is Diversity?

At the center of Williams’ argument is the idea that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are not “diverse.” But what is diversity? Approximately 11 percent of the American population is African-American. Within the past few years, Hispanics have passed African-Americans to become the largest minority group in American. They now represent about 12 percent of the population. As you might expect, in the South the percentage of African-Americans is significantly greater. Charlotte is about 33 percent African-American, about 58 percent white, and about 7 percent Hispanic.

Now, compare this to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where African-Americans make up a majority, and every other group (except whites) are also represented in greater percentages than in the population as a whole. And let’s look at the individual schools. The “whitest” schools in the district have a black population greater than the 11 percent national average. In fact, many CMS majority white schools are majority white by only a small margin.

So it is hard to understand what Williams means when he advocates for diversity. If the standard for “healthy” diversity is that the schools reflect the racial makeup of the community, we passed that mark long ago. Is Williams arguing for the pendulum to swing back? Surely not. Surely he is not saying (is he?) that blacks now have TOO MUCH power and influence, and for their power and influence to reflect their actual racial makeup in the community, it should go DOWN and not UP.

Perhaps he is talking not about race at all, but about class? It seems that this is at least a part of his argument. He quotes a blue-ribbon committee report saying that some schools should be created that actually strive for “a target of 40 percent low-income students.” This goal is supposedly in response to the fact that some CMS schools have poverty rates in excess of 90 percent.

Since the poverty rate in Mecklenburg County is less than 12 percent, it’s hard to understand how the current and immediate-past leadership could have let this happen. And are we supposed to believe that the same leadership who let this happen could somehow be trusted to lead us out of this abyss? It is also hard to understand how taking a school with 90 percent poverty and turning it into a school with only 40 percent poverty could be accomplished without forcing students – against the will of their parents – into these schools. Williams writes that “coercion is unacceptable,” but he doesn’t say how this goal will be accomplished without coercion. Does he really mean that coercion is unacceptable unless coercion is the only way to accomplish this goal of diversity? All these are vital questions, but – given the limits of our discussion here -- questions for another day.

The as-yet-unanswered question for today remains: What, exactly, does Ed Williams mean when he talks about diversity? It is not pedantic to dwell on this question, because if the word doesn’t actually mean something, it can be re-defined by ideologues to mean whatever you want it to mean to push whatever agenda you want to push. The word has to mean something. It can’t just mean “more” or “less” or “whatever I want it to mean today, but possibly something else tomorrow.” As all previous civilizations understood, and as George Orwell prophetically wrote, if words do not have specific and agreed-upon meanings, they are nothing more than instruments of tyranny.

Identifying Priorities

Now, let’s look at Williams’ second point, that diversity (again, whatever that means) is no longer a “priority” for the public, the law, nor school leaders.

First of all, Williams ignores the obvious possibility that diversity is no longer a priority because it has been achieved – or at least that these three important constituencies believe it has been achieved. The numbers cited above strongly suggest that this is the case.

But let’s concede Williams that point and grant – despite all data to the contrary – that diversity has NOT been achieved. What does it mean, then, when a “majority minority” says they no longer think diversity should be a priority?

It could mean that they consider other things to be more important. After all, isn’t that what identifying priorities really means? When I establish my priorities, I focus on those things that are the most urgent and important, and on those things where my efforts will actually make a difference.

So could it be that these vital constituencies have looked at the data, and they’ve concluded that “diversity” is either not as important as other vital issues -- such as the health and safety of children while on school property, or their academic achievement? Or it could mean that they think diversity, while important, is something that will “show up” on its own? After all, a truly diverse community needs no bureaucracy or infrastructure to create diverse institutions that are drawn from that same community. They’ll happen anyway. As one of my mentors once said, if you throw a brick off a building, you don’t need a committee to get the brick to fall to the ground. Gravity will pretty much take care of that for you.

Should Diversity Be A Priority?

The data strongly suggest that diversity, given any reasonable definition, has been achieved. Williams himself said “public opinion no longer consider school diversity a priority.” This “public opinion” presumably either is or at least is strongly represented by the mostly African-American parents of CMS. Also, that same blue-ribbon committee I mentioned above was co-chaired by Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor and Clemson’s first black undergraduate. That committee, again according to Williams, “treated diversity as an option.”

But if the black parents who now make up a majority of the parents in CMS, and black leaders who now have their hands on the senior-most leadership positions, no longer consider “diversity” a priority, one wonders why Ed Williams thinks he’s so much smarter than they are. One wonders why he would make such a case, and – as we have seen -- with the thinnest of arguments at that.

I will not speculate as to motive, but I will say that – intended or not -- it would be easy to use Williams’ own words to make an argument for paternalism as the true cause of Williams’ call for greater diversity.

So, should diversity be a “priority” in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools? I remain unconvinced by Williams’ editorial. Even our city’s black leaders seem to think other matters are more important. Either that, or they are beginning to recognize calls for “diversity” from liberal, white, do-gooders is the kind of help they do better without.

And because I happen to think that I’m NOT smarter, or better, or in any other way superior to them, I’m willing to take their word for it.

Warren Smith is the publisher of “The Charlotte World.” He can be reached at This article is the latest in his ongoing “Observing The Observer” series, articles examining “The Charlotte (NC) Observer.”