The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Diversity and Equity in Times of Crisis

By Jeff Hutchinson, May 15, 2020, Columns

"Whose lives matter?" is the question that diversity, equity, and inclusion advocates have asked for decades, but today the world watches as societies answer that question in real time. Daily news appropriately focuses on the coronavirus and the revealed health disparities, but the story of the Austin Police shooting on April 24 and the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia remind us that other issues continue to exist that disproportionately affect minority communities.

Officers fired at and killed a man trying to escape in Southeast Austin, adding another spark on the dry kindling of poor race relationships between the Austin PD and the community. Prior sparks include the April 17 report on the investigation of racism by attorney Lisa Tatum, which confirmed fears without condemning individuals. The economic and health challenges caused by COVID-19 will likely place the problem of race relationships on the back burner, and during this crisis we will witness the tendency to revert to what is comfortable and familiar.

The ideal approach to the challenge of creating an equitable culture is to proceed as if learning a language. Cultural change does not stick after a single experience or exposure any more than watching a foreign film teaches a language. Learning a language or culture is best accomplished through immersion. Living and experiencing a language while fully engaged is the gold standard of learning.

Cultural change, however, is typically taught with methods similar to teaching long division. Techniques and methods are drilled in during class and homework where participants learn how to apply a process and demonstrate that they can perform the calculation. When the class moves to the next subject and the threat of being tested has passed, learners revert to using a calculator because calculators are 1,000 times easier. In the case of cultural change, our bias is the calculator. Bias is our mental shortcut that allows us to think easier, faster, and with more familiarity. Any efforts to create systems that override our bias is best created keeping the analogy of learning a language in mind. A quick fix becomes clearly inadequate when seeing cultural change in the lens of language, knowing that there is not a quick way to become fluent in a language. Any solution will require hours of work and time to constantly move towards fluency.

The unstated question: "Is improving relationships a necessity?" translates to "Is learning another language necessary?" Those with power and social capital can exist with the current system indefinitely. For people in the privileged group, there is no urgency to change and possibly no need. For those without resources, addressing the negative consequences of inequity and exclusion is long overdue. Leaders, workers or the general population can desire a change in inequity, but the influence of each group is not equal. Many public servants have identified a need for change but are discouraged by the status quo. Some leaders have not championed changing the structure that causes inequity because there are always other pressing issues in the air. The general population is rarely united on one issue. There will always be pressing events like COVID-19, housing costs, or underemployment that seem more important than racial and cultural equity. Every acute issue has racial and cultural components, so now is indeed the time to do the work needed to learn a new language and address inequity.

Jeff Hutchinson, MD, is a retired U.S. Army colonel, adolescent medicine specialist, and consultant in leadership, diversity, and inclusion. He is an Iraq War veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the United States Military Academy and a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco.

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