MUCH MORE NEEDED
Corporate America Has a Big Blind Spot on Institutional Racism
Axing a hit prime-time show and holding an all-day summit are a good start. But so, so, so much more is needed.
Two amazing things happened on Tuesday.
Roseanne Barr called former Obama adviser, and woman of color, Valerie Jarrett an “Ape,” apologized for the remark, left Twitter, and then had her show canceled by ABC.
At the same time, Starbucks shut down some 8,000 U.S. stores in an effort to train their management staff and employees around the issues of diversity and inclusion.
The remarkably swift move by one major network, and the altogether unprecedented move by one of the world’s biggest chains, have been met with great receptivity in some corners, and with some trepidation in others. Corporate trainers, like myself, know that dealing with the issues of race and racism, are complex, layered, and cannot be addressed in one day.
But what remains clearer from both instances is that the election of President Trump in 2016 seems to have ushered in a new era of racism, racial slurs, and openly hostile behavior toward people of color, immigrants, and women. It is permeating our institutions, from the local coffee shops to the primetime shows.
I want to be clear, I am not saying the president of the United States is a racist. He may or may not be. What I am saying is that his words have unequivocally shown that he views women and people of color through a very limited, stereotypical and archaic lens. He has trouble calling out racist behavior when it happens, like in Charlottesville last summer, saying there were “good people on both sides.” And he seems drawn to those figures who share those stereotypical and archaic lenses. Two months before Roseanne lost her show, Trump praised her ratings, even though it was clear back then that she ascribed to some truly questionable social views.
Let’s face it, President Trump grew up in an America of the 1950s where segregation was legal, where women were groomed to be moms and housewives, where there were few elected officials of color, and where white men ran every major corporation, newsroom, university, and industry sector.
Unfortunately, little has changed since Trump’s America of the 1950s and 1960s and we’re now being confronted with that lack of progress. Yes, we had a black President. Yes, we nominated a woman to run for president. But when you look at the present day, only 32 white women head Fortune 500 companies (or 6.4 percent). Three black men, one Latina, and no black women head corporations. The bottom line, Corporate America is still overwhelmingly white and male. And if you don’t think inclusion matters, consider this: both ABC and Starbucks have powerful black women executives—Rosalind Brewer is the COO of Starbucks and Channing Dungey the president of ABC Entertainment Group—in the room at the top.
Corporations, like any other institution in America, are not immune from the effects of a nation built on systemic racial supremacy. Many companies, like American Airlines, Uber, Google, United, have fallen prey to major eruptions over race or gender discrimination in the past few years. (And those are just the ones we know about.) But the problem is not just one of “unconscious bias” — being unaware of racial insensitivities—but of “conscious bias”—knowing, as Roseanne surely did, that what one is doing is racially provocative.
This is seen when white restaurant managers, store owners, or everyday citizens and neighbors call the police on suspicious black people, or on black people playing music too loudly. It is seen in the fear black people have of being stopped by the police for a routine traffic stop; or when we walk into a mall. There are restaurants in 2018 where black people can be locked out or assaulted over a dispute over plastic cutlery.
Changing individual people’s perceptions is a painstaking effort. For corporations to truly change their culture, however, they need to get serious about the three “R’s”— Recruitment, Retention, Respect. Just recruiting people of color or women out of college is not good enough if you cannot retain and then advance them higher. The respect part is crucial because companies like Starbucks, which pride themselves on diversity, clearly did not filter that message down to their management ranks at the local stores until it was too late.
Holding a day of management training or making a high-profile firing are steps in the right direction. But unless they are complimented by these additional actions it will be just a bandaid.
Because here is the bottom line: America is in a racial crisis. We have been since 1619 when the first African slaves arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. Many of our founding fathers, like Jefferson (who, at once, wrote that he abhorred slavery and owned them) believed that if blacks were ever freed, they would not live peacefully in America because of all the wrongs done to them. I think history has proven them part right, and part wrong.
The reality is that white citizens live a very different reality than do black ones, and people of color. It’s white men who remain in charge and who are asked to see the value in being mentors, sponsors, and supporters of the advancement of people of color within their ranks. It is white men who must decide that having a ZERO tolerance policy of racist acts, racist statements, or racist conduct makes both moral and business sense.
Tuesday saw some progress. But more dramatic changes, systemic changes, remain desperately needed.