Diversity: My Perspective
BY ALLEN S. HAMMOND IV, PHIL AND BOBBIE SAN FILIPPO CHAIR AND PROFESSOR OF LAW AT SANTA CLARA LAW, AND DIRECTOR OF THE BROADBAND INSTITUTE OF CALIFORNIA
My perspective on the importance of diversity was developed by early childhood experiences growing up in segregated Washington, D.C. Like many children, watching television was a part of my day. Like many children, much of what I knew or imagined about the outside world was beginning to come from media as well. My favorite show was "Superman"—a hero who was noble, strong, caring, faster than a locomotive, and who could fly. But while Superman was wonderful, and I emulated him on the playground and every Halloween, I didn't look like him. One day, by accident, I saw a cartoon about the American folk hero, John Henry. Not knowing the story, I watched transfixed by this strong, noble, caring, articulate hero who was faster than the machine against which he competed and who looked like me. When he died at the end of the cartoon, I was crestfallen and distraught. Why did Superman win and live and John Henry win and die? Couldn't the dark hero survive winning, too? Could I be a hero and survive winning?
Meanwhile, two other popular shows at the time were "Amos and Andy," and "The Little Rascals." Both featured African-Americans who were funny but negative cultural caricatures (although I didn't know that's what they were). I just knew that I didn't act like any of them and neither did the people in my family or neighborhood. Who would trust a dissembling inarticulate lawyer like the "Kingfish"? And what self-respecting person when told to "go sit on a tack" would actually go find a tack and do so like "Buckwheat" of the Little Rascals did?
Over time, as I traveled farther from my segregated neighborhood in Washington, D.C., I came to realize that many people who had never known an African-American while growing up looked at me as if I were a cultural caricature. In high school and in college I could be a football jock (aren't all blacks good athletes?), but many classmates were surprised to find out I got good grades, was a Captain in ROTC, wrote poetry, and crafted exhibit-worthy ceramics and jewelry. Who knew? Nothing in their experience prepared them for this contradiction.
The clincher for me was a case in first-year criminal law. Granted I knew of Emmett Till's lynching, had struggled with concern and rage over the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, but because of the work of lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, I had thought the court of law to be a place devoid of snarling racist terrorists and the ignorance they espouse. So, when confronted with a case in which a black defendant was convicted of strangling to death an elderly white woman with one of her stockings solely on the basis that he wore a silk stocking cap and had duplicates in his dresser, I was incredulous. Any male from my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., would know that almost every male wore "stocking caps" made from the discarded stockings of our sisters, aunts, mothers, wives, or girlfriends. The stocking caps were worn at night to press our curly hair against our heads forming "waves" of flat curls. Most of us had more than one stocking cap. Did this defendant go to the gas chamber because of the attorneys' and jury's ignorance of prevailing black fashion? The reliance on the "shorthand" of cultural caricature and ignorance of the other was dangerous even in a court of law.
In graduate school I was encouraged to take a scholarly look at prime time television situation comedies featuring predominantly African-American casts. In the process, I began to research media portrayals of Latino, Asian, and Native Americans and American women as well as African-Americans. The cultural myopia that attended portrayals of people who looked like me was rampant in the portrayals of all of the "others" in our society. We could be criminals, athletes, singers, dancers, laborers, renegades, tragic mulattoes, housewives, and secretaries. We could always be funny or docile or tragic or dangerous, but not powerful, and almost never in control. And gay and lesbian people were not even being portrayed in the mainstream. The opportunities for misunderstanding were legion.
Later, Civil Rights, government, and industry efforts to affirmatively diversify the portrayals of minorities and women resulted in increases in the number of minorities and women in decision-making positions in media management and in increased opportunities for minorities and women to become media owners. These efforts, like many others of the time, were later undermined or stalled by the decisions of conservative jurists. But before the efforts diminished, greater diversity flourished in media boardrooms, news rooms, and studios. Programming responsive to and more expressive of the concerns and interests of communities of color and of women proliferated and opportunities for better understanding increased.
Affirmative increases in diversity in higher education also occurred, but recently, they, too, have been slowed by conservative judicial opposition similar to that experienced by efforts in media. Yet as we know from the lead article in this issue, the need for attorneys knowledgeable about and responsive to the needs of our diverse populace is growing at a time when the number of minority attorneys is not.
We live in an era in which an African American has been elected to the highest office in the land for the first time. Moreover, two of President-elect Obama's former competitors for the Democratic nomination were a woman senator and a Latino state governor. Two of the three are lawyers. It seems fair to conclude that despite retrenchment, circumstances have improved since the 1970s. We may not be able to be Superman, but we can be brilliant, articulate lawyers and serious candidates for President.
While these developments are inspiring, it would be naïve to suggest that the need for affirmative efforts is past. Many remain concerned about the media's representation of many Americans because the stereotypes about many Americans persist. And as the media continue to be owned by fewer and fewer corporations who in turn wield enormous editorial control, even with the liberating influence of the Internet, we must be careful.
Similarly, many remain concerned about the lack of growth in the number of minority lawyers because the bar and the judiciary are not representative of the people they are sworn to serve. We are a nation of more than 300 million people, speaking more than 300 languages, living over an area of more than 3.5 million square miles, having many different races and ethnicities. Under the circumstances, the opportunities for misunderstanding are legion.
A hegemony of culturally maintained myopia (whether political, corporate or legal) in a society as diverse as ours is anathema to the democracy we revere. As long as we live in communities separated by geography, race, ethnicity, gender, language, income, education, and religion, we run the risk of continuing to undermine the beauty of our diversity by relying on the shorthand of cultural caricature and ignorance. If we fail to affirmatively guard against such hegemony, understanding, justice, and democracy will suffer.