Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Toward a More Perfect Union
in an Age of Diversity


Social Contract for the Year 2000:
Diversity as an Asset

by Henry G. Cisneros


The following was excerpted from a keynote speech to the National Civic League's 98th National Conference on Diversity, on November 13, 1992, in Los Angeles, CA.


It is a treat to be in Los Angeles ... I have great respect for this community. I continue to see it as the leading edge of pioneering opportunities -- as well, to be sure, of problems that confront the entire country. This is a special place. In no way is it more special than as an example of diversity that will soon sweep across America.

California grew by some 25 percent in the 1980s. It grew from 23 million people to almost 30 million people, but the real story of that growth is the significance of the 25 percent increase in what was already the largest state in America by far. Thirty million people here compared to the second largest state in America, New York, which has something less than 17 million people.

The real story of that growth of 25 percent was the growth of different groups within the California population. Keep in mind the number 25 percent overall growth in the 1980s. But the Hispanic population in California grew by 69 percent in the 1980s. The African-American population grew by about the average, a little less than 25 percent. The Asian-American population grew by 127 percent during that period. The white population of California grew by 13.8 percent. Again, phenomenal rates of growth, and that Asian-American growth of 127 percent is not the traditional Chinese-American and Japanese-American populations but Philippino, and Korean, and Asian-Indian, and Hmong, and Cambodian, and Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Laotian.

As a result of these rates of growth, during this decade California's population will become majority Hispanic-, Asian-, and African-American. Indeed, the Rand Corporation concludes that in the year 2000, just eight years from now, 92 percent of the people of California will live in a county that is at least 35 percent Hispanic-, Asian- and African-American. Ninety-two percent of the people of California will live in a county that is at least 35 percent minority.

One looks at numbers for key cities in California and the numbers are equally striking. San Jose, for example, in Northern California, had an overall growth rate of 24.3 percent. The white population grew by only 4.4 percent which tips you off quickly that the growth had to come from other population groups. Indeed, the Hispanic population grew by 48 percent. The African-American population grew by 27 percent and the Asian-American population in San Jose by 187 percent.

One of the most interesting things about this process unfolding in California is the number of communities that are quickly becoming majority Hispanic-, Asian-, and African-American. There are 19 communities over 100,000 population where the population is better that 50 percent Hispanic-, Asian-, and African-American ...

The reality of this kind of demographic change, accompanied by the realities of economic change and growth in poverty, create a devastating combination. During 1989 and 1990, the percentage of persons living below the poverty line increased for every ethnic group -- for whites, for blacks, for Hispanics -- for everyone except for Asian-Americans. But for every group, median household income declined. All of this created scenarios in many parts of California, as well as other parts of the nation, where tensions have intensified, the most fearsome of which are those associated with levels of crime and the disturbing increase in bias crimes. Such events are vicious, with primal feelings turned loose, and groups blaming each other for economic troubles. All of this creates a dangerous, difficult environment that the country as a whole must face.

The decisive questions in America's civic and democratic future are those concerning whether it will be truly possible to incorporate ideas of multicultural inclusiveness into our institutions and our decision-making structures. Among the most critical of these questions, the most controversial and the most difficult are these: What will it mean to be an American in the 21st Century? Who indeed are the Americans? What are the core beliefs and social bonds to which one must adhere in order to be American? What are the essential elements of a social accord that would allow people who are characterized by profound differences to function as a society and to prosper and share leadership in a global setting?

Any society needs to achieve essential conditions of accord, to agree to a minimal social contract so that its members can work cooperatively, engage in a positive dialogue, and decide national directions. A social contract has always existed in American society, but historically has incorporated decidedly different elements than we would accept today. In the 1700s, the social contract allowed slavery, the explicit acknowledgment that certain portions of the population were not extended human rights. In the 1800s, it did not include women among those who could vote. In the early 1900s, it still allowed children to be exploited in the work force and workers to be at the mercy of monopoly powers. We have come an immense distance. Look at some of the greatest changes that have been created by the political movements of this century: the labor movement, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and the women's movement. Augmented by changes in technology, medicine, communications, and economics, the social contract at the end of this century is a profoundly different one from that which existed in the 1900s. This social contract will continue to change, but the functioning of a society requires more than a social contract made explicit in laws and court rulings.

