The Mosque in the Mirror

Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.

The proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero has set off a firestorm of media coverage that, for the most part, is a reflection of our broader national discourse on race, religion, and difference -- yet again highlighting our inadequate grasp of these issues. It's like a flashback of 2008, when every other week proposed a new ratings-hyping headline asking: Is so-and-so racist?

The answer, in short: yes. To quote the Broadway musical Avenue Q, "We're all a little bit racist." We could certainly add a new verse to that song this month: "We're all a little bit religiously intolerant." These conversations tend to fixate on individual prejudice, stifling a more complex and important investigation into structural and cultural racism -- dynamics that shape so much of our daily lives, differential opportunities, and experiences.

It is, indeed, depressing that a large group of Americans are advertising their ignorance about Islam and, in the process, bulldozing one of our most precious values: religious freedom. According to Time magazine, 61 percent of Americans oppose the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. But what's more depressing is that there are 8 million Muslims in America and only two have ever served in the U.S. Congress.

It's not just Tea Partiers who are the problem here. A report released this summer by the Leadership Learning Community, a national nonprofit that focuses on leadership development, calls into question the stale commitment to diversity of so many progressive Americans. How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice, co-authored by a group of the country's most cutting-edge thinkers on race and leadership, very politely points out that the left shouldn't be so quick to point fingers.

Most progressive organizations still find it very difficult to hire and maintain diverse leaders, populate their panels and publications with diverse intellectuals, and evaluate the impact of their policy recommendations and programmatic structures on people of diverse backgrounds. Though executive directors who want to keep their jobs wouldn't go on record saying as much, many see "diversity" as a thorn in their side, an expectation they are always scrambling to meet, a workplace version of a Benetton ad that they are always struggling to cast. That's not ethical investment; it's political protectiveness.

Our networks and cultural assumptions remain deeply biased and our financial resources dramatically unequal. Nonprofit directors, policy wonks, and others engaged in creating our progressive political future are well intentioned but still largely uncommitted to doing the hard work of reflecting on their own privilege and the way it shapes their organizations. W. E. B. DuBois was wrong: The talented tenth isn't enough; we need a critical mass of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-male leaders to really shift society -- affecting not just our institutions but the individual prejudice we are so quick to decry.

It's not about scrambling to find a Muslim woman for your panel or finding a black business leader to sit on your board; it's about questioning your fundamental ideas about leadership, going outside of your natural networks, and choosing discomfort over the status quo day after day. It's about systemic analysis and radical action, not feel-good cross-cultural experiences. Though racist gaffes make for salacious headlines and side-splitting humor on The Office, structural racism makes such casual prejudice look quaint.

Even our attempts to honor good work tend to highlight individual acts and ignore structural concerns. The Leadership Learning Community's report explains that leadership itself has been defined through a white, privileged lens -- as something individual and merit-based, as opposed to embedded in collaborative communities. This became all too apparent to me recently, when I was asked to recommend a young African American "super star" for an award and scholarship. When I inquired as to what the qualifications were, I was told that he or she must have started an organization or accomplished some other feat for which he or she could take individual credit.

Inherent in these requirements are all kinds of unexamined assumptions about what kind of leadership is most worthy of scholarship money. The criteria also favor students who already have access to financial and cultural capital. Many of the young people I know who are deeply committed to community organizations don't qualify for this kind of recognition but are -- by a more interdependent definition of power -- absolute "super stars." Some cultures emphasize humility and group affiliation over toot-your-own-horn, limelight-seeking leadership.

We must re-evaluate our approach to diversity within organizations, particularly on the left. We must, as Barack Obama urged us in his groundbreaking speech on race, resist the temptation to get mired in talking about individual intolerance and ignorance to the neglect of larger structural issues that still keep us so divided. And as progressives, we must not spend all of our precious energy pointing the finger at Glenn Beck followers and Sarah Palin devotees. Instead, we must push ourselves to manifest a world that is truly in line with our most radical ideas about pluralism and parity.

Correction: The piece originally credited Booker T. Washington with the idea of the "talented tenth."