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.

What Corporate America Should Learn From Ferguson, Missouri

The racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri ignited by the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown have captured the nation’s attention and opened conversations across homes, workplaces and boardrooms that are often difficult. For the five decades since the race riots of the 1960s, tensions grew in Ferguson, finally erupting two weeks ago in mass demonstrations and civil unrest that brought to the fore the problems of systemic racial conflict in all sectors of American society. But more than the protests, or even the killing of Michael Brown, the militarized stance of the police toward American citizens has opened wide the fissures of race relations.

A suburb of St. Louis, which, according to the 2010 U.S. census, is the ninth most segregated city in the United States, Ferguson has long been a placid, all-American town. With a majority African American population, Ferguson, in addition to St. Louis, escaped both the civil rights era race riots, and the overt racial tensions that have polarized the nation since, owing to an ingrained culture of civil obedience that decried public protests. There was an unspoken understanding in Ferguson that left issues of race muted, even as they simmered. So the news that Michael Brown had been killed by a white police officer shocked the conscience of Ferguson’s African American community, which finally protested, permitting a decades-old communal outrage and hurt over racial mistreatment to explode with such force that it shook the nation.

Ferguson is not alone in our nation, and neither are its issues confined to cities. Many companies have adopted diversity strategies reminiscent of the Ferguson police department: Keep minorities pacified but disengaged from the process of meaning-making; promote just enough minorities not to be deemed racist; and silence discord. Corporate America, and the nation as a whole, mirrors Ferguson in its avoidance of serious conversations about race, prejudice, unconscious bias, and microaggressions that harm morale and productivity. Companies prefer to ignore “climate” issues that indicate racial discontentment, adopting instead an “ignore it until it goes away” strategy that ultimately leaves them unprepared to countermand the racial bias that weakens their organizations. As a consequence, these companies are more vulnerable than ever to the sort of race discrimination lawsuits that have tarnished Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, and Abercrombie & Fitch, all of which have lost or settled race bias claims brought against them by their employees and customers.

The “Corporate Diversity Report,” produced by the United States Senate, indicates there is much room to improve in racial representation at all levels of corporate America. According to the report, when it comes to corporate boards, Hispanics, who make of seventeen percent of the U.S. population, have one of the lowest representations at three percent of boards and three percent of executive teams. While African Americans, who are thirteen percent of the U.S. population, fare better in board representation, garnering eight percent of board seats, they are only four percent of executive teams. These dynamics are not significantly different from those of Ferguson, where African Americans have no representation in City Hall or on the school board, and are effectively shut out of public safety jobs.

Companies should learn four lessons from Ferguson:

1. Racial tensions do not disappear by not addressing them. They simmer just beneath the surface until an event happens that disrupts conformity to corporate norms and then they erupt.

2. Just as there is no “great white hope,” there is no “great black hope” — whether it’s President Obama, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Jackson, Richard Parsons who replaced Donald Sterling at the L.A. Clippers, or a company’s “chief diversity officer.” Racial tension abates when issues are addressed openly and self-reflectively.

3. Poor performance on issues of race is harmful to a leader’s credibility and erodes the trust constituents have in the leader.

4. The costs of suppressing racial tensions are far greater than the costs of addressing them.

The reality is that companies want a shortcut to positive race relations. When it comes to issues of diversity, companies generally do not want to hear bad news or admit their complicity in adding to the climates of distrust and bias. Yet, the only way for companies to truly get beyond race is to weed out racial bias continuously.

What should companies do? Here are six strategies.

1. Reaffirm their commitment to diversity through active engagement of minorities in the areas of corporate strategy, positioning, and revenue generation.

2. Convene internal, structured, “safe-zone” conversations led by senior executives about race and culture that permit employees to articulate and work through their concerns.

3. Implement company-wide training on “unconscious bias” and “microaggressions” to help employees be aware of the hidden prejudices they hold that could undermine them and their companies.

4. Develop a broader understanding of diversity that permits the company to move beyond the isolationism of race to a more inclusive paradigm of “excellence.”

5. Recognize that diversity is not about “them versus us,” nor is it black and white. Diversity is excellence expressing itself as differences, similarities, complexities and tensions. Integrate excellence across all business units rather than sequestering it in human resources, and hold executives accountable for its continued development.

6. Rather than thinking of diversity as “the elephant in the room,” try seeing diversity as the room. Diversity is central to everything a company does — from people management, to process design, to market segmentation.

