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Diversity and Inclusion: Let's Talk Reality

August 21, 2013

Over the past few months, the foundation on which the civil rights movement was built has been shaken due to unsettling events involving racism and discourse across our nation. Some have labeled 2013 as one of the most racially controversial years since the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial.  Fifty years ago, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood proudly on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and eloquently articulated words of promise, encouragement and even atonement during his “I Have a Dream” address. King’s speech was offered during an era when the nation was harshly divided and deeply scarred by horrendous acts of racial unrest.

Today, one might question whether or not Dr. King’s ‘dream’ has truly been fulfilled. Despite the diversified environment in which we live– and the re-election of the nation’s first Black president – a heightened sense of resentment and racial tension still permeates America. Most recently, two high-profile trial cases have dominated the news headlines: George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin and Paula Deen. Yet surprisingly, much criticism has been leveled in regards to the need for diversity and inclusion programs and sensitivity training.

Collaboration and innovation across demographical, cultural, organizational and global lines are critical to a company’s success. Given Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense laws and the recent Supreme Court’s decision to halt enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which prohibits discrimination against minority voters), one might argue that we are experiencing a major setback in addressing critical diversity issues in the workplace and elsewhere.  The call for diversity and inclusion preparedness in today’s workplace environment is paramount in these uncertain times.

A Deadly Mixture of Race, Guns and Self-Defense

The nation watched and waited while six female jurors in Florida decided the fate of 29-year-old George Zimmerman (White, Hispanic descent); who on the evening of February 26, 2012 shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin (African-American) following an altercation between the two men.  From coast to coast, angry protesters (both Black and White) emerged in massive numbers in reaction to the “not guilty” jury verdict.  Civil rights groups and even President Obama expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcome, while controversy over who pursued who quickly escalated into accusations of racial profiling. We as average American citizens will never know what really happened that led to the death of a 17-year old young man as he walked home from a local convenience store. What we do know for sure is that when these high-profile trials erupt, it is easy to recognize that the work of diversity consultants has gotten a lot more difficult.

A Battle Won, a War Lost

This past July, details of a lawsuit filed by one of Paula Deen’s former white female employees, alleging racial discrimination, being subjected to the use of derogatory remarks and racial epithets towards Deen’s black employees, and even sexual harassment by Deen’s younger brother, Earl Hiers. Soon afterwards, stereotypical references to a “very southern style wedding” with “middle-aged Black men clad in white jackets and black bow ties” also resurfaced in deposition testimony. Deen and her attorney vehemently denied any claims of intentional racism and Deen openly apologized on numerous occasions to the general public via the news media.  Nevertheless, Food Network dropped Deen from their cable television lineup. Corporate sponsors such as Wal-Mart, Target, QVC, Home Depot and Smithfield Foods soon followed suit and removed Deen’s products from their store shelves to protect themselves from any indirect association with Deen and subsequent backlash from the outcome of the pending allegations. 

On August 12, 2013 a U.S. District Court Judge dismissed the racial discrimination claims against the Southern celebrity chef and is now focused on the claims of sexual harassment.  The public battle for Deen has now ended, but the war rages on. Legal experts and talking heads agree that Deen’s career, including her branded products and services, has been irreparably damaged. Many would agree that Deen’s somewhat awkward public apology and open admission of her past use of the described verbiage in ‘certain circumstances’ may have been major contributing factors to the demise of her now tarnished brand. Unfortunately, Deen will not only have a stigma attached to her nationally recognized brand as a result of this debacle, but as an individual employer as well.

A Time to Reflect

I recall the first time I heard the N-word as a child. I was only 8-years old and about to enter the third grade. My parents had just moved our family out of the city and purchased a beautiful home in the suburbs so that my older sister and I could be exposed to better educational opportunities. As the only African-American student in the elementary school, I had just started to become accustomed to my new classmates.  One day during homeroom, one of the boys shouted out the N-word towards me. Everyone in my class pointed at me and laughed. Remarkably, I still remember how humiliated I was at the time and how deeply the words stung my inner soul. As a facilitator, I often remind managers during diversity and inclusion sessions that, “Over time, an employee might forget the exact words that were spoken, but they will always remember how it made them feel.

Two very high-profile trials have now ended and have brought racial issues to a forefront.  The first: tragically concluded by the loss of a teenager. The second: not a loss of human life, but an unfortunate regression for the American people and a ‘teachable moment’ for all of us.  We must pause and examine what is driving the success of some of today’s multi-cultural organizations and impacting their bottom line. These cases remind us that we still have a lot of work to do in understanding race in our every day lives.