Pimping Diversity

It has been said, “diversity management is a racket.” Regrettably, there is a great deal of truth in this statement. In fact, “diversity management” has become a thriving industry with few bottom-line results that is in little danger of disappearing; we have all bought into a social construct that permits us to feel good about perpetrating a fraud. Corporations, universities, government agencies, minorities and “good white folks” alike — we are all complicit in pimping diversity.

Much like affirmative action, diversity management was developed to advance a multicultural workplace. Today, diversity management is a billion dollar industry that is embedded in the mission statements of most large organizations in the U.S. For better or worse, the federal government has been the most significant driver of diversity management through requirements by federal agencies – from the Department of Labor to the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts – that large employers report their workforce demographics, and that recipients of federal grants and contracts meet particular diversity workforce or subcontracting criteria.

Corporate America has also been a substantial contributor to the practice of diversity management in order to identify and nurture diverse talent, reduce discrimination lawsuits, and enhance workplace cultures and outcomes. And universities have played a key role in advancing the field through their emphasis on ensuring diverse applicant pools in hiring, equity in pay and promotion, and quality programming in support of more inclusive and vibrant academic communities. As noble as the reasons for the existence of diversity management are, the practice has been so defiled that it is little more than a channel to service the needs of those of us who profit from it.

Undoubtedly, there are individuals and corporations with a sincere commitment to true diversity. However, it is equally true that diversity requirements have been cynically misused in ways that set our workforce development further behind. Companies pimp diversity when they tout inclusion and donate to minority causes but then reject qualified minority candidates in the second and third rounds of the interview process because the candidates “aren’t a good fit.” These companies skirt the requirement for a diverse applicant pool by including minorities on the front end of the process and systematically excluding them on the back end. Universities pimp diversity when administrators develop diversity goals that faculty have no intention of adhering to, and faculty gerrymander diversity programs to meet the requirements of grant applications, but have no fundamental commitment to the programs they proffer.

Minority applicants pimp diversity when they use race, gender, or sexual orientation as their calling card and means of entry to employment and then close the door of opportunity behind them to keep others out. Diversity practitioners pimp diversity when they lack the courage to be the change agents they are called to be and hide behind “programming” to obscure a lack of results. Consultants pimp diversity when they seek to make a quick buck and “keep the patient ill” rather than doing the work and bringing about healing for their clients. Finally, “good white folks” are implicated in the pimping of diversity when they contribute to minority causes to assuage “white guilt” and be recognized as contributors but then undermine diversity on the job, in business, at the dinner tables, and in the halls of justice.

Many of us do not recognize that we are culturally predisposed to the adoption of a “pimping mentality” because it is an unconscious bias that emanates from our life experiences. We have no idea that we are acting as agents of exclusion as we glorify inclusion. We think we’re doing the right things, and we may be, but we are doing them for the wrong reasons. First, most of us do not want to be counted a bigot. Secondly, as a nation, we are afraid to talk openly and honestly about racism, sexism or homophobia because we are terrified of public recrimination. Thirdly, we have bought into an erroneous narrative that diversity is about difference when the truth is that diversity is about excellence.

So how do we stop pimping diversity? I believe the answer lies in a redefinition of diversity as “excellence expressing itself as differences, similarities, complexities, and tensions.” Such an understanding permits us to think differently about diversity’s value and place in our lives. It allows us to strive for a higher good that is built on attainable aspirations with equal possibilities to achieve them. It permits us to see all people for their potential rather than their perceived deficits. And it fundamentally changes the nature of corporate cultures for the good. But for this to happen, we must deal with the unconscious biases that undergird our prejudices and cause us to see excellence in some people but not in others. We must address the systems that give sanctuary to our biases–whether they are quota-based “metrics” masquerading as objective evidence, or “diversity awards” that have no meaning. We must empower, and expect, diversity officers not simply to check boxes, but to act boldly to move the cultures of their institutions forward.

We need a new account of diversity as a manifestation of excellence in which all people are able to participate equally. Only then can we get about the real business of advancing diversity for all of us.

