Disparities and data

While leading Potrero Progress investigators on an historic walking tour of downtown San Francisco Thursday, I showed them the site where Charlotte Brown successfully ended street car segregation in California by refusing to go to the rear — in 1864.
When asked what they had learned, the first response was that Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to go to the back of the bus.
The vignette helps illuminate one lesson from the NAACP-Tea Party-Shirley Sherrod episode.
The only way to have a constructive conversation about race in America is to focus on information and not emotions.
Much of what the common perception of the civil rights struggle for African-Americans in America has been shaped by the confluence of the birth of television.
Before television, the control of the images of race in America was largely in the hands of those who sought to maintain the status quo.
From Jim Crow to Birth of a Nation, it was possible to demonize African-Americans in confidence that no contrary images would reach the mass public. The result was Reconstruction and “separate but equal.”
The dominant figures of the NAACP’s first 50 years were both transformational scholars: W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall. DuBois began using the discipline of sociology in order to document the conditions of African-Americans in a systematic, scientific way.
Marshall took data to document that segregation was deliberately violating the constitutional guarantees won through the Civil War.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the young theologians of the SCLC were also graduates of divinity schools, influenced by the writings and teaching of Dr. Howard Thurman, who crafted a liberation theology which would resonate with the masses.
Television capsulized all that hard work into a focus on individual oratory and riveting speeches. Even the Montgomery bus boycott was ended by a Supreme Court decision, not the demonstrations alone.
In the popular culture, we have come to connect advocacy with rhetoric instead of research. We see a thousand copy-cats of what various interest groups think the civil rights movement was about, even among those who continue to oppose the very values it represents.
The point I made to the teen scholars on the tour is that they must learn how to use the scientific method in every aspect of their lives, so that they can speak a common language with people who disagree with them or even disrespect them.
Hundreds of cities and counties had created affirmative action programs to bring African-American and other minority and women entrepreneurs into public contracting, until a spate of legal challenges.
In our new book FIND IT FAST: Local Guide to Business Inclusion, we are finding most of those localities not only holding the line, but expanding their efforts. The Supreme Court’s rulings have caused many of them to conduct disparity studies to actually measure the impact of racial discrimination in their jurisdictions. In every case we found, the city or county or school district enhanced their efforts after seeing the data, no matter what political party was involved.
When it comes to science, there is no debate about the impact of race in America.
The latest furor is over a commentary by Sen. James Webb, D-VA, calling for the end of affirmative action programs. Having supported Webb, despite his having expressed such views previously, it didn’t bother me that he was consistent. Just a few days before, he had voted for the financial reform legislation which requires banks for the first time to keep track of the race and gender of business borrowers.
With that information, we’ll be able to conclusively prove the discrimination in business credit, by institution.
Arguing about name-calling is an unproductive way to address what Attorney General Eric Holder called a “nation of cowards.” No one wants to admit being associated with evil, particularly when it is so ingrained that participants are not consciously aware of it.
During National Black Business Month, we are embarking on a strategy to restore the data-driven approaches which have been so critical to the credibility and longevity of the civil rights movement.
With the annual State of Black Business report and an array of online and mobile application products, our objective is to arm local consumers, businesses and policy makers with solid information on the important role that African-American businesses can play in the revitalization of communities.
The Sherrod incident shows how quickly those who oppose inclusion will seize on any misstep, even if they have to manufacture it.
Following in the footsteps of the greats of the civil rights movement means taking on the unseen research and homework they put into their every utterance.