Minority Issues Are Everyone's Issues: Part I

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Editor's note: This is a follow-up article to "The Right Audience", which was published on MiSciNet last month.

In my column last month, I promised to provide a follow-up examination of the main reasons why everyone in society (and in science) should care about the plight of minorities. The issue of true equality, transparency of operations, and fairness in work and family life cuts across all racial and gender boundaries, so it is something that every human being should be interested in. However, as I discussed last month, sometimes people only care about such issues when it starts to affect them. Until that time, they bask in the sunlight, oblivious to how their actions adversely affect others. Hopefully, this will change over time because people will begin to realize that every person is of value to society and no one should be left behind. Why? Succinctly put, "because everyone benefits."

Why Should You Care?

Reason #1: It's the Right Thing to Do.

In the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., I will say that appealing to the inherent goodness of people is one way to approach the problem. People should simply do the right thing, which is to stop being selfish and allow everyone access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are some of the most beautiful words ever spoken and eloquently describe the stakes when minority issues are ignored because the majority feels that the status quo is just fine.

That is, until it affects them. ...

Then, you get phrases like "reverse discrimination" being used, but how can reverse discrimination occur if there was no discrimination to contend with in the first place? This most often leads to a ground swell of antiminority sentiment, as if minorities were the root cause of the problem. How can anyone believe just because a person is a member of a certain segment of society, he or she is more deserving than someone else? If you take nothing else from this article, please do not buy into this argument because people are people and everyone deserves a shot at the top prize; it is not reserved for a privileged few!

In addition, I hope the populace dares to ask questions and understands that the majority opinion is not always right. Many examples abound of instances where prevailing law was outright immoral and/or wrong and the law of the land was eventually changed for the betterment of society. For example, women could not vote until the 19th amendment to the constitution was passed, and those of African descent were only considered three-fifths human early in our country's history! Similar struggles are going on in today's immigrant communities and gay population. These battles all have their foundation in the fundamental belief that every human being has certain inalienable rights that allow them access and quality of opportunity.

Reason #2: The Bottom Line is the "Bottom Line."

A recent article by fellow MiSciNet author, Clinton Parks, "Diversity in the Workforce: Industry Versus Academia" explains why including minorities as full participating members of the workforce and greater society simply makes good business sense. Diversity of ideas is a boon to business and so is having the ability to understand what the needs of different markets are. Put another way, this principle also says that the only color that matters is green. Although I have not seen the movie, A Day Without a Mexican, it supposedly brings this point home. What is the economic impact of marginalizing an entire people? It is certainly worthy of examination and I fully support this type of exercise.

Reason #3: What Comes Around, Goes Around.

How would a member of the majority feel if they were to become the minority? Well, in case you missed it, the 2000 census showed that Caucasians made up less than 50% of the population of the 100 largest cities in the United States for the first time in history. It's only a matter of time before the shift becomes more pronounced and people really start to notice. What this means is that nonminority groups can no longer afford to ignore everyone else in pursuit of their own causes. When they are the "minority," they will want the same level of respect and access to opportunity that should be afforded to everyone.

My fear is that when gains for minority groups become the norm instead of the exception, resentment will build and things will become more chaotic than ever. Hopefully, my predictions will be wrong. The key will be to have people start now in developing a healthy respect for others and their inalienable rights. If this happens, then there will be nothing to be afraid of. In fact, the only reason for a member of the majority to fear the changing demographics is if they feel past mistreatment of minorities means that they will suffer as they have seen minorities suffer at certain times from majority rule. That's the best incentive I know. To use the Golden Rule we all learned in first grade--"Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You."

An Improved Society

The reasons for everyone to care about equality of opportunity are clear. Society is better off when all of its constituents have equal access to opportunity. Remember that equality of outcome is never guaranteed because each individual will handle an opportunity differently. Some will soar to great heights, while others will crash and burn. However, if given a fair shake in life and a level playing field, no one can dispute those outcomes. Only then will bias against minorities be eliminated--that is, when individual ability matters most and everyone has had access to the same educational tools and global opportunities. The way things are now, individual ability is obscured by prejudice, lack of access to opportunity, and the biggest cop-out ever, "this is the way things have always been."

I will continue this thread next month because it is a really important topic. Real, substantive changes are necessary, so expect more discussion to follow. Ask yourself, "Why should minority issues be everyone's issues?" What can be done about the problems that currently exist? Until then, please feel free to forward this information to people you think will benefit. In addition, I would love to hear your comments and suggestions!

It's a long road to equality of opportunity and to a completely race- and gender-blind society, but it is worth every single step getting there.

--Dr. Clemmons

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