Why Cultural Competence Should Matter to Leaders in Arkansas
©Wendell Griffen, 2009
Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe is, by all well-informed accounts, an affable person. He has a long record of victories in political elections. He has a compelling personal history of being raised by a single mother, embraced by nurturing people during his youth, and having worked hard to attend Arkansas State University and later obtain his law degree from the University of Arkansas. He was a successful trial lawyer, and is a devoted family man. He served in the Arkansas legislature and became known as a leading moderate voice about public policy. As Attorney General of Arkansas, Beebe led the largest firm of lawyers in the state, including several lawyers of color whose experience, temperament, and other attributes qualified them to fill an interim position on the Arkansas Supreme Court—a fact that Governor Beebe's staffers and apologists can neither deny nor refute.
In his campaign for election as Governor of Arkansas, Beebe garnered support from all elements of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, including people of color. As Governor, Beebe has appointed people of color to numerous political positions—a point Beebe's deputy chief of staff has emphasized in response to criticism of his failure to name a person of color to the Arkansas Supreme Court despite two opportunities during the almost three years he has been in office.
How could any leader with so many favorable attributes be considered "culturally incompetent"? If Beebe can be culturally incompetent, what does "cultural competence" mean, and how does one avoid "cultural incompetence"? Why does "cultural competence" matter so much, if at all?
The answer to the first question (how any leader such as Beebe could be considered "culturally incompetent") is unsurprisingly simple, and points to the second question (what does "cultural competence" mean). Cultural competence does not depend on affability, political popularity, the touching appeal of one's personal history, success in winning lawsuits, family devotedness, experience leading a law firm that includes people of color, or political standing with people of color. None of those attributes makes Governor Beebe or anyone else competent concerning cross-cultural interactions, relationships, and inclusion. The fact that Governor Beebe's staff and apologists point to those attributes demonstrates that they apparently share Beebe's poor knowledge about what cultural competence means. It is always wise to understand what something is before professing to know what it is not.
Cultural competence involves integrating and transforming knowledge about individuals, situations, events, and groups of people into congruent standards, policies, practices, and attitudes and applying that knowledge in appropriate cross-cultural settings to achieve effective results. As such, cultural competence involves four principal components: cultural self-awareness (awareness of one's own cultural worldview); attitudes concerning cultural differences; knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews; and skill (ability to achieve effective results in cross-cultural situations and encounters).
Cultural competence focuses on results, not intentions, for an obvious reason. Good intentions do not make one competent. One can be an incompetent motorist and affable, educated, industrious, devout, and even politically progressive. None of those factors makes one competent to operate an automobile on a six-lane metropolitan thoroughfare. Saying "I meant well" after causing a collision on such a highway does not make one a competent driver. Standing alone, the statement is merely an excuse for not driving competently.
That is why it is immaterial whether Governor Beebe has acted with benevolent or malevolent intent in maintaining the all-white composition of the Arkansas Supreme Court despite having two recent opportunities to make the state's highest court racially inclusive. Competence is not measured by what one intends, but what one does. Otherwise, no student would ever fail any course unless he intended to fail.
Cultural competence is measured in terms of a six-point continuum that focuses on results ranging from cultural destructiveness to cultural proficiency. The specific aspects of the continuum are:
1. Cultural destructiveness—policies, practices, attitudes, behaviors in cross-cultural situations deliberately produce destructive results. Think of genocide, slavery, rape, intentional disenfranchisement of women and people of color.
2. Cultural incapacity—policies, practices, attitudes, behaviors unintentionally produce results that are destructive or counter-productive in cross-cultural situations. Think of a physician who does not take the medical history of a woman with insulin-dependent concerning her social practices regarding tobacco, when the woman regularly chews tobacco, a product made using molasses.
3. Cultural blindness—policies, practices, attitudes, behaviors are insensitive to the results of cross-cultural situations. The cartoon character "Mr. Magoo" never intended to cause collisions. He could not even recognize that he caused collisions because his near-sightedness was disabling. Blindness is a disability, not a skill.
4. Cultural pre-competence—policies, practices, attitudes, behaviors demonstrate effort, but ineffectiveness, in cross-cultural situations. Typical examples of cultural pre-competence involve affirming that a person or organization is culturally competent by pointing to token or symbolic achievements. Stating that "we have appointed more people of color than any previous administration" may be accurate. The statement does not make a leader better at any cross-cultural interaction. It merely means that the leader has better numbers and is better at counting than previous leaders (whether they cared about the numbers or not). Pre-competence is not competence. A host of pre-mature infants are not mature infants.
5. Cultural competence—persons, organizations, and institutions that perform at this level incorporate five basic skills into ongoing policies, practices, and processes (cultural self-awareness, awareness and acceptance of cultural differences, understanding the dynamics of cultural difference, knowledge of the culture of clients, and skillful adaptation and application of that knowledge in accommodating cultural differences to achieve effective results).
6. Cultural proficiency—persons, organizations, and institutions that perform at this level effectively handle the five skills involved with cultural competence, but also are leading forces, trend-setters, and proponents of "best practices" regarding cultural competence and inclusion.
Whether one views Governor Beebe's decision to maintain the all-white composition of the Arkansas Supreme Court as intentionally destructive (cultural destructiveness), unintentionally destructive (cultural incapacity), insensitive (cultural blindness), or merely ham-handed (culturally pre-competent) can be reasonably debated by people who understand what cultural competence means. At best, however, Beebe's action demonstrated cultural pre-competence. Pre-competence is not competence. Otherwise, the prefix would not be necessary.
People who do not know what cultural competence means will not understand that bragging about being pre-competent is, in itself, glaring evidence of cultural incompetence. The same is true of people who would brag about how well Beebe wins elections, how successful he was as a trial lawyer, or how much he loves being Governor. Culturally incompetent politicians can win elections and culturally incompetent lawyers can win cases when cultural competence does not matter. The history of Arkansas clearly proves that our political officials and lawyers have not cared about cultural competence, and that not caring was not harmful to their aspirations. Orval Faubus was politically powerful and effective because he was culturally destructive. Most Arkansans liked it, and watched as other states advanced over the past half-century.
Cultural incompetence, however popular, comes with a cost. In a world of many cultures where goods and services are increasingly being marketed and acquired on a global basis, being culturally incompetent makes no economic sense. Other states are thinking about cultural competence in terms of how they conduct and market themselves. How will the recent Supreme Court appointment allow Arkansas to be measured? How many opportunities will be lost because of cultural incompetence?
As matters now stand, Governor Beebe has defended his culturally incompetent conduct by claiming that his administration is better at being culturally pre-competent than previous administrations, by saying that he could not find a black lawyer qualified to serve a one-year appointment to the Supreme Court after three black lawyers turned him down. His deputy chief of staff—a black lawyer--effectively lobbied the Faith Caucus of the Democratic Party of Arkansas last Saturday to not endorse a statement expressing regret that the racial composition of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010 will be no different from what it was in 1910, at the heyday of Jim Crow segregation. Notice, cultural incompetence is not race specific.
So, Governor Beebe has decided to maintain the all-white composition of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Beyond that, he does not regret that the racial composition of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010 will be no different from what it was in 1910. Of course, Governor Beebe is a fine fellow. He has won many elections. He loves being Governor. He has black lawyers on his staff. He just does not regret that the racial composition of the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010 will be no different from what it was in 1910. Otherwise, he would have acted to make it different, or at least express regret that he failed to do so.
Governor Beebe's performance—after all, that is how competence is always measured—does not demonstrate cultural competence. Rather, it demonstrates how little Beebe and his staff understand about cultural competence, assuming they know enough to care about it.