As a young manager in a big company, I volunteered to be the college recruiting liaison for my department. That meant coordinating between hiring managers and recruiters, reading hundreds of resumes, setting up interviews, and reviewing feedback to help determine who to hire.
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It was a lot of work but a great experience until one day the department head threw me a real curve ball. He said that the human resource folks were coming down on him, that we had to hire two black engineers that year. No kidding; it was that cut and dried. Welcome to the real world.
That may have been 30 years ago, but I will never forget how wrong it felt. Call me strange, but I was always pretty much colorblind when it came to race, not to mention gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, whatever. For whatever reason, it never meant that much to me. And I wasn’t raised in a protected environment, that’s for sure.
I actually grew up in racially segregated Brooklyn