Nearly six decades have passed since the Civil Rights Movement, a bellwether crusade for equal rights that seemed certain to galvanize the long-overdue eradication of racial bias. And yet, right now in 2020, with continuing Black Lives Matter protests across a country still in the throes of a global pandemic, it is apparent that any progress already made toward black equality is vastly overshadowed by the volume of change still needed.
Despite laws in place to prevent overt racial discrimination, biases remain deeply rooted in American society and individual ideologies. The questions are being asked across our institutions and media – What has worked? What hasn’t? What must we do to finally get it right?
The prevalence of grassroots activism and firsthand accounts of injustice told across every media platform with unflinching candor present images and commentary we can no longer avoid. And while ongoing activism and genuine empathy are illuminating the stark questions, the answers are far more complex. The past 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War clearly demonstrate that without sustained structural and systemic change, ideas and movements aimed at eradicating racism and ensuring equality – even with the best of intentions – will not lead to lasting progress, let alone lasting change. Some of our institutions – including corporations, universities and news media – are among the organizations that are evolving from historically discriminatory practices. While their efforts are a long way from fully unwinding the damage or instituting real change, they are increasingly being held accountable by new generations of leaders and stakeholders, by renewed retrospection on shared values and more broadly, by a restless society tired of bigotry and racism.
The Current State of the Racial Context – A Snapshot
The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 12 subsequent years of Reconstruction resulted in a sweep of equitable laws and policies (including the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal protection under the law), a vast expansion of human and civil rights and the beginning of public education and universal state-funded public schools for all children. More than 100 years later, the Fair Housing Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson just seven days after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, followed by such laws as the Civil Rights Act and the expansion of Affirmative Action to minorities. These legislative actions appeared to mark a new era of change.
Yet these gains of the 1960s, just as those of the 1870s, were met at nearly every turn with white resistance, often exacerbated by broader economic upheavals. The vast economic disruption caused by the Great Depression and, arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic, triggered extreme backlash reflected in social disorder. The interplay of these forces of social unrest are evident today – with COVID-19 disproportionally afflicting communities of color in the U.S.
In this context, the televised horror of George Floyd’s death opened a wound that had been festering for decades. As the Black Lives Matter protests further illustrate, profound racial alienation persists. Black Americans remain the most segregated group in this country and are five times as likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods as white Americans – this despite their extraordinary contributions to the nation’s leadership and educational, cultural, political, humanitarian and economic progress.
Other data are equally stark:
- 54% of black adults had a high school diploma in 1968; today 92% do.
- 9% of black adults had college degrees in 1968; today 23% do.
- Black college graduates earn 21% less than white college graduates and pay gaps have been widening, not shrinking, over the past four decades.
- The wealth gap is no better than in 1968, and college-educated blacks tend to have higher student loan burdens than whites.
- Institutionalized social disparities remain pervasive – for example, 17% of college-educated blacks say they face discrimination “regularly” and half of all black Americans with at least some college say they have feared for their personal safety.
- A black family’s net worth is one-tenth of that of a typical white family.
This time around, however, the data increasingly show that people across all racial groups are coalescing around the need for substantial and lasting change. A Monmouth University poll released in June 2020 found that that 76% of Americans now say that racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the United States. That number has increased from 51% in January 2015 and 68% in July 2016. Respondents supporting that premise include large majorities of Americans who are black (90%), from other minority groups (81%), and white (71%) who say such discrimination is a major problem.
Structural and Systemic Paradigms
Our society shows promising signs of using the current urgency to analyze 400 years of history and fashion steps toward healing deep and pervasive social and ideological friction. However, there is fairly consistent agreement among scholars and observers that every inflection point – i.e., the progressive laws and policies requiring legislative action and political and social will – are doomed to failure without comprehensive structural and systemic changes. –
Despite the financial, political and educational progress set in motion by the Civil Rights Movement, blacks are incarcerated at a rate 6 times higher than whites and possess 13 times less wealth, as shown in the PBS film “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” hosted by noted scholar of African American history Henry Louis Gates Jr. His poignant and sobering revelations underscore the complexity of racial inequality, from the dismantling of social safety nets to the scourge of the drug trade. The film is a powerful resource for understanding the current state of racial inequality, and reinforces how deeply these oppressive systems are rooted.
“Changing the laws, too many Americans have believed, marked the end of the obligation,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in an examination of economic injustice and defense of reparations recently in The New York Times.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Matter
The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives launched in the corporate sector, universities and other institutions in recent years collectively are a positive starting point. The benefits of diverse workplaces, communities and classrooms have been widely reported and suggest that a feeling of inclusion is the primary social benefit of a diverse environment. In the workplace, inclusion is linked to strong employee engagement and confidence in career advancement. In the classroom, students who feel included build more confidence, take greater intellectual risks, cultivate empathy and develop important social skills.
