June 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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Challenges to Diversity from an African-American Perspective

The strategic plan for Extension diversity describes the system's commitment to diversity in mission and vision, work force, programs, audiences, and relationships with other people, groups, and organizations. Successful integration of diversity goals into the core mission and vision of the organization requires recognition and attention to both internal and external challenges. From the perspective of African-American personnel and audiences, many such challenges are grounded in the history of this country. This article presents a historical overview of socio-economic and political events of the past that limit the amalgamation of African descendants into the mainstream of American life and create barriers to Extension diversity efforts.

Jacquelyn W. McCray
Associate Dean
School of Agriculture and Home Economics
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Pine Bluff, Arkansas

A complete understanding of challenges to Extension diversity from the African-American perspective requires recognition of the very different and difficult social, political, and cultural history that characterizes the presence of people of African decent in this country. This paper presents an historical overview of social and political factors that limit the amalgamation of African Americans into the mainstream of American life, briefly describes traditional response behaviors of African-Americans given this historical background, and identifies current barriers to Extension diversity efforts resulting from the factors.

Historical Perspective

When Africans first came to America approximately 350 years ago, they were not fleeing religious persecution, not intent on finding a better way of life, not seeking haven in the economic and political systems of this country, and it was not of their own volition or will. They had been captured, torn from their home land, and held in bondage. Those who first came were indentured servants who served their masters for seven years and were then freed to establish their own livelihood and households. Later arrivals were much less fortunate. Slavery, which became legal by a law of 1661, stripped African-Americans of all civil rights. Although slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865, many of the rudiments and ugliness of slavery permeate society even today.

The institution of slavery was for all practical purposes an economic system requiring harsh political and social sanctions to insure its continuance and viability. From an economic perspective, slavery provided low-cost manpower that supported the capital-intensive agrarian society of the South and was the foundation of the extensive wealth held by major slave-holding states. In the year prior to the Civil War, six of the top ten states ranked nationally by per capita wealth were slaveholding states in the South. Twenty years later, not one southern state ranked in the top thirty.

From a social and political perspective, the southern caste system grew out of the need to maintain a void between the people of African decent and the rest of society. Contrary to some beliefs, only a small minority of the white population owned slaves, but the whole system was based on a well-ordered society, with well-defined classes where members of each group--including the non-slaveholding farmers, the business and professional men, the yeoman farmers, the freed Africans, and the slaves--knew their place. James Ezell, a renown scholar of the South, notes that the South is really a state of mind. It is as much cultural and political as geographic and climatic (Ezell, 1963).

Other authors who have written about the South, suggest that the rest of the nation never understood the South, and the South never ceased to resist and resent. Decades of things as they are, remaining as they are, changing in no appreciable respect, built in the southern mind a strong inbred conservatism; and years and years of enforced stasis (supported by the Jim Crow political environment that was the order of the day until the late 1950s and early 1960s) built into the southern mentality a skepticism of change and a strong inclination to let things be.

The influence of this southern mentality is particularly problematic to Extension's diversity efforts for a number of reasons. First, Extension's roots are in agricultural production and much of its early history evolved in the South. Second, Extension is a well-ordered society with well-defined protocols. And third, most African-Americans are no more than one or two generations away from a southern background. Many problems encountered in building a multicultural Extension organization from the perspective of African-American personnel and audiences are grounded in this history.

African-American Culture

Culture refers to the totality of the ways of life of a people and includes the basic conditions of existence, behavior, style of life, values, preferences, and the creative expressions that emanate from work and play. There can be little doubt that the ways of life for African-Americans in this country are different in major respects from the ways of other ethnic groups. There are similarities, but major differences do exist. The repository for the culture of any people is the family, and in the African-American family resiliency, adaptability, and sheer strength are primarily responsible for this group's survival in an alien and hostile environment. The strength of African-American people is found within. Within the family, within its segregated communities and churches, and within the individual. For years, African-Americans have been masters of internally rebuffing external hostilities. Other historical responses included prescribed avoidance behaviors. But yet, in no real sense different than with any other group, people become weary of continuous external hostilities. More recent response behaviors have included advocacy and direct confrontation. These responses all represent patterned ways of surviving and living, and doing things in an effort to maintain a sense of equilibrium.

