Friday, May 14, 2010

Cutting the Cards

The last few days have brought a whirlwind of comments about how former Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan’s record on tenured and tenure-track faculty hiring of women and people of color may reflect a lack of commitment to racial and gender equality. As I stated earlier, I have been encouraged by the supportive statements from professors who know Kagan well and whom I know to have a strong commitment to racial and gender equality themselves.

Though I am encouraged, I am not entirely persuaded just yet. No matter how hard I try to convince myself, I keep coming back to this one saying, which has meaning beyond just the ordinary poker game: “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.”

You see, it’s not that I do not trust people like Professor Charles Ogletree or Professor Randall Kennedy. I mean, how could I not trust them? They are two of my very own heroes! Believe me, I trust them, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to fully trust, without more of a paper record, that Solicitor General Kagan will become the next Thurgood Marshall (or even somewhere in that vicinity) on legal issues that concern racial and gender equality. Let me explain why—why I find it necessary to play it safe and cut the cards.

Former President George Bush once famously proclaimed, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Okay, okay. Bush butchered the quote, but his message was clear: He will not be fooled again. I, sadly, am the exact opposite. I will be fooled again and again and again, especially when it comes to trusting in other people’s commitment to racial equality. I like to blame that four-letter word “hope” that was so powerful during Obama’s presidential campaign for my high propensity to be fooled.

Like many people who deeply believe in and fight for racial equality, I always have hope. It would be too easy for the harsh, racial realities that we see in our country to squelch my desire to want and fight for change if I did not have hope.

Hope has led me to many places, and one of the places that it repeatedly has led me is to my faith in some white liberals’ willingness to follow through on what they profess about their commitment to racial equality. Too often, though, I have learned, painfully, that I have been fooled.

Too often I experience disappointment because of the failure of white liberals to act in favor of meaningful changes toward racial equality. Far too often I have been in meetings where race-based concerns are the ones on which compromises are made or where I am told to be patient because my desired changes on race will come, even if only slowly (Recall Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or Nina Simone’s “Mississippi God&*^&”). Far too often I have been in spaces voicing concerns about overlooked minority issues, alone, and then privately approached outside of those spaces by white liberals (whom I have trusted and with whom I have fought alongside on other issues) who say, “I completely agree with you. Can you believe so and so said that? It was so offensive. I’m so glad you spoke.” And, of course, my questions and comments always are: “Why didn’t you speak? Why couldn’t you express what you’re saying to me privately in the room with all the others? You have their ears so much more than I do. After all, they will not see you as speaking out of self-interest or bias.”

You see, it’s not that my white liberal friends do not believe in racial equality. It’s not that they do not really believe in what they are saying. They do believe. They sincerely do believe in and want racial equality. More importantly, they truly do believe in their commitment to it.

And you see, that’s exactly where I usually fail. At those times, I too often forget about another saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” I fall for their words, and out of hope—hope for change, hope for allies—I trust their professed commitments without cutting the cards—without requiring real proof of action. It’s often a bad move.

Over the past few days, I have seen myself begin to fall into this same pattern again. People say, “Trust,” and my instinct is to trust—not to let go of my hope. But this time, I’m really trying to force myself to cut the cards.

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