There are also the unwritten laws, the unspoken differences that determine who is accorded the status to lead and who decides the distribution of the nation's benefits. For the better part of American history one could predict the race, gender and educational background of America's leadership group. Visible manifestations helped sort out who would decide and who would lead. Skin color, ethnic origin, country of birth, gender, accent and last name were the common bonds, the glue of prestige and power that held the leadership structure and the country together. As those external characteristics become a less-accepted means of deciding, of leading us to consensus, I wonder what will take their place. As the population of cities and states becomes so diverse that in many places, such as California, there will be no majority group or culture, the pursuit of common purpose becomes a heightened priority.

As we extend respect to diverse cultural heritages in school curricula and in the arts, the question of whether there is a minimum core of ideas that constitute the American idea begs for an answer. As we hear languages from areas of the world which have not been part of the cultural superstructure, we must find ways to engage in a new civic discourse. As fewer of our fellow citizens look like "real Americans," we will have to adapt our images and learn to feel less threatened by the different faces, the different voices. Can it be that we could agree to a set of core values which would be called "the essential American values of the 21st century?" If so, what are they? Could it be that, as a society, we could master a new dialogue, a new civics by which we speak to and collaborate with each other in effective and respectful ways?

I was recently reminded of the importance of achieving a 21st century social compact, encompassing the core values that can bind our people to common causes and allow us to maintain a leadership role in the world. Arturo Madrid, President of the Tomas Rivera Center, a Hispanic research organization, recently recounted a conversation he had with officials in Israel during a study visit there. He had asked, on several occasions during his visits, about relations with Arab and Palestinian minorities. He was told by one official as an explanation for the obvious difficulties that there was no record in human history of multi-racial, multi-ethnic nations being able to prosper or even survive. Historical antecedents may be lacking but, for the United States, the question of global precedents is essentially moot. We are a multicultural, multi-racial society and we will continuously become more clearly so. The real question is whether we can, once again, create a uniquely American future. The challenge is to anticipate the changes and forge a social contract that is imaginative, and inclusive, and that rewrites the rules of human history in an American way once again.

As we find our way toward a 21st century social contract, it seems to me that it would be useful to retrace the steps of those who have gone before, to retell the human story, to understand human nature, or humanity and identity, as individual human beings. We must restudy the works of thinkers, theologians, philosophers and political theorists of all cultures and ages -- those who have thought about the themes that transcend our individuality to our collective presence, our responsibilities, our civic duties -- to review the application of some of those human and civic ideas and apply them to the American reality, to America in the 21st century.

First, what is important to know about our humanity in order to start toward a discussion of living together? Well, I think it's possible to say a number of things that we know about ourselves as human beings. As human beings we fight for life itself, believe in life. And yet, on the same newscast, we watch starving children in Somalia hanging on for morsels, struggling for one last drink, one last bit of sustenance to sustain life, fighting with their last energy for life itself. How at odds with the cold-eyed squeeze of the trigger of the drive-by shooter who blasts away a life, tears through muscle, and bone, and heart, and breath, and then the sound of car tires squealing into the night! Over what? Over colors, or drugs, or race, or imaginary turf, who knows? But when we are healthy, when we are sane, we honor life as human beings.

As human beings we believe in human potential, in the soaring capability of the human spirit, the spirit that inspires the brain, the hands, the voice, the eyes, the body to great attainments. Michaelangelo and Michael Jordan. Einstein and Walt Disney. Dante and Barbara Streisand. Aquio Morita and Sister Theresa. We believe in the human spirit.

As human beings, we love our children. As human beings, we also know that we need other people. The elderly wait in nursing homes and, when they are asked what they miss, they say what they miss most is the human touch. No one hugs them, no one holds them. People who are rejected and lonely are driven to pathologies that result in violence because it is in the nature of the human being, of the human spirit, to need other people and to need human contact.

We know also that as human beings we seek respect, we seek approval, we seek a measure of fulfillment. Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us that at the highest level is a kind of fulfillment that comes from finding respect and approval from other human beings. And, as human beings, we seek peace. Benito Juárez said, "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz." "Respect for other people's rights is the basis of peace."