Strategy: The Evolution of Diversity and Inclusion Thought and Practice (Trailer)

A trailer for Criticality’s research, executive briefing, and thought leadership series exploring corporate approaches to Diversity & Inclusion, with an emphasis on the relationship between corporate business strategy and diversity management. Includes research and on-camera interviews conducted by Dr. John Fitzgerald Gates with nearly a dozen Diversity Executives from nationally known companies and organizations in four fields: Banking and Finance, Sports & Entertainment, Retail, and Hospitality.

Black Colleges Must Change to Survive, Thrive

The debate around the relevancy of historically black colleges (HBCUs) is at least as old as the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” educational systems are inherently unequal. The data and experiences of countless HBCU alumni like me tell a much different story: HBCUs play an invaluable role in educating often underprepared students successfully, and without HBCUs, the hopes and dreams of thousands of capable African-Americans would go unrealized.

While HBCUs enroll only 15 percent of African-American collegians, they award 30 percent of all degrees obtained by African-Americans. Hence the relevancy of HBCUs is unassailable. But we can ill afford to leave the debate there. Today, like never before, colleges and universities must compete for students, faculty, money and public recognition. HBCUs are in a position to reaffirm their significance by graduating a preponderance of their students, distinguishing themselves academically and ensuring that they are expertly managed.

For many reasons, including historic under-resourcing, HBCUs are challenged to deliver the sort of outcomes required in our changing and more demanding society. The debate does not move either them or our nation forward. Rather, it is time to ask whether HBCUs are sufficiently self-critical and adaptive to transform into the institutions they will have to become if they are to be sustainable. Self-critical institutions intentionally adjust their thinking and behaviors based on examined awareness of their own missions and outcomes. They seek self-improvement.

Given their long-standing mission to educate underprepared students, HBCUs should be at the forefront of curricula, teaching and student-advising innovations. Given their century and a half of underfunding and having to do more with less, HBCUs should be leaders in institutional efficiency, cost-sharing and partnerships. And given their reliance on public funding, HBCUs should be experts at garnering federal support for their initiatives. But none of these is so.

HBCUs must challenge themselves to achieve higher levels of excellence and sustained outcomes by transforming their self-understandings. Doing so requires placing these institutions under critical self-scrutiny. To improve their outcomes, HBCUs will have to undertake a process of critical self-reflection in which their institutional stories, myths and assumptions are laid aside in a search for truth. Fundamental questions about institutional effectiveness will have to be addressed in order to develop accurate knowledge about their strengths and weakness.

And then HBCUs will have to take self-corrective action. These measures are internal to institutions and require internal leadership, but President Barack Obama recently gave HBCUs a much-needed lift. In an unprecedented acknowledgment of the importance of HBCUs, Obama has ordered that every agency within the federal government actively seek out opportunities for HBCUs to participate in federal programs. Importantly, the president did not call for affirmative action for HBCUs. He called for the engagement of HBCUs, which will be based on their merits.

The problem is that many HBCUs have been ill-equipped to be full participants in solving the nation’s problems or helping it reach the president’s educational goal for America to have the most educated citizenry in the world in next decade. Many HBCUs have neither the internal managerial capacity nor institutional outcomes necessary to take full advantage of the president’s mandate, which should be a wake-up call to all of us who value HBCUs that their sustainability rests in great measure on how well they are managed to achieve their aims.

Yet, some HBCUs stand out as models, not just among other HBCUs but among institutions nationally, for their insightfulness. For instance, Spelman College has long been the envy of HBCUs for garnering private donations and public support, for enrolling well-prepared students, for being a leader in student success and for having the highest graduation rate among all HBCUs. But Spelman did not get there without a persistent effort.

Under the leadership of President Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman has done and continues the hard work of explicating its outcomes and ambitions in a quest for self-improvement. By removing their presuppositions — good and bad — about the institution, Spelman’s faculty, alumni and staff were able to continue to value the institution’s heritage while pursuing a progressive agenda of self-learning that is resulting in improvement in all major areas of institutional effectiveness.

There is great hope that the new generation of black college presidents who have taken the helm of institutions like Howard and Tuskegee universities will follow Spelman’s example. Indeed, it is time for all HBCUs to adopt self-critical mindsets and make the changes necessary to thrive.