From a business standpoint, diversity elevates the bottom line. “Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians,” according to McKinsey & Company, which has conducted diversity surveys since 2015 and today involve 1,000 companies in 12 countries. In the US, every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior management team results in a .8 increase in earnings before interest and taxes.
The financial benefit of diverse collaborations has also been observed in the venture capital industry, where diversity is appallingly thin. Harvard Business Review (HBR) analyzed the financial success of diverse and non-diverse startups and found that just 8 percent of VC investors are women, 2 percent are Hispanic and fewer than 1 percent are black. Prevailing investment statistics show conclusively that investors tend to favor start-up collaborators with whom they share common traits or experiences, such as ethnicity, gender or alma mater. But HBR found that homogeneous teams had significantly lower investment outcomes than those with greater diversity among investors and executives. Authors of the study theorized that diversity boosts the quality of decision making. “Differences in decision quality and performance came later, when the investors helped shape strategy, recruitment, and other efforts critical to a young company’s survival and growth,” they wrote. “Thriving in a highly uncertain competitive environment requires creative thinking in those areas, and the diverse collaborators were better equipped to deliver it.”
The initiatives that have real potential for improving the economic status of minorities and their mobility into leadership roles are the ones with teeth, i.e., defined outcomes, metrics and accountability. Yet all it takes to undo everything is the executive suite president or CEO who does not believe in making changes. It’s illustrated regularly in news reports about government, courts and legislatures. While a third of the firms tracked by McKinsey & Company since 2015 have significantly improved both gender and ethnic diversity on their executive teams, the majority have stalled or gone backwards.
With respect to another industry, the news media, in 1979 the American Society of News Editors vowed to diversify their newsrooms by the year 2000 in order to match diversity in the population at large. While the intent was good, it did not manifest; the US general population is 40 percent nonwhite, but less than 17 percent of staff at print and online publications are people of color. At newspapers, that number dips even lower. In television, roughly 25 percent of staff are diverse, but in radio that number is only about 12 percent. Now, under a magnifying glass, newsrooms across the country are reviewing their processes for covering the news, citing failures to cover race relations without bias as well as failures to hire a diverse reporting pool that could offer expanded perspectives that better represent the communities they serve, and pay them equally.
Making Change Last
The question is often raised today, “how did we get here?” Not for want of trying. Policy implementations such as Affirmative Action certainly expanded opportunities for underrepresented populations, but they haven’t eradicated the problems these programs confront and in some cases created new ones.
Like many other purported solutions, the lack of implementation planning and resources stymied efforts as soon as they started. Slaves were freed but were not given financial start-up packages to establish homes, go to school and prepare for higher-level jobs. This was a critical omission because it deprived generations of African Americans the cumulative acquisition of wealth (as opposed to income) that many economists and sociologists believe is the means to security and peace of mind in America – to buy homes in safer neighborhoods and go to college without mounds of debt that limits future home purchases or thins the floor of economic safety against catastrophes.
Affirmative Action allowed minority students to enroll in prestigious universities in unprecedented numbers, but students often lacked supportive resources to thrive in skeptical and often unwelcoming campus environments. Moreover, the lack of diversity in leadership roles at these institutions further contributed to feelings of exclusion and perceived alienation.
This time feels different, but will it be? The missteps and failures of 400 years of racial injustice from slaves’ first arrival in North America will not be rectified overnight, and success will be demonstrated in many cases, one school, one police department, one corporation at a time.
There are meaningful action steps that organizations or institutions can take right now that have proven to lead to shared value and longer-term prosperity, including committing to anti-racism personnel policies and racial-equity training, to pay equity, to giving employees a voice, to lobbying for good, to paying a living wage, to providing paid parental and sick leave.
Educational institutions share an enormous responsibility in helping lead the way, at a time when colleges and universities simultaneously face two challenges of tectonic proportions. In order for their institutions remain relevant in 2020 and beyond, higher education executives must immediately find ways to maintain and enhance their instructional and research programs during a worldwide pandemic, while addressing a sea change in the nation’s views of racial justice. The institutions that succeed at meeting those challenges will thrive. Those that fail will face consequences that threaten their survival.
For years most schools have been sensitive to diversity in recruiting. But that’s simply the opening play. Programs have broadened to embrace concepts of “equity” and “inclusion,” the outcomes of meaningful change. Some efforts are quite bold – for example, out of Jesuit higher education and the Arrupe College of Loyola University of Chicago, a low-cost, high-yield, replicable two-year college model that is inclusive and accessible to students who are often underrepresented at selective colleges and universities.
More broadly, one of the most common categories for university hiring according to a recent review of job sites is the chief diversity officer. That position sits on the president’s cabinet or in the C-suite in corporations, frequently at the vice-president level rather than a staff manager within the Human Relations department. Diversity officers influence institutional strategic plans or create plans for their own organizations – with time-framed milestones, outcomes, dashboards and Key Performance Indicators. The conversation has moved from “quotas” to accountability for multi-year outcomes in cultures that embrace DEI.