While we will not likely see racial protests in corporate C-Suites as we did on the streets of Ferguson, we will see more race-based lawsuits in light of admissions by companies that “unconscious bias” has for years caused their hiring managers to discriminate against African American and Hispanic job candidates. Companies need to recognize that there is a bit of Ferguson in many of their management ranks, boardrooms, and stores that needs to be eradicated for the well being of their businesses and the people they serve.

By Limiting Inclusion, NFL Loses on Diversity

Many people who hoped Michael Sam would be the “Jackie Robinson” for LGBT inclusion in sports, a key civil rights issue of his generation, are disappointed that he was cut from the roster of the St. Louis Rams. While there are many variables in a decision to cut a high profile player, the root causes of Sam’s release may be clearer than we dare admit. In the NFL, there are limits to inclusion. The problem lies in a conflict between Baby Boomers, who lead the teams, and Millennials like Sam, who know little of the bigotry that colors the perspectives and actions of older generations.

By most accounts, Michael Sam should have been a shoe-in for a top draft pick, as the All-American and Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year. But Sam, who had taken the bold step of publicly announcing that he is gay prior to the draft, was selected 249th out of 256 picks by a team that didn’t need him. Rather than being drafted by a team where he could shine, he was chosen as the last man on a deep and competitive defensive bench that rendered him superfluous from the start. The issue isn’t why the Rams released Sam; the issue is why he wasn’t picked up earlier in the draft.

Some will claim homophobia on the part of team scouts, coaches and owners as the reason Sam was not drafted earlier by a suitable team; others will suggest that Sam undercut himself by “coming out” so publicly before landing a contract and proving himself on the field. Unfortunately, both may be true, but the issues are more nuanced. Sam’s coming out was undoubtedly a bigger deal to Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who run the teams and have long histories with societal limitations placed on individuals based on their sexuality than it was to Millennials (born 1981 or later), who don’t share this history. Data show that just 38% of Baby Boomers versus 70% of Millennials support marriage equality, which is a good barometer of how the two groups are divided on social issues more broadly.

Further, Millennials are substantially different than their parents. Millennials are more liberal in their thinking, and see big government as necessary to support society, two things that Baby Boomers generally reject. Millennials view “coming out” as living in truth, authenticity and wholeness. They largely reject the sense of hetero-normative privilege that undergirds American society. For many, the events of Ferguson, Missouri were a profound experience with our nation’s underbelly of bigotry. The difference between the bias displayed in Ferguson and that of the NFL in dealing with Sam is that in Ferguson, this bias was more outwardly evident. In Sam’s case, bigotry was silent, yet no less profound, facilitated by a decision not to sign a great pick because he’s gay.

Corporations understand that by 2020 Millennials will account for 88.5 million people in the U.S., far surpassing Baby Boomers, and that with such numbers Millennials will control the social and economic substance of the nation. By 2019, the earnings and spending of Millennials will outpace Baby Boomers in what will be a dramatic shift of economic dominance. The reluctance of suitable teams to engage Sam suggests that the NFL has not grasped the significance of America’s changing demographics. Now the NFL faces a conundrum that corporate America has spent millions of dollars addressing over the past decade: How to adapt to the Millennial mindset.

Sam, too, bears some responsibility for what happened. As a strategic matter, coming out prior to getting signed by and incorporated into a team was a mistake. His celebrity status exacerbated feelings that he was more focused on being a gay icon than a football player, for which he gained detractors. But Sam’s biggest mistake may have resulted from his generational optimism that does not see bias where it sometimes exists, that believes in being authentic as elemental to living freely, and that sees diversity in all of its iterations as a social good. Yet, Sam could not be a Jackie Robinson because unlike Robinson, he had no “Branch Rickey” in a seat of power who was willing to put their professional standing on the line to make the NFL more inclusive. Robinson, through Rickey, was supported by a bold MLB, whereas Sam encountered a weak and conflicted NFL.

The NFL should recognize that the degrees of separation between overt bigotry and unconscious biases may be few, and the effects equally harmful. If a team failed to draft Sam based on his sexual orientation, the team discriminated against him and should consider the rightness of its actions. Michael Sam should be celebrated for living in his truth and given every opportunity to pursue his dream on the field.

To the NFL’s credit, Sam has been signed by the Dallas Cowboys’ practice team, and has another shot at integrating the NFL. For him to be a successful champion of LGBT inclusion in professional football, however, he must have a “Branch Rickey” who will have the courage to blaze new trails with him. Who in the Cowboys franchise will step into those shoes?