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Crossing the Thinnest Line
How Embracing Diversity-from the Office to the Oscars-Makes America Stronger
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America has the potential to realize huge gains economically and socially by more fully capitalizing on diversity, but significant challenges remain and it’s a problem that all Americans should be focused on solving. Despite tremendous progress, women and minorities still face barriers to accessing the full promise of the American dream. It doesn’t have to be this way. Many of the solutions are right in front of us, and many exceptional, committed Americans are doing their part to make a difference.
In the twenty-first century, nations will prosper only insofar as they embrace and celebrate the individuals, organizations, and collective efforts to advance every kind of diversity. Lauren Leader-Chivée believes America must lead the way. In CROSSING THE THINNEST LINE, she explores the state of our diverse union and shares important stories of progress and potential, highlighting those who are crossing dividing lines of race, gender, culture, and political party to build a more united and prosperous nation. Her revelations will transform the discussion and set the agenda for America’s progress on these critical issues. A work of originality and ambition, CROSSING THE THINNEST LINE changes our understanding of diversity and offers lessons to change our lives and our country.
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#blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter, #notthere, #legalizelove, #closethegap, #heforshe, #lovetrumpshate, #OscarsSoWhite
Since I began working on this book, it seems every day brings another story followed by new hashtags shouting from the headlines. A racially charged police killing. A blatantly sexist trope in the presidential campaign. A gay couple denied a marriage license. A woman sportscaster berated online. Anti-immigration rhetoric at a fevered pitch. Screaming inequities come to light on the front page of the New York Times, and it takes only a name or a place—Ferguson, Baltimore, Trump, Bland, Garner, Kelly—to bring to mind a litany of conflicts and challenges. It seems as if a war is being waged on the streets and in the courts, on the campaign trail, and over the airwaves of cable news shows. It's also quietly being waged in living rooms, boardrooms, classrooms, and dorm rooms all over our country.
At the heart of the conflict are fundamental questions about our values and identity as a nation. What does it mean to be American? Is the playing field really level for everyone? Are women fully equal? Should gays and lesbians have equal rights? Does racism still exist? What should we do about immigration? How can citizens of one of the most diverse nations on earth live together peacefully and productively? Can we find a way to make our multifaceted diversity an economic and social asset, or will it continue to be our deepest and most painful source of conflict?
I've been grappling with these questions my entire life, both personally and professionally. I may not look like the typical activist, yet I have been on some of the front lines in this debate, working with corporate and political leaders and advocating for a more inclusive nation that ensures full contributions from and equal opportunities for all.
Throughout my life, I have strived to connect people across the visible and invisible lines that divide us—lines of race, gender, class, political party, nationality, and religion. It's never easy or simple, but the experience has led to the greatest joys and richest rewards I've known. From meeting and falling in love with my French, Roman Catholic husband (becoming the first person in my immediate family to intermarry culturally and religiously) to adopting my beautiful biracial/African American daughters to devoting my career to advancing women and minorities in the workplace and the political realm, nothing has been closer to my heart and soul.
I cannot pretend to fully understand the experience of being a visible minority in this country. I have encountered very few of the challenges that many visible minorities face. I have had all the privileges and advantages of my white female identity—great schools, financial security, open doors, and a stable, loving home. Yet I feel compelled to write what hasn't yet been written, because I have felt the sting of exclusion and I have empathy for people who brave these challenges.
And I believe we can do better. I believe that it is possible to bridge our divides. It is possible to turn our differences into a source of ingenuity, innovation, prosperity, and peace. It is possible to talk about difference so that everyone becomes part of the solution, and it is possible to make big changes.
Crossing the Thinnest Line argues for the possibility, power, purpose, and payoff of embracing difference, with both hard facts and personal stories of commitment, understanding, and purpose. I hope I will speak to the heart and the mind so we can have a richer, more nuanced conversation about the promise of a stronger, more united, yet wildly diverse nation. Are we really ready to do that? I'm not sure, but I hope so.
Clearly questions of race, gender, and identity are already a regular part of the national dialogue. The election of Barack Obama, the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the ongoing conflicts between police and minority citizens, the advent of marriage equality, the fight for equal pay, even the celebrity of Caitlyn Jenner, have all contributed to the modern conversation on diversity. The idea of America as a nation of nations, drawing strength from the world's many cultures, is familiar to everyone. And yet I don't believe we have ever decided collectively that our differences are an asset and made a commitment to embracing that truth. Instead, we mostly have struggled with those differences, treating them as a highly charged set of political issues to fight about.
