Brows furrowed, eyes focused, I was busy concentrating on my latest artistic masterpiece. As my hands carefully guided the acrylic paint across the canvas with the stroke of a brush, I became aware of a classmate standing nearby silently contemplating my subject. I paused and gave him a quizzical look. After all, my ninth grade art class was in full swing and we were supposed to be focused on our own work. Was there something that I could help him with? As if reading my mind, he said, "Why do you always paint black people?"
Without missing a beat, I replied, "Why do you always paint white people?" He had the audacity to look surprised, as if he had never given his own propensity for painting subjects that looked like him a second thought. And, for that matter, why should he? Although people of color were making strides in America's political, social and cultural life, at that time in the mid-1980s, the notion of diversity and inclusion was still a relatively novel phenomenon.
The Cosby Show was breaking television color lines and ratings with its depiction of a functioning middle class African-American family. Cabbage Patch Kids were causing riots with customers eager to purchase the brand's "diverse" line of dolls. Reginald Lewis was making history as the first black man to run a company, TLC Beatrice International, with a billion dollars in sales. Henry Cisneros was being celebrated as the second Latino mayor of a major American city. And Geraldine Ferraro was making waves as the first female vice presidential candidate of a major political party.
Although my household -- only the fourth generation from slavery on my mother's side of the family -- hungrily kept up with new "firsts" through our Jet, Ebony and Black Enterprise magazine subscriptions, how could I expect my classmate to appreciate diversity when almost every aspect of life around him reflected and affirmed his race, gender and worldview?
Today, I am reminded that we remain in the early stages of a society still struggling with how best to achieve "a more perfect union." Although there have been many more firsts, even seconds and thirds since the 1980s, Hollywood still puts out an unnerving number of movies with all-white casts, board rooms and executive suites are still overwhelmingly white and male, and the political opposition's reaction to our nation's first African-American president has been nothing short of prehistoric.
From voter suppression laws -- reminiscent of the electoral tricks and traps of the Jim Crow era -- being passed in the light of day in state houses around the country and the political assault on women's reproductive rights to the racial wealth gap, which still has African-Americans and Latinos owning only six and seven cents of wealth respectively for every one dollar of wealth owned by whites, there are disturbing signs that our nation's baby steps towards political, social and economic inclusion could be stalling.
Given the indicators, I think that the United States of America could be nearing its zero moment: the point at which people can either let regressive forces turn our nation backwards to its unsavory, unjust past or march forward towards a diverse and inclusive society that makes the possibility of achieving the American dream a realistic goal for all.
The stakes have never been higher. The nation's rapidly changing racial and ethnic demographics and growing wealth inequality suggest that if the regressive forces win, we will be heading towards a deeply divided country as stratified and destructively immoral as any of the world's most oppressive systems. Our ability to leverage our diversity as a source of economic, political, and cultural strength will be diminished. And, the image of America as a beacon of light for the world, already faltering as a result of grievous foreign relations missteps, will be snuffed out for good and our position as a global leader, gone forever.
There are those who would call my characterization of our country's alternative futures melodramatic. Yet, recent events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe serve as chilling reminders that positive, forward progress is not guaranteed, even when measured by "arc of the moral universe" standards. Given the real possibility of failure, the question to be answered is: how can we avoid a societal train wreck that could lead to a half-century or more of needless struggle and despair?
I maintain that it's time for disruptive leaders everywhere to launch an "Inclusion Revolution." We cannot plod through our days focused on our micro pursuits and expect the U.S. to put itself on a path to an equitable future. A necessary course correction will require the concerted, proactive efforts of an engaged and aware populace enlightened by leaders determined to dismantle structural barriers to progress.
This includes advancing a diversity and inclusion imperative that invades and guides our collective consciousness and moral frames of reference. This movement must transform our economic, political, cultural and social systems in a way that affirms the lived experiences and aspirations of our diverse population. It must also guide our interpersonal relationships and the daily decisions that we make that, while seemingly mundane, can make a difference when aligned with the empathetic actions of others on a similar quest.
We cannot be lulled into thinking that the country's direction is someone else's responsibility. If our hope for our children and grandchildren is peace, opportunity, and prosperity, then we must all join the Inclusion Revolution and be committed to doing what we can, when we can, while we still can.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments, and Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm committed to advancing diversity and inclusion.