Thursday, August 11, 2016

The diversity of the 2016 US women's gymnastics team

How is this for an incredible picture?

I am almost at a loss for words.  When I first saw that picture, a million questions crossed my mind.  How did we get here?  How did US gymnastics put together an elite team of gymnasts that look like a microcosm of our society?  Could we replicate this success in other contexts? If the US gymnastics team could go this far over a generation, maybe there is hope for us?

It is easy to look at this picture differently, as a critique of efforts to diversify our society.  In other words, one can look at this picture and conclude that diversity efforts are unnecessary in a world where individual merit and hard work are rewarded. Chief Justice Roberts offered a variant of this argument in his opinion in Parents Involved: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."  And once we stop, all will be well.

I don't buy it, and I don't think the Chief Justice buys it either.  A world where merit is rewarded accordingly, and where hard work takes you where you deserve to go, is not a world I recognize. It is the great American story, to be sure, but it is not reality.  Spend one moment in a hiring committee of your choice and you will know exactly what I mean.  Merit and desert are amorphous catch phrases devoid of any useful meaning.  They are conclusions, not arguments.

Which is why the US gymnastics team blows my mind.  It is one thing to put ten runners at the starting line if we are trying to decide who is the fastest of them all (think here, incidentally, about the Iliad, and particularly Achilles' struggle with merit and desert throughout the poem, and especially during the Games).  But gymnastics, where judges stand on the sidelines and award scores to individual competitors on the basis of what they see and understand, is clearly not racing.  This is a world where conventions and traditions must be followed.  This is also a world where athletes of color have been largely absent.

And that is the point.  This team is normalizing race within a sphere where race has almost served as a barrier of entry, no different from playing quarterback or running back.  And for that, I am thankful, and hopeful.  America's darlings are White, and Black, and Latina.  And so could be anyone else, whether Asian or American Indian, Muslim or Jew.

Indeed, my mind is blown.


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