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Promoting Social Equity Through Civil Rights Education For Public Service: Miles’ Law, Different Experiences, But Toward Common Action

Jun 26, 2020


Challenge
Foster Social Equity


By Phillip J. Cooper, Douglas and Candace Morgan Professor of Local Government, Department of Public Administration, Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University and Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration

 

How can we educate and motivate administrators and policymakers to include a social equity lens in public management throughout their careers?

I tried recently to respond to this question with a book simply entitled Civil Rights in Public Service. The book begins by recalling Miles’ Law, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” It is important to remember that he was not simply making the claim that people are narrowly self-interested. He was making the much more important point that each of us cannot help but see the world with our own eyes, which function from a place and with a set of lenses that are shaped by our history and our current condition. No matter how hard we try, we can never completely put ourselves in someone else’s place and see with his or her eyes.

That is not to suggest that this is an excuse to give up and simply be egocentric. Quite the contrary. It is the beginning of the discussion about respect and empathy—what it means and why it matters. Of course, in terms of these lenses, empathy means that we can and should try to understand the world as others do. Those others, in the public service setting, include particularly those who come to our organizations for assistance or those we encounter in the field in other ways as well as those with whom we work on a day-to-day basis within our own agencies or jurisdictions. The idea of empathy, with mutual respect at its core, is not easy or simple. It is a never-ending challenge, given the limits of our own lenses and the dangers of implicit bias. One of those risks is the tendency to think of empathy as a kind passive virtue rather than a principle that should motivate action. It does not mean just understanding others, but also using that knowledge to condition our own decisions and actions.

With that in mind, then, the question is about how to “educate and motivate administrators and policymakers to include a social equity lens in public management and throughout their careers.” One important answer (though by no means the only one) is to ensure that basic preparation for a career as a public service professional includes foundation education in civil rights. That foundation needs to take into account the varied experiences and concerns of the people we serve and with whom we work. Few students come to these professional education programs with even the most rudimentary knowledge of civil rights. That includes students of color. (There has never been a student entering this course, regardless of race or ethnocultural heritage who knew who Charles Hamilton Houston was, despite the fact that he was one of the most important civil rights leaders of the twentieth century and responsible not only for so much of the legal battle for civil rights, but also for training a generation of civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall.) There is very little evidence to suggest that graduate programs that are preparing those students for the profession or providing executive level education for those who have been in the field for some time are providing that foundation. That is, or at least should be, absolutely unacceptable! How can anyone take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” when they do not understand what that means in terms of civil right or what the basic requirements of civil rights under the Constitution and statutes are? The answer should be self-evident.

It is certainly the case that many programs have courses in diversity or cross-cultural communications, and more, all of which are important. And clearly many agencies or local governments as well as professional associations provide training sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Then there is, to be sure, quite a large number of consulting firms that offer their services to help identify problems within organizations or relationships between those organizations and the people they serve. Again, these are all important. But if we wish to “educate and motivate public service professionals to employ a social equity lens,” it is critical for everyone to have basic understandings of civil rights, and not just the legal rules but also the challenge of the unfinished business of ensuring civil rights for all.

One way to attempt to do this kind of socialization is to throw out the old law school-oriented ways of conceptualizing and teaching civil rights and to focus on Miles’ Law’s central message that everyone comes to this subject with his or her own lenses and understands the world and their interactions with others through those filters.

The starting point, then, is to understand that different groups of people, and particularly those who have experienced discrimination in the most intense ways over time see the issues, challenges, and unfinished business of civil rights differently. This idea should not be new, but there is surprisingly little recognition of what it means or what those differences are. Thus, the book and the course in the MPA program at Portland State University start with an attempt to understand the rulings by the Supreme Court concerning African Americans reaching back to the fugitive slave cases and moving forward to a criminal justice system, including capital punishment, rife with racism. Then the course steps back to the early cases on the Native American experience of the early nineteenth century and moving forward to the twenty-first, with clear evidence that there remains so much damage and so little progress on so many key questions. Then we step back to the early cases involving Latino’s, specifically to the first year of New Mexico’s State Supreme Court as it entered the union and that court’s ruling on peonage (later used to overturn similar practices employed against African Americans in the South), coming forward to the time when in 1954 the state of Texas would argue before the Supreme Court of the United State that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not even apply to Latinos. We come forward again to today’s challenges. Then we step back in time once again to discrimination against women, recognizing that many women also face racial discrimination. We go back to the time when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn an Illinois ruling prohibiting an outstanding woman lawyer from practicing in the state because she was married and could not sign a contract to represent a client. Again, we move forward, recognizing that most of what has changed in civil rights law has really come since the 1970s (notwithstanding the prohibition in Title VII against discrimination on the basis of sex in employment). We then step back and consider LGBTQ issues going back in time and moving forward to the present, this time with most of the major U.S. Supreme Court civil rights rulings having come since 2003. Last, but absolutely not least, we go back in time to the horrendous case of Buck v. Bell and the tragic issues of discrimination against persons with disabilities and moving forward to the present. For each of these groups of people, what counts as a civil rights issue can be very different, even though some experiences and challenges are common across a number of them.

In doing this, we use edited Supreme Court (and sometimes lower court) opinions as well as other important documents (edited). Approaching the material this way has an effect on students far different from having a professor in the front of the room just lecturing about the importance of civil rights or hammering away on the legal rules. Justice Thurgood Marshall explained that many African Americans have never read the Dred Scott ruling and yet they have come to know and feel at a visceral level the racial animus that flows through its venomous passages. It never fails to impress an instructor how much of an impact it has when white students read even an edited version of that opinion. The same is true of students of color. This response recalls John Rohr's explanation, in his classic Ethics for Bureaucrats, of the power of using judicial opinions not to present the rules, but to show critically important discussions of the most sensitive and challenging issues.

The same reactions are clear among students when they read the Supreme Court’s rulings insisting that the federal government has the authority to govern Native American tribes and nations and their people by right of “discovery and conquest.” The same things happen when students read the early gender discrimination cases or those like the Texas case mentioned above concerning equal protection of the law for Latinos. The documents, including federal employment documents and congressional reports, and edited cases concerning LGBTQ Americans have similarly profound effects. Finally, when students read about the court reporter in Tennessee who had to have a judge carry her into the restroom and a defendant who was made to crawl up the stairs to the courtroom because the jurisdiction did not address ADA accessibility requirements, they understand the experiences and perspectives of others in a way no professor could ever instill.

The number of students who write to say that this was a transformative experience for them and one that they will carry with them into their careers and for years to come is impressive. They recognize not only that others have very different lenses, but that they, too, have lenses that have been shaped and colored by their own experience. These are the lenses through which they will see the people they will serve and the other professionals with whom they will work.

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