How Can Racism Be Fixed by Race-Neutral Measures? | Opinion

The 2020 murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbrey, three Black Americans killed by white people, was a wakeup call that resulted in a mass racial reckoning across the country. Protestors took to the streets for months on end throughout the spring and summer, and schools, organizations, businesses and corporations telegraphed their commitment to rooting out the ways they were contributing to systemic racism. Organizations issued passionate statements about the evil of anti-Black racism and committed to amplifying diversity and fighting racism.

A lot of this was lip service—corporations doing symbolic gestures like posting a Black square on social media, or a Black Lives Matter banner on their websites, none of which will help end racism or even employment discrimination within their own organizations. What is required is for the existing power structures to allow themselves to be led by the very Americans whose deaths are fueling the momentum and whose lived experiences are most informed by organizational exclusion and racism.

In other words, since the problem is the persistence of race-specific discrimination, the solution must be to turn to people whose identities are most impacted by it to lead the way in ending the scourge of racism. And that's what diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism (DEIA) committees and programming can accomplish, when carried out properly.

It should be obvious: The people most impacted by the persistence of white supremacy in America are the people who are most qualified to tell Americans which behaviors will create a more just society. A commitment to diversity, to anti-racism, and to equity—ensuring that we experience equal protections and get what we need to thrive, not simply good intentions—is how organizations can begin to do the work.

diversity, equity and inclusion

And they need to do the work. Wall Street economist Dana Peterson estimated that had racial disparities in housing, education, policing, student loan debt, and equal access to credit for Black entrepreneurs been resolved in 2000, the U.S. could have added $16 trillion to its economy over the last 20 years. And while many of these disparities are at the federal level, employers play a critical role in achieving equity by counteracting racist beliefs and race-based conduct—in other words, by implementing anti-racism.

Consider that the behavior of managers causes nearly 60% of early job resignations, turnover that causes organizations to lose critical insight and, perhaps, irreplaceable expertise. And all too often, discrimination plays a big role. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), race, sex, and disability accounted for nearly 73,000 job discrimination claims filed between October 2018 and September 2019. Discrimination affects workers at and people served by health care organizations, education, all elements of law enforcement, and every domain of American life. Ageism is also hurting the economy: A recent report from AARP estimates that discrimination against mature workers cost the United States $850,000 in gross domestic product during 2018.

Even worse, when it comes to the tech industry, a recent study found that the single largest factor in turnover among people from minority groups was unfair treatment, accounting for forty-two percent of people leaving the industry. These findings are especially grim when you consider that sixty-two percent of those surveyed said they would have stayed had their organizations made positive changes to the workplace, and fifty-seven percent said they wouldn't have left "if company culture had been more fair and inclusive."

In other words, DEIA programming would have made a huge difference.

This makes intuitive sense, of course. DEIA committees and programs are designed to interfere with the way people have always done things, a way that results in Black and other nonwhite employees feeling marginalized, discriminated against, and unfairly treated. Changing the way people think is only the beginning of DEIA, which helps people understand which actions are expected and get clear on the consequences for poor behavior.

The true power of DEIA committees is in their ability to require changes in daily behavior: how coworkers talk to each other, how supervisors interact with those they manage, how to determine who is hired or fired or promoted or disciplined, and how to deliver equality in good customer service interactions. Many of the behaviors that result in the racist treatment of colleagues from Black and other nonwhite communities are learned behaviors and habits. DEIA can help leaders and all stakeholders understand these behaviors, develop acceptable alternatives, and consciously work to fix their own biases.

That evolution is uncomfortable, almost necessarily so, so it's not surprising that some have argued against DEIA. But what could be more important than doing the work of making your colleagues who come from marginalized communities feel comfortable and welcome in the workplace? What could be more important than retaining a workforce with diverse experiences and insights? How could a program specifically designed to create a workplace where Black employees thrive be said to have too much power at a time when anti-Black bias and discrimination remain so rampant, in a world where George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were killed for being Black?

When properly informed and directed, transformation teams like DEIA committees can play a critical role in organizational change. Because executives cannot be expert at everything nor can they be everywhere in the organization, DEIA committees serve as the thought partners, eyes, ears, and hands of organizational leaders. For example, a manager of human resources is less likely to discard resumes with "ethnic sounding" names if colleagues are encouraged to notice the tendency, empowered to monitor patterns, and rewarded for disrupting that behavior. A manager is less likely to continue mocking an employee's accent if colleagues and supervisors are expected to hold them accountable for those actions.

But it's not just a moral imperative. Eliminating workplace discrimination can result in decreased legal fees for organizations, help organizations keep talented workers, act on their social responsibility to society, and improve the mental health of employees.

DEIA committees achieve this change by partnering with executives and department leaders to establish clear and actionable behavioral expectations for diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. This tells workers how they are supposed to conduct themselves and treat each other. The committees also provide training to all levels of the organization about what diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism is and get feedback about how the organization aims to achieve it. The board of directors must be included. This builds people's capacity to get on board and be the change. They also develop performance management strategies and growth plans to help workers meet expectations and use numbers and stories to monitor and communicate the actual impact of DEIA initiatives. This ensures everyone is well served and those who have the most need have gotten the most benefit.

To achieve these goals, however, DEIA must be effectively implemented. It is not possible for DEIA to have too much power. It is a matter of who has power, how power is used, and for whom power is leveraged. Put simply, these efforts should be led by Black Americans and other people of color, equitably.

But victims of the system cannot solely bear the burden of change. When Black people are included in these efforts, we are all too often forced to bear the burden of fighting an organization's culture. This, too, is wrong; while self-interested Black folks should be chief architects of DEIA focus and implementation, organizational leaders must use their social capital to shield the change agents. When the work is properly distributed, executive leaders must be prepared to address resistance quickly and summarily. Risks must be distributed equitably, with white people, those most protected by the current system, bearing the heaviest burdens for intervening in the moment, holding stakeholders accountable, and using power to buck the cultural status quo.

Doing the work together requires submission of white power to the direction and self-interests of Black people and other people of color equitably. Then, corporate promises will have the power to become more than lip service.

Pamela "Denise" Long is a trainer and consultant for implementing trauma-informed care and anti-racism. She is an instructor at Southern Illinois University and a Doctor of Education candidate with dissertation focus on effective executive leadership of racial equity implementation. Follow her on Twitter @pdeniselong.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.