All companies and organizations exist within a larger community.  Often, many of the organization’s employees live in that community.  No doubt, some of the vendors and customers or clients of the organization also reside in that community.  This creates an important dynamic  that has a direct impact on the organization.  The impact is the result of whatever level of denial exists in the wider community in regard to structural racism. The level of impact varies depending on the level of denial about structural racism.  The same gradations of denial that I described in “The Varieties of White Co-Workers” (in my blog, 7/21/20) apply to communities.  Since no community is homogeneous, the community will contain pockets of people who range across the spectrum of racial animus and denial. 

Here is a recent example.  “We had some seventh-graders who went rogue.” This statement by a school official appeared in the local newspaper[1].  The person was characterizing an incident that occurred in the local school when students were watching a documentary about racism.

The statement itself reflects the racial stances that I describe as either: MeritocracyNIMBY or We Are Not Prejudiced. Saying that “some went rogue” implies that the majority do not share that sentiment.  It also is a denial that institutional racism exists in the community.  If the guidance counselor was aware of institutional racism and how it operates in the community, he or she would have known that some students would inevitably give voice to the negative views toward BIPOC people that whites hold in the community.  The framing of the statement absolves the wider community of having any role in creating the incident.  The newspaper itself took the statement at face value and made no investigation about the reality of the racial climate in that community.

Why does this matter to organizational leaders?  It matters on several levels.  On one level, some young people who have grown up in the community may be entering the organization as new employees.  They bring with them the level of skill or level of denial that they acquired growing up in the community.  They can be expected to bring expectations that they can continue to operate as they did in their home community. 

It behooves leaders to pay attention to the racial climate in the community because it enables them to plan how to best socialize new employees.  The most effective time to influence the behavior of employees is in the first months of their employment.  This is the time when expectations are “negotiated.”  During that time,  employees learn from direct experience which of their expectations can be met in the organization and which cannot.  In effect, the employee and the organization create a psychological contract (coined by Chris Argyris[2] ) wherein the organization can be expected to provide certain things like a salary, certain job assignments, and a work climate.  In return, employees provides their labor, creativity and adherence to certain norms of behavior.   When both the employee and the organization contract act in adherence to these mutual expectations, a “contract” is established.

In these initial months, that contract will take shape.  If the new employee has been raised to view racism in terms of the first five stances (White Dominance, Meritocracy, I’m Not Prejudiced, NIMBY, and Nothing I Can Do) this is the most effective time to impact the person’s behavior.  Since new employees want to succeed, they are most inclined to adopt new behaviors if they realize that those behaviors are required in order to succeed in the organization.  Their situation is also different than that of employees who have been in the organization much longer. 

Those employees have developed social networks that they can depend on for support.  Some of those social networks might consist of employees who are fighting to retain the kind of stance described in the five approaches listed above.  This is not the case for new employees.  New employees  have not had time to establish social networks on which they can depend for support.  They feel more vulnerable as individuals dealing with the organization.  They cannot rely on an internal social network to help them hold onto the racial denial stances.  It is  much harder to resist the new behavioral requirements when you are only one person, and have no group to support you. 

On another level, some of the organization’s BIPOC employees also live in the surrounding community.  Their lives there are impacted daily, depending on the level of denial or racial animus that exists in the community.  To the extent that they experience more stress as a result of the levels of denial, they bring less energy to their jobs.  While they might work hard to compensate for the wear and tear they experience outside of work, this added stress impacts their health over the long run.

A major difference between employees of an organization and people who live in the surrounding community is the influence of major institutions.  Institutions in the community have a lot of influence on how the community deals with structural racism.  This includes elected officials, the media, school administrators, teachers, religious leaders, businesses, and social organizations. The public stance that these leaders take establishes a climate that either reinforces the denial or works to confront it.   Unlike individual residents, institutions have a lot more resources and leverage that they can bring to bear.  Their impact is  magnified by this leverage. 

In my experience, it is very rare for white public officials to acknowledge the existence and extent of institutional racism in the local community.  Doing so will inevitably anger and provoke some whites.  The larger the number of white residents in the community, the greater the probable blowback  public officials are likely to face if they acknowledge institutional racism.  In communities where white comprise at least 80% of the population, there is little incentive for public officials to expend some of their limited political chits by endorsing a stance that differs from the majority of the residents in that community. 

I find that levels of education have negligible impact on this dynamic.  I live in an area that has high densities of residents with graduate degrees, and the denial about institutional racism is no different than other areas in this region where there is a much lower percentage of people with even college degrees.  In fact, I have seen where educated and privileged whites work very hard to maintain institutional racism.  I found that there is an assumption among educated whites that people with this level of education are beyond prejudice.  In addition, there is an assumption that the local institutions are also free of any institutional racism.  After all, they are administered by highly educated people (overwhelmingly white in terms of racial identity).  Maintaining this denial makes it easier for these whites to take advantage of the privileges made possible by the institutional racism in the schools, local government, police department, banks and realtors. 

You can observe these privileges at work in the public-school system, where the honors courses and the elite courses are over-populated by white students.  It is also evident in the way the children of highly-educated BIPOC parents are counseled into less demanding classes or are viewed as candidates for special education status, in spite of no evidence to support that need. In those locales where the data is available to the public, the privilege is evident in the statistics about discipline and suspensions, as well as student encounters with police officers.  Lastly, the animus toward change can be directly observed in those cases where BIPOC people are elected to positions on the school committee.  If they raise issue of race, they are marginalized and often demonized.  When that occurs, you will also notice that the local media simply accepts the demonizing statements of whites and fails to investigate or characterize the racial climate among the school committee members.

This widespread pattern in majority white communities means that employees who live in such communities enter the organization ill-prepared to acknowledge or address the issue of racial equity that exist in the organization.  It behooves the leaders of the organization to plan how to deal with new white employees who will be surprised and challenged when they encounter the organization’s commitment to redress racial inequity.  One facet of the racial equity work in the organization must be the socialization of new employees to the organization’s culture of embracing racial equity.  If the leaders of the organization are implementing a racial equity culture change, they need to ensure that new employees receive immediate training in the skills and procedures that are part of the racial equity infrastructure.  Those who manage this process also need to know that their own performance will be measured.  Their further advancement must also be contingent on how well they have performed this significant function.   

In sum, organizations are highly interconnected with the communities in which they are located.  Given the level of denial about institutional racism, the attitudes of the surrounding community will enter the organization, certainly in terms of the behaviors of new employees, as well as via interactions with suppliers and vendors. Engaging and addressing the behaviors that flow from the attitude of denial is an important aspect of the racial equity work that the leadership has committed to.  In organizations without such a commitment, the climate inside those organizations is an expression  of the various levels of toxicity that I describe in The Varieties of White Co-Workers.

 

 

 

[1] Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 12, 2020
[2] Argyris, C. (1960). Understanding Organizational Behavior. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press.