We are urgently in need of a more solution-focused conversation about diversity, and this book strives to spur that. The subject is so vast that every chapter could be a book unto itself. But my hope is that recognizing the many facets of the diversity opportunity will inspire us to do better. The economic and social stakes are high and getting higher. The economy is global and interconnected, and already the vast majority of the world's educated population is either female or multicultural. In less than a generation, the United States will become a "minority-majority" nation. Promoting diversity has never been more essential. Yet the share of women in the US workforce is declining; Americans believe race relations are getting worse; immigration reform has ground to a halt; and the political climate has become intensely divided, partisan, and polarized. These are ingredients for disaster.
This book stands on two important ideas. First, that being in close contact with people from different backgrounds confers economic, intellectual, social, spiritual, personal, and competitive benefits that are measurable and profound.
Second, for diversity to add value rather than create conflict, we must learn how to cross the lines that divide us and find our common humanity. If we do, the possibilities are endless. If we don't, we're doomed to repeat the long, painful history of struggle and division that has dogged our nation since its founding.
In support of the first concept, I will demonstrate the compelling economic, social, and personal benefits that diversity brings to society. I'll share research and data, but also unforgettable stories from the Civil War to the Internet boom that prove how much our society and economy have advanced and prospered because of diversity. I'll use cautionary tales that show what's at stake. And I'll share the personal stories of individuals from presidents to average citizens whose lives were profoundly enriched through diversity.
Most books on diversity posit that having more diversity in every situation automatically makes things better. It's simply not true. In my life, research, and work over many years, it's become unequivocally clear to me that putting diverse groups together and hoping for a good outcome just through the collision of cultures and ideas rarely works. It takes an entire system of openness, leadership, personal responsibility, accountability, and celebrations of progress.
But what distinguishes this book in a way that I hope will elevate our national consciousness is my argument that every American, no matter what they look like or where they come from, can play a critical role in ensuring that our differences become our strength. For our extremely diverse nation to function and prosper, everyone must find shared human experience and common understanding and build real, meaningful relationships—not by ignoring differences in an effort to become generic, identity-free Americans but by learning to respect and embrace the alchemy and magic of unity in diversity. From the streets to the boardroom, this kind of authentic connection and understanding between profoundly different people is critical to our future. And it will be especially vital that Americans currently in the majority of leadership positions, mainly white men, take a leading role in demanding change. In many ways, it's in their and our best interests to do so.
Americans who accept diversity have enormous advantages over those who ignore or actively reject it. They lead richer lives, make smarter business decisions, work more effectively with people of every kind, have empathy and understanding for others, and navigate the complexities of today's business and social terrain more nimbly.
In bringing these ideas to life, I will share interviews and stories of leaders, academics, policy makers, and extraordinary citizens on the front lines of today's biggest diversity challenges. I'll call out examples from every sector where diversity has had a transformational and inspirational effect.
Crossing the Thinnest Line strives to frame a tangible path forward, not through dry policy or corporate strategy but through unforgettable stories and concrete examples. I'll introduce some of the archetypal leaders for today—people with the sensitivity and insight required to reach across national, ethnic, racial, religious, and gender lines to live and work effectively with people of all kinds. These models include well-known political leaders like Rand Paul and Cory Booker; figures from academia like Katherine Phillips at Columbia Business School, a powerful advocate for cultural literacy as a core competency among business leaders; and media figures such as Soledad O'Brien, a broadcast journalist inspired by her own diverse background to devote her talent to addressing tough issues about race that all too often go undiscussed. I'll describe organizations, companies, and institutions that demonstrate the power of diversity by creating communities of unparalleled openness, dynamism, creativity, and innovation.
I deeply believe that we are capable of transforming a never-ending source of conflict into an economic, social, and societal asset if we accept the challenge in the right way. When we appreciate individually and collectively how to cross the lines that divide us, we can move forward in new and profound ways. Crossing both the thinnest and thickest lines will bring us closer to our humanity, to each other, to lasting prosperity, and to the soul of America.