From an Extension perspective African-American audiences are frequently labeled "hard to reach." Are African-Americans uninterested in the educational opportunities offered by Extension organizations? Do they simply refuse to take advantage of educational programs that can improve the quality of their lives? The answer is a resounding "No!" Education has been a most sought after prize for African-Americans even during slavery, when to learn to read and write was to risk death. Most African-Americans recognize that education has been, and still is, the most successful exit from poverty. African-Americans are hard to reach because in many respects the Extension System is viewed as something for other people. Most people would be hesitant to attend a meeting, program, or activity (even though it's advertised for the general public and accompanied with EEO statements) that is held at a church, country club, or other location that might not receive them on some other day, for some other occasion.

The Realities of Extension

If Extension is to become truly multicultural, we must address some current realities of the system that present challenges to the environment we seek to develop. Extension is people-focused and we face challenges from both within and outside the system. But, our diversity efforts are internal, addressing our responses to each other and to our programming efforts. Not that we don't need to combat negativism from within the system, but we must also recognize that challenges to diversity exist from outside sources, including traditional audiences and Extension stakeholders. For African-American employees, it is often the external climate that increases the frustrations and hostilities that surface or fester on the job. How many times has your organization made (or failed to make) personnel and or program decisions on the basis of political expediency, or the lack thereof?

Motivation to seek opportunities within the system may be diminished for African-American employees given consideration of possible roadblocks. Such obstacles may include: (a) potential hostilities in a new work environment, (b) negative stereotypes from clients and/or stakeholders, (c) limited opportunities for spouse to find work (d) race tax on housing or other forms of discrimination in the community, and (e) uncertainty about a new school environment for their children.

Finally, when management problems exist in an organization employees may fail to distinguish between what is a management-style difficulty and the perception of exclusion. For example, when there is autocratic leadership, limited opportunities for advancement, when the distribution of power is held in the hands of a few, and when communication is poor or one-way, any group outside the sphere of authority is likely to feel devalued. But, the perceived threat is compounded for African-Americans who remember the Jim Crow days when acts of exclusion were directed at them and sanctioned to maintain the status quo.

It's often said that African-Americans dwell too much on the past. But frankly, our past continues into the present. Oral history is an important part of African-American culture. Alex Haley's saga of "Roots" was a result of a story-telling tradition within our families. He learned the story of his African ancestry and the trials of slavery through stories passed down from generation to generation. The family reunion is particularly important in cultivating and maintaining direct contact with our past. Stories of the strength of our ancestors is our heritage of strength to our children.

In summary, African-American sensitivities are shaped by the mix of human environments and life situations that is America. But there is hope! I believe that as an Extension System we must support a posture of social liberation for African-Americans. For those millions of African-Americans who are unreached and untouched by the Extension System, a system supported and maintained by public funds, we must develop effective outreach.

In addition, with our interest in accountability and impact assessment, we need to measure progress from the point of entry. This is particularly important in terms of programming for diverse audiences. A financial management program in a public housing project is not going to yield the same measurable results within the same time frame as a session with traditional audiences. If our expectations are unrealistic, our perceived successes may be diminished. I believe the same is true for new Extension employees. Extension is a different organism, and we (all of us) need to give support, encouragement and understanding to new employees who are less familiar with the system and its challenges.

From a social development perspective, we must nurture new relationships of power, dignity, and opportunity for all. But we must all look at ourselves and seek to understand our personal motivations, expectations and responses. According to DuBois (1969), "The most difficult stage in the struggle for justice in America will be reached when it is clear that fundamental inequities persist in spite of litigation, legislation and direct confrontation." These words were initially published in 1908. At the time they were written DuBois was pondering the future. That future is now the present.

A version of this paper was presented at the Cooperative Extension System's Commitment to Diversity and Pluralism Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico October 25-29, 1992.


Dubois, W. E. B. (1969). The negro American family. Westport, CT: Negro University Press.

Ezell, J. S. (1963). The South since 1865. New York: Macmillan.