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Has “Diversity” Failed? What It Needs to Succeed

To take off and truly transform American institutions, diversity needs a more compelling narrative than we’ve managed to give it so far.

"Communities of color have historically and still today face redlining, the literal or figurative practice of denying products and services to people based on race." (Photo: Helium Factory / Flickr)

"Communities of color have historically and still today face redlining, the literal or figurative practice of denying products and services to people based on race." (Photo: Helium Factory / Flickr)

Over the past couple of years, diversity has become a hot button issue. From the Oscars to Silicon Valley to the president’s cabinet, headlines have castigated powerful forces when they don’t include people of color.

These narratives clearly paint a lack of diversity as wrong. What they fail to do, however, is to answer why it’s so important in the first place. Perhaps that’s why, from corporations to government, leadership of America’s largest institutions remains dominated by white men. We need a more compelling answer to questions like: “Why does it matter if no people of color are in the Best Actor category? What exactly are the consequences of a predominately white and Asian male staff at Google?”

There are many answers out there. Most often, diversity advocates have relied on the “business case,” the idea that diverse organizations make better decisions, thus increasing corporate profits. There’s also the very troubling “diversity of thought” argument, which came front and center when Apple’s head of diversity got into hot water for saying  “12 white, blue-eyed, blonde men” could be diverse. That statement drew much-deserved ridicule, but not much seems to have changed in the aftermath.

I have no doubt there is some truth to these theories, but they certainly don’t compel the larger public the way they need to. That may explain why progress has been slow. After all, when was the last time you laid awake at night worried about Uber missing out on profits because of its lack of diversity?

To take off and truly transform American institutions, diversity needs a more compelling narrative than we’ve managed to give it so far. Without a strong “why,” we can’t get society to authentically prioritize it -- especially when a whole host of other racial justice issues effectively resonate with people.  And we certainly can’t identify solutions and change business as usual for the better. 

We’ve got to shift from framing diversity as a tool for corporate America and reclaim it for ourselves, the ones who need it most. We’ve got to articulate diversity not as some generic value, but as a tool to accomplish something bigger.

That something bigger is simple — justice.

Communities of color have historically and still today face redlining, the literal or figurative practice of denying products and services to people based on race. This term dates from the 1930s, when the Federal Housing Administration literally marked neighborhoods of color in red on maps and refused to underwrite mortgages in those areas. We have since come to recognize similar patterns in other areas, such as education.

We’re also redlined in the job market. That may seem odd, since — at least publicly — no one draws red lines and says, “We won’t hire Black/Latino/Asian people.” But, as Reveal’s recent investigation showed, the traditional form of redlining — mortgage discrimination — has continued in more subtle forms. And that’s what we see in the job market.

Research across multiple industries and sectors demonstrates three clear patterns:

1) Communities of color face chronic, disproportionate unemployment, with unemployment rates typically running a third or more higher than whites,

2) Representation of people of color dramatically decreases as one climbs the organizational ladder, and

3) Corporations and government agencies too often think of people of color as service or support workers, rather than as prime candidates for lucrative professional fields like technology or legal services.

What we’ve been doing isn’t working — at least not enough — so it’s time to rethink. The Greenlining Institute recently released its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Framework, a resource that deconstructs this topic and empowers readers to advocate for jobs in communities of color. We seek to reclaim and reintroduce diversity, equity, and inclusion and to build a movement with racial justice advocates. Please check out the Framework and contact Danielle Beavers, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, at danielleb@greenlining.org to get involved.

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Danielle Beavers

Danielle Beavers is Director of Diversity and Inclusion at The Greenlining Institute.

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