1. From Passion to Purpose
If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
As Americans, each of us has some experience that ties us to the complex quilt of cultures, identities, and backgrounds that define our patchwork nation. Most of us are American because an ancestor left somewhere else to move here. Each of those ancestors was once a stranger in a strange land. We come to our American identity in this way—not as inheritors of a shared lineage or culture but as people who forged our own identity from a chaotic, unblended combination of differences. We've all known, or our ancestors have known, what it is to be an outsider. Even the only real nonimmigrants among us, Native Americans, have had to adapt and adjust to fit (or not) this spicy, complex mix of flavors that make us who we are.
This uniquely American identity should mean that as a nation we are better able to embrace the power and possibility that our diversity confers. It should mean that we live and work together better than people anywhere else. It should mean that everyone can relate on a personal, emotional level to the challenges faced by today's minorities. It should uniquely position us to be the most creative, collaborative, peaceful nation on earth. But, as we know, it doesn't. We are instead a nation of perpetual contradictions—one with an appalling, shameful history of institutional discrimination, but also one where anything is possible. One that has been late to ensure the full rights and privileges of all our citizens, but also one where those who were once held back are able to rise to unimaginable heights.
On a macro and micro level, I have been trying to parse these contradictions most of my life. At every turn, I have felt compelled to dive deeply into them and to understand them personally, emotionally, academically, intellectually, and passionately. I guess it's a bit odd. On the surface there isn't much about my privileged white persona that would point to someone relentlessly and obsessively focused on understanding the challenges of diversity. But here I am.
My deepest passions are rooted in my childhood, and my upbringing, family, and early social and educational experiences inform the shape of my life and work.
Washington, DC, was a strange and alluring place to live in the 1970s and '80s—gritty and chaotic, full of contradictions and contrasts. My parents moved there in 1974 from Ithaca, New York, where they had been political science professors. Looking for enriching professional experiences, they came to DC to start a new life—my father at a think tank and my mother at the Justice Department in the civil rights division. After a long search for a home they could afford, in 1975 they settled in a modest but comfortable house in a middle-class, liberal, mostly white neighborhood of DC's Upper Northwest, with a good public school, a community center, and a collection of small shops. Our neighbors were former Peace Corps volunteers, aging hippies, elderly couples whose children had attended the local Catholic school, and more than a few lawyers and public servants.
My mother was a passionate feminist and had established with my father a coequal partnership. He cooked and did dishes and laundry, but so did all the other dads on our block. There was never any question as to whether my mother would work, and I can't remember a single stay-at-home mother among our family friends or neighbors. Our world on McKinley Street was pretty idyllic. Everyone knew each other; we felt safe and at ease in a community of people who were very much like us. It was a bubble of bucolic life in a city in severe decline.
Washington, DC, has a uniquely complex, contradictory, and fascinating history. It was founded as a strongly Southern city completely dependent on the work of African Americans—overwhelmingly slaves—who hewed it from the marshy swamps. But unlike the rest of the South, the District of Columbia was ruled directly by the US Congress, as mandated in the Constitution. So in 1862, when Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, the slaves in the District were freed nine months before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery throughout the South. In 1867, the Reconstruction Act gave black men in Washington the right to vote three years before the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution did the same for black males throughout the country. Under congressional rule during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the District was largely free of the Jim Crow legal codes that imposed odious racial distinctions elsewhere in the South. For example, schoolteachers in Washington, who were federal employees, were paid the same regardless of race.
Partly as a result of opportunities like this, the District's black population swelled year by year, and by 1900, Washington had the highest percentage of African Americans of any major US city. Black culture also flourished. Howard University, the nation's most illustrious black college, was founded there in 1867. Prominent black leaders like the abolitionist writer and orator Frederick Douglass made their homes in the city, along with hundreds of black business owners, artists, writers, musicians, and social activists.
