Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lecture on Intellectual Diversity
Payton says inclusion, opportunity keys to democracy

With the United States days away from perhaps electing its first African-American president, the leader of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said such an outcome will say much about "who we are and what we've overcome." But, John Payton cautioned, the reality is that "our democracy has unfinished business."

In his lecture "Democracy and the Challenges of Diversity," Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP LDEF, said a win by Barack Obama — although enormously significant — will not mark an end to problems that threaten democracy, in particular education and poverty.

"Solving the problem of K-12 education is the domestic issue of our time," Payton said, citing statistics that show less than 50 percent of children in inner-city schools graduate from high school. In Detroit the numbers are even lower, around 25 percent, he said.

In his Oct. 28 delivery of the sixth annual Nancy Cantor Distinguished Lecture on Intellectual Diversity, Payton said in the past those who did not graduate, particularly in areas like Michigan, could count on a decent job in manufacturing — but not anymore.

"Our economy covered over the differences in our educational system 50 years ago; today our economy is unforgiving," he said.

In his talk that preceded the University's annual Fall Summit on Diversity, Payton highlighted several historic events in making the argument that even after passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and other related laws that followed, inequity continued and still exists today in what he called a caste system.

"Democracy at its core requires that 'all the people' be included in 'we the people,'" he said.

"That doesn't mean we have to see each other as the same. We must understand that our differences enrich our collective perspectives."

Payton is well known to U-M as lead counsel in the Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, in which he defended the use of race in the admissions process as a way to promote campus diversity. The court ruled that while the undergraduate admissions process at the time was flawed in the way it sought to assemble a diverse class, the properly tailored consideration of race in university admissions to achieve diversity was legal

The daylong summit annually brings U-M leaders together to address issues of recruitment, retention and campus climate. In keeping with this year's theme, "Outreach: Extending the Connections," the day's agenda included an update on the Center for Educational Outreach and Academic Success. U-M's new center is dedicated to promoting and coordinating educational and community outreach and engagement activities, and strengthening partnerships between U-M and K-12 school systems and communities in the state.

In kicking off the summit, President Mary Sue Coleman highlighted the value of diversity at the University through the eyes of recent graduate Jawuan Meeks, who landed a job teaching history to juniors and seniors at Charlestown High School in Boston.

"As a student in American Culture, Jay took courses in civic engagement, women's studies and intergroup relations. He was involved in LSA Student Government. He was active in creating our upcoming Semester in Detroit, a city where he was raised by a single mother," Coleman said.

"Jay wanted to let me know that his time at Michigan has given him a strong grounding for difficult conversations with his fellow teachers about race, class, privilege and equity. Equally important, he feels U-M gave him the skills to address everything that high school students can throw at him.

"'My time at the University,' he said, 'has prepared me to go out to not only work, but most importantly, to be culturally competent in serving diverse populations.'

"That is why diversity matters. That is why we commit ourselves every day to a campus that reflects the richness of the world around us. Together, we are preparing tomorrow's leaders to be culturally competent for the communities they will shape, with their ideas, their words and their actions."