So any discussion, any meaningful sense of diversity, must begin with the basics. That is, what do we know about our human natures from which we can begin a sense of building a society respectful of individual human beings? But, we don't live as individuals. We live in a society, and thinkers across time have forged ideas of what it means to respect people living together. How do you build a civic culture, a civil order?

One of the most important thinkers of our day, a man who has not only written and imagined, but practiced politics, is Vaclav Havel. He wrote on this question. "I am in favor of a political system based on the citizen and recognizing all his or her fundamental civil and human rights in their universal validity and equally applied. No member of a single race, a single nation, a single sex or a single religion may be endowed with basic rights that are any different from anyone else's. In other words, I am in favor of what is called a civic society. I support the civic principle," he said, "because it represents the best way for individuals to realize themselves -- to fulfill their identity in all of the circles of their home -- to enjoy everything that belongs to their natural world, not just some aspects of it. To establish a state on any other principle than the civic principle, on the principle of ideology, or nationality, or religion for instance, means making one aspect of our home superior to all the others and thus reduces us as people, reduces our natural world, and that hardly ever leads to anything good." Most wars and revolutions, for example, came about precisely because of this one dimensional concept of the state. Vaclav Havel recognizes our place as citizens in a society where we are recognized for our individual capabilities and where our human rights are applied equally.

The third question, in addition to our individuality and our place in a society, is how these ancient ideas might work in America. To seek some sense of whether or not there is a set of core American values, I looked at some research done by Daniel Yankelovich, who surveyed Americans as to what they regard as enduring American values, not the things that come and pass with time, but the things that we would call the essence of what it means to live as an American in America. These are the things he cited that are at the core: a belief in fairness, and a sense of placing a high value on people getting what they deserve as the consequence of individual actions and efforts; a belief in self-improvement, in the efficacy of individual effort; the conviction that people should constantly strive to better their lot through education and hard work; a belief in democracy, that the judgment of the majority should form the basis of governance; a belief in caring beyond the self, placing a high value on concern for others such as family or ethnic group, neighborliness, caring for community. Americans believe in equality of opportunity -- the practical expression of freedom and individualism in the marketplace that helps resolve the tensions between the values of freedom and equality. At the core of American values are those associated with moral responsibility for the consequences of one's own actions -- paying one's dues, accepting obligations as well as rights. And Americans believe as well in a concept of American exceptionalism, a belief in the special status and mission of America in relation to other countries. How does all of this -- our individuality, our civic responsibility, and how these things relate to American core values or enduring values -- relate to this moment?

... Unlike previous eras, when we as a society put our faith in the central government and legislation from Washington, and in sanctions, today's action point is local -- not only services, but also creating new forms of governance, of community building and social interaction. It is instructive that the President-elect is a governor who cited ideas tried in his state of two million people as examples for what could be done at the national level. If our society is to address social issues, then they will be addressed at the local level or, I would argue, not at all. It is at the local level that these issues will clash, will spark the full intensity at which they must be addressed.

Each of us, and each of us in our communities, must ask ourselves: What do we really believe about race? What do our communities believe about race? Do we harbor some subconscious prejudice yet? All of us -- whites and sometimes people of color -- sometimes believe that this just will not work, that America has seen her best days and that everything about these demographic trends is frightening, alarming, dangerous. What do we really believe about these demographic changes, these different voices, these different faces?

The truth is we are going to have to do some things differently. In an age of diversity, we will have to govern differently. We will have to build communities differently. It means using the institutions of government, the structures and facilities of government, to bring people together. Public facilities, senior citizens' centers, schools, libraries, cable television stations, voter registration efforts, all of them must be redesigned to give people a place to gather, to speak, to have their voices heard, to come together. Governmental accountability must include an assessment of whether or not it is being sufficiently inclusive, not just efficient, but inclusive. Among our most important innovations must be those associated with creating mediating structures, mediating institutions to resolve conflict, new hybrids of institutions where people can come to resolve differences, to hear each other, to listen, to share ideas.

There must also be new ways of delivering traditional services. We will not be able to police in the same ways. We will not be able to offer social services in the same way, but must provide them in ways that are reachable in practical common sense terms by people. Our libraries must take on new responsibilities. California's state library system some years ago did an analysis of the role of the public libraries in California. It was an excellent piece of work, in which they set forth twelve or so new responsibilities for the public libraries. They were responding to realities of demographics, and considered everything from such pedestrian things as large type in library books for the increasing population of those of advanced age, to providing services such as job retraining services. They considered how these services will be used and needed by people who come from different countries and different languages and who need a place to tap into the larger society.