But the capital city wasn't immune to the racism that infected the entire nation, and in fact it was deeply segregated in social and geographic terms. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat, imposed segregation in federal departments for the first time in fifty years, exacerbating tensions between whites and blacks. (As the 2015 controversy over Wilson's legacy at Princeton University suggests, his bigoted act, like so much else in our nation's checkered racial history, continues to spark debate.) In July 1919, during the so-called Red Summer of racial violence around the country, white mobs attacked blacks at random in the streets of Washington. When the police refused to intervene, groups of armed blacks fought back. Fifteen were killed and hundreds injured.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, segregation policies in the federal government began to be lifted. Blacks in Washington, DC, were among the early participants in the nascent civil rights movement, helping to organize economic and political actions like the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign of the 1930s. In 1939, when the famed contralto Marian Anderson was prevented from singing at Washington's Constitution Hall because she was black, Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange her appearance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she performed a concert before an audience of seventy-five thousand people. Twenty-four years later, when Martin Luther King Jr. organized the famous March on Washington, he chose the same steps to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.
By 1975, the year I was born, Washington was 70 percent black and suffering from the same urban troubles that many cities across the nation were experiencing. The Washington neighborhoods that had burned in the riots following King's assassination in 1968 had barely recovered. Huge swaths of largely poor, black neighborhoods in the Southeast and Anacostia regions were decimated by poverty, crime, drug use, and the flight of middle-class whites and blacks to the suburbs.
Of course, there was a special irony in the fact that the nation's capital was in such decline. Just blocks from the pristine White House, entire neighborhoods were blighted. Marion Barry, who served as the city's mayor from 1979 to 1991 and again from 1995 to 1999, was controversial even before his infamous 1990 arrest for smoking crack cocaine on camera. By the early 1990s, Washington had the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the nation.
For many of us who lived in the District during those troubled years, it seemed as if the city was broken. My mother was always on the phone with a city agency, trying to get the garbage collected or some basic service restored. A drive within a few blocks of the city's stately memorials took us past prostitutes and drug dealers openly soliciting on Fourteenth Street.
But while many of Washington's inner-city blacks were poor, living in the grimmest of circumstances, the city was also home to a large, very wealthy African American community living in expensive, elegant enclaves along the Sixteenth Street corridor, as physically and psychologically distant from places like Anacostia as my own home. They sent their children to the same elite private schools and summer camps I attended. They were part of refined Jack and Jill social clubs and were deeply connected and influential in Washington society. These were the black families I knew.
On September 20, 1984, The Cosby Show made its premiere on my ninth birthday. The affluent, professional black family the show portrayed was a novelty to most Americans but not to me—I knew lots of families like theirs.
The black community wasn't the only source of diversity in Washington. Embassies representing nearly every nation on earth are established there, each staffed by citizens who live in and around the District with their families. In my preschool, the children came from every corner of the world; Iran, Turkey, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mexico were all represented. One of my earliest memories is learning to say "Good morning!" in a different language each day. Birthday parties were often exotic affairs. I still remember trying baklava for the first time at the sixth birthday celebration of a Turkish boy in my class.
So while my immediate neighborhood was almost entirely white, the diversity of the larger city permeated every experience. At Lafayette Elementary School, where I spent several blissful years, the principal and all my most cherished, loving teachers were black. In every class, at least a third of the students were black, immigrant, or minority. Of my best friends in early childhood, Alison was white and Roman Catholic; Annie was black and adopted into a white Jewish family, along with three siblings; Alex and Jenny were African American twin children of diplomats who by the sixth grade had already lived in Cameroon and Egypt and would soon be heading to Israel. Racial and ethnic diversity was such a normal, constant part of my life that I barely noticed it. Those early friendships across lines of race and religion became a kind of template for my life. Maybe it's not a coincidence that my husband is Catholic and my children are black.
The Sting of Exclusion… The Joy of Community
In the seventh grade, my parents opted not to send me on to Alice Deal Middle School, the public junior high serving our neighborhood. It was excellent but huge, and they rightly concluded I was not self-motivated enough to succeed there. I was accepted by the prestigious Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the most respected girls' schools in the country. I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of leaving the neighborhood environment where I'd experienced so much happiness, but off I went.
My teachers were brilliant, and I thrived academically, but I struggled socially. Bethesda was less than thirty minutes from our house, but it could have been another country as far as I was concerned. The demographics of the wealthy Maryland suburb at the time could not have been more different from those of our neighborhood in the District. We were a liberal, Jewish, Democratic family, and my mother worked, while most of my classmates were wealthy, conservative, Protestant, Republicans, with mothers who stayed home. I took the bus or was driven to school in a '70s Ford with many, many miles on it, while everyone else pulled up in a shiny new Mercedes or BMW chauffeured by their beautifully dressed and coiffed mothers. I understood immediately that my family and I did not fit in.