Beyond adopting the concepts of DEI, higher education leaders must pursue strategies that infuse a commitment to racial justice across the entire culture of their institution, from its curriculum to student life to campus safety.
In a letter to the university community on the eve of Juneteenth 2020, Duke University President Vincent Price acknowledged that “at Duke we aspire to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice; but it would be more than fair to say that we have often not fully embraced that mission.” He outlined a comprehensive commitment to eliminate the systems of racism and inequality through initiatives such as broadening diversity among Duke’s faculty, staff and students; incorporating equity and anti-racism studies into required curricula and remediating biases in the design of Duke’s curricula; requiring anti-racism and anti-bias training for all faculty, students and staff; and increasing application opportunities for students from community colleges and HBCUs. With these and other initiatives, he vowed “transparency and accountability in the University’s commitment to equity, naming oversight appointments and citing deadlines for implementation.
Duke University is just one of many institutions currently in the process of auditing behaviors directed at creating equal opportunities for all who desire an education and, in so doing, creating inclusive communities that genuinely elicit and promote the contributions from multi-ethnic, multi-racial constituencies for the good of the whole. Such a value proposition signals the benefits of a campus environment representative of global society – not elite neighborhoods.
Georgetown, Rice, CalTech, the University of Michigan, New York University and others have launched a variety of DEI initiatives. More broadly, higher ed institutions are flush with opportunities for confronting structural racism directly, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. These opportunities include requiring implicit-bias training for anyone involved in admissions, guaranteeing financial aid beyond the first year, requiring de-escalation training for public safety officers, adopting transparent student-protest policies, conducting campus wide review of building and school names, expanding the scope of the chief diversity officer and creating strategic plans to hire diverse faculty and staff.
Do leaders and their teams have the discipline to stay the course and hold fast until we “get there?” Do constituencies have the energy to maintain their focus and demand that commitments result in genuine change? In today’s context, polls and recent activity provide optimism:
- Post-boomer generations are more diverse than the rest of the electorate, and millennials (born 1981–1996) combined with GenXers (born 1965–1980) mean that more than 6 in 10 of this year’s electorate will be younger than 55.
- Younger whites are more liberal than their elders on matters of racial justice and social issues.
- A recent McKinsey report demonstrates that the business case for gender and ethnic diversity in top teams is stronger than ever – “the likelihood of outperforming industry peers on profitability has increased over time, while the penalties are getting steeper for those lacking diversity.” Additionally, companies that lead on diversity have taken bold steps to strengthen inclusion because their employees are demand equality and fairness in the workplace.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and current secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, called today’s social unrest “the civil rights movement of the 21st century…. I’m hopeful because as a student of history, I think about how African Americans dreamed of a world that no one believed existed. Dreamed of a world where there wasn’t slavery….I look at this as African Americans as a people who believe in the resiliency and the possibility of change…I want to be able to say that this is the moment that the country made that great leap forward…. I see some optimistic signs. But we’ve been here before.”
Nonetheless, as aspirational and intentional as organizations in all sectors may be currently, centuries of history affirmed by recent experience show that individual beliefs, behaviors and actions hold the power for change. Until the individuals within our organizational, community, family and social cultures begin to think differently and assume responsibility through their values and daily actions, progress to full and meaningful racial justice and equity will be slow.
Authors: Janis Johnson and Catherine Smith
 “How Moderates Failed Black America,” David Brooks, The New York Times, June 18, 2020.
 “Dollar for Dollar: How the financier Steven Mnuchin gained control of America’s money machine,” Sheelah Kolhatkar, The New Yorker, July 20, 2020.
 “Protestors’ Anger Justified Even If Actions May Not Be,” Monmouth University, Monmouth Poll, June 2, 2020.
 “What is Owed?” By Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times, June 20, 2020.
 Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters,” McKinsey & Company, May 2020.
 “The Other Diversity Dividend,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 2018.
 Diversity Wins, Ibid.
 “Decades of Failure,” Columbia Journalism Review, Special Report, Fall 2018.
 What Is Owed? Ibid.
 “50 Years of Affirmative Action: What Went Right, and What It Got Wrong,” The New York Times, March 30, 2019.
 “The 10 Commitments Companies Must Make to Advance Racial Justice,” by Mark R. Kramer, Harvard Business Review, June 4, 2020.
 “Statement from President Price on Juneteenth Celebration and Next Steps on Addressing Racism,” Duke University, June 17, 2020.
 “How the top 25 colleges and universities in the US are responding to the Black Lives Matter protests,” Business Insider, June 25, 2020.
 “Colleges Must Confront Structural Racism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2020.
 “Biden could be the unlikely instrument of a new generational alignment,” E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, June 28, 2020.
 Diversity Wins, Ibid.
 “Protest is the Highest Form of Patriotism: A Conversation with Lonnie Bunch,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2020.