Clearly it is important, as we think in terms of diversity, to invest on an unprecedented scale in our human resources, in our human capital. That means schools, and community colleges, and technical training institutions, and higher education, and adult literacy, and parental training for young people in school. There are very few communities in America, none that I know, that have a plan for their human capital as sophisticated as that for streets or parks or library expansion or any other dimension of their physical capital base. No city that I know of in America has set forth a plan for reducing poverty by 25 percent or setting out a plan to address social services expectations over a 10- or 15- or a 20-year period.

Clearly, our corporations and business sector must involve itself in a new understanding of how it functions in an age of diversity. A new book by Ann Morrison, The New Leaders: Guidelines On Leadership Diversity in America, sets forward what multiculturalism means for corporations. "Multicultural approaches" she says, "are the highest evolution of corporate thinking about diversity, an increasing consciousness and appreciation of differences that are associated with heritage, characteristics, and values of different groups as well as respecting the uniqueness of each individual." This is very interesting in contrast to corporate models that demand assimilation of different persons, of minority persons, in effect saying, "This is our corporate culture; if you want to come here, you change." Now organizations themselves recognize that, by allowing people to be themselves, they will be able to tap the creativity, the spirit of change that people bring to the organization. Rather than forcing people to change to fit some outdated corporate culture, they can create a new sense of openness, a new sense of inclusiveness about the corporate setting itself.

Where these things occur, they will occur because top management has decided that it is important for the organization to promote diversity. They have allowed the creation of internal advocacy groups or task forces on these subjects. They have put an emphasis upon keeping employment statistics in accurate ways so it is possible to gauge their progress and to keep people accountable. They have incorporated diversity into performance evaluation goals and ratings so that people can be reviewed for promotion purposes as they head a division, a line department, or a staff organization not just on the function that they are carrying out, but also on what kind of progress they have made on these important corporate and national goals.

Corporations that are working on this area work hard on development of people training programs, and network and support programs within the organization. They offer a fast track for potential prospects, for people of color brought into the organization. They provide formal mentoring programs that replace the informal structures that have long existed where the traditional route to promotion is to play golf on Saturday at the country club -- a country club where people of color are not welcome and at which women who must attend to their children's needs on Saturdays have no opportunity to participate. Corporations that are sensitive to the promotion of persons of color recognize that these old-style approaches to mentoring are not going to work. And they focus on recruitment -- targeted recruitment of women and persons of color. They engage in parallel hiring of people for top posts, sometimes finding the best talent there is and bringing it from outside the organization. They create partnerships with educational institutions, and they try to establish a reputation for themselves as an organization that is progressive on issues of diversity so that people are attracted to the organization instead of put off by its reputation as a place that is unattractive and uninviting.

All of these are the concrete kinds of things that we must do as we attempt to create a society that responds to the reality of the demographic changes upon us. It is diverse, not just in statistics, but diverse in leadership, and diverse in spirit. Each of you in this room must play a role, a role as an honest broker, a role as a truth teller. There is a temptation for professionals to hide behind the technical and professional imperatives of their job or assignment. But you must go beyond the technical and professional advice to [take] real leadership on this issue -- to be truth tellers, bargainers, mediators, negotiators, guardians of a public ethic that shapes public ideas of justice and due process in an age of diversity. Many of you in this room have the positioning to articulate a vision of a fair and inclusive society. If not people like you, then who? You can choose to hide behind the role of neutral professional, guardian of the budget, producer of a product for a corporation or, on the other hand, you can choose to be part of the solution that advances this nation's most treasured ideals ...


Return to the directory of Supplmentary Readings

A More Perfect Union Site Navigation Study Circles Talk To Me

| A More Perfect Union | Site Navigation | Study Circles | Talk To Me |

Please address comments on this Guide to Study Circles Resource Center
The AMPU Web site was produced by Arcadia Pictures in association with PBS Online®

© Copyright Topsfield Foundation and Marci Reaven 1997