I was totally unprepared for the exclusive, rarefied world at Holton-Arms. From day one, I knew I had left the easy acceptance of my Washington, DC, community behind. It all came to a head in the eighth grade on the day of my classmate Jennifer's birthday party, which was held at the Chevy Chase Club. Every girl in the class was invited—except me. I can still hear the barely controlled rage in my mother's voice as she explained why: Jews were not welcome at the club. The Chevy Chase Club, just blocks from our home on the DC/Maryland border, was founded in the 1890s by US senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, who helped to develop the town of Chevy Chase, Maryland, with the avowed intention of keeping it both white and Christian. By the time of Jennifer's birthday party in the late eighties, the club's only Jewish member, at least according to my mother, was Henry Kissinger. (Today the club is less impenetrable but still exclusive. I know a number of prominent Jewish Washingtonians who are members, so things have most certainly changed.)
My mother seized the moment as an opportunity to bitterly remind me of the long, painful history of Jews in the United States and elsewhere. My own family, having fled brutal anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, couldn't escape prejudice here. My maternal grandfather legally changed his name from Goldberg to Gilbert because, as a traveling salesman with a Jewish last name, there were many places he couldn't get a hotel room in the 1950s.
For me as a thirteen-year-old, there was something shocking and soul-crushing about this kind of exclusion. It burned: I was angry and hurt, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a feeling I will never forget. I left Holton after the eighth grade—I was just too different and had made few friends. Fortunately, a spot finally opened up for me at liberal Georgetown Day School, to which my family had applied repeatedly since I was in kindergarten. It changed my life forever.
Georgetown Day School was founded in 1945 as Washington's first racially integrated school at a time of intense segregation, and it retains a commitment to diversity and liberal values to this day. (If I need shorthand to explain to anyone from Washington, DC, the kind of person I am, I say I attended GDS, and they understand immediately.) The culture and values of GDS embodied everything I had learned growing up. It was open, liberal, creative, and welcoming of even the oddest of oddball characters. GDS saw qualities in people that no one else did. We had at least three openly gay teachers at a time when that was certainly not true of most other schools. One of our English teachers had dreadlocks and played in a local reggae band.
By the ninth grade, I'd joined the ranks of the oddballs. My experience at Holton had triggered a major rebellion. I dyed my hair jet-black, streaked it with purple, and took to wearing combat boots and various other outward signs of teen angst. But at GDS there were plenty of other kids experimenting with rebellion and identity, and the school embraced us all.
The teachers and administration of Georgetown Day understood that sorting through the many complex facets of identity was as important to our education as passing AP exams and the SATs, and they had plenty of opportunities to prove their commitment. When I entered GDS in September 1989, race had become a heated and complicated issue at the school. A number of black juniors and seniors contended that cliquey white seniors treated them as second-class citizens. Angry exchanges erupted in the hallways. To their huge credit, the administration seized on the conflict as an opportunity to launch a school-wide discussion. Journalist Juan Williams, who had just published Eyes on the Prize, his extraordinary book about the American civil rights movement, was invited to address the students and facilitate dialogue at daylong assemblies. His wise, soothing presence was a perfect counterpoint to the high emotions we were all experiencing. For nearly a week, we talked about nothing but race. The more I listened to the pain expressed by my minority classmates, the more I felt I understood.
First of all, I loved them. My best friend at GDS, Caroline, was biracial and had been struggling with feeling like an outsider herself. I also worshipped from afar the group of black senior girls who had triggered the discussion. They seemed so powerful and strong. But there was also something familiar about the particular variety of exclusion and marginal status they expressed—after all, I had been excluded, too. By the end of the week, I didn't just understand them—I burned for them, I cried for them, I yearned for them, and I loved them even more. In my heart they were my sisters and brothers. I was never the same again.
Growing up, I never thought my life was especially exceptional or unique, but today I realize how unusual it was. The opportunity to explore issues of race and identity at such a formative time was extraordinary and rare. Not nearly enough people have opportunities like this. Too few of us live or work in environments where this kind of open learning and sharing is even possible. It's a shame, because if more Americans had the chance to contemplate and work through issues of difference in the way I did, we might be a different nation.
- On Sale
- Sep 20, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Center Street