Back in May of 2020, George Floyd was murdered. The horrific act was filmed by a courageous bystander, and went viral. The aftermath saw demonstrations erupt in cities across the nation and across the world. Suddenly, the issue of racism filled the news. Institutions from churches to universities, issued statements acknowledging how racism had shaped their organizations. Groups of whites across the country began reading books about institutional racism. The New York Times published the “1619 Project,” written by Nikole Hanna-Jones. The matter of reparations for African Americans became a topic that whites initiated in their houses of worship. Majority-white communities began discussing changes to their police budgets.
Of course, for some whites, all of this focus on racism felt overblown and unjustified. In September of 2020, Donald Trump took action to slow down this movement. He signed an order forbidding federal agencies from conducting “racial sensitivity” training. He then expanded that order to apply to federal contractors. No company that had contracts with federal agencies could provide “workplace training that inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.”
As the searing image of George Floyd receded from the headlines, the voice of resistance has gotten increasingly more play. The media now carries stories of white parents taking their children out of elite private schools in order to save them from being exposed to education that makes them feel guilty. We see stories about “Woke” institutions cancelling the Golden Globes awards. Politicians excoriate “cancel culture” as an oppressive feature of anti-racism.
These developments pose a challenge to leaders who are committed to achieving racial equity in their organizations. What stance should they take in the face of these challenges to the legitimacy of addressing structural racism? What should they do or say to keep people in their organizations focused on the racial equity vision? What should they say in response to those who question that very vision?
I think leaders have the most credibility when they keep reminding people of the data patterns they have found in their organizations. They can make statements like the following:
“If we had racial equity, we would not have this pattern we see where so few black and Latinx employees make it to the top tiers of our organization. Our commitment to racial equity grows out of our examination of data about racial patterns of inequality in our own organization. We have rigorously examined the following data:
The numbers of each racial group at each level of the organization
Average tenure of each racial group
Average salary of each racial group
Average rate of advancement
Turnover rates of each racial group (both voluntary and involuntary)
Average performance ratings of each racial group at each point along the rating scale
Hiring rates of each racial group, including the number of interviews before being hired
Our analysis indicates that we have clear patterns where some racial groups do well in terms of career advancement and others clearly do not do as well. We are committed to conducting our business in a way that all racial groups experience similar success.”
When leaders speak, they can keep the discussion focused on their organization. They do not need to make any statements about events beyond their organization. They need only link their actions to what has been revealed by their own demographic data. The data they have about their own organization provides tangible evidence of barriers in that workplace to specific racial groups. This is not hypothetical or theoretical. It is data drawn from their own organization and the actions that these leaders are taking is linked to changing the outcomes that these data document. In this way, leaders can avoid getting entangled in generalities about race, structural racism and how society should proceed.
This approach also has an positive impact on at least one group of constituents, those who truly want to see racial equity. These employees will be assured that their leaders are staying the course, and keeping the focus on what needs to happen next. Those who oppose changes in the organization will also be impacted. But, they will be impacted in the opposite way. These employees do not support the changes and when their leaders keep focused on making the necessary changes, they will see their hopes dashed.
There is one final advantage to this approach. I am aware of a number of organizations where the leadership has issued a requirement that all managers create an anti-racism plan for their unit. The approach that they are taking, though, is not hinged to data about inequities that are present in their organization. Instead, they are reading articles and books about racism and then discussing them. Whether intended or not, this approach keeps the discussion focused on either individual acts or larger patterns about what whites do or don’t do. These discussions do not look at hard data about their organizational unit that compare how BIPOC co-workers compare to whites in terms of advancement and tenure.
The net effect is to reinforce cynicism among those who support racial equity, because there is no concrete admission of about the current level of racial inequity in those units. Without that admission, it is very hard to take any effective action. As the Cheshire Cat says in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Without data to establish a baseline against which to measure progress, it is highly unlikely that real change will occur. We know that organization do measure what they see as most important. They measure such things as customer satisfaction, costs, profits, delivery schedule consistency, production schedules, etc. Similarly, if racial equity is a real value, there must be measures of how well the organization is achieving that goal.
The focus on organizational data not only acknowledges the reality of what is occurring presently in terms of racial inequity, it also directs the discussions toward behaviors, policies and practices which have, and still are, creating those inequities. The purpose of the discussions is not to blame whites for what they are doing or not doing. It is to change what occurs that keeps BIPOC co-workers from enjoying the kind of career success that whites enjoy. As all involved plan concrete actions (in terms of changes to policies and practices) and then assess the outcomes, they step-by-step bring about changes that accomplish the equity vision. While the larger media and blogosphere may argue over the rightness of anti-racism, leaders who are committed to racial equity can continue making the changes that take their organization closer and closer to the desired outcome where BIPOC co-workers enjoy the same career success as white co-workers.