Recently, I saw an X-Men movie in which a science-fiction mind meld mechanism allowed Wolverine to go back in time to change the course of history, defeat some bad guys, rectify mistakes the good guys made and, generally, reinvent a better, brighter world.
I was reminded of that movie when coming across an article in the Atlantic that posited that the millennial generation has a “weak” concept of diversity — that its members think it’s less about race and diversity and more about different experiences. The millennials are defined as people born roughly between the years of 1980 and 2000.
Here’s the problem with that expansive view of diversity: Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine didn’t go back 250 years in time and change the course of history regarding racism in this country. He didn’t even go as far back as the turn of the 20th century to hang out with the suffragettes and expand the vote to women more quickly.
So although things looked better — were better — when millennials were growing up, nothing in the past had really changed, and that past was still going a long way toward creating what we have right now.
It is easy to see how millennials see the world through more benevolent and progressive eyes. For example, when the oldest millennials were just 8 years old, Toni Morrison was winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “Beloved.” The television show “L.A. Law” was at its height, populated by women and multi-racial attorneys all working side by side in a tony law firm. The ratings leader “The Cosby Show” showed a family led by a black doctor and his attorney wife, raising five adorable kids in an expensive Brooklyn Heights brownstone.
Slavery and the later fight to eradicate Jim Crow segregation, along with the fight for women’s rights, from voting to job access — just to name a few of the tumultuous fights for justice — seemed like a wave of ancient history to many.
But even 15 years after the last millennial was born, women are still making less than men (with a wider discrepancy for women of color), and there isn’t even remotely a proportionate number of people of color in the professions of law and medicine, or in top levels or management. Also, studies repeatedly show that even when people of color and women reach those top rungs, they make less money.
Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is in no danger of shutting down for lack of work. The number of discrimination complaints under federal law alone — that is, not including state or internal complaints — has numbered well over 80,000 a year since 2007.
Individually and collectively, we all want the next generation to have a better life than we had. That’s a glorious goal, but one that can backfire if the next generations fail to receive context, which includes history and ongoing realities.
Diversity is about positive strides forward. But not if we don’t know what we are walking toward and what concrete things stand in our way.
Wolverine can’t go back in time to make this unnecessary. We have to acknowledge how far we’ve come — but remember what it took to get here, and not flinch from how much further we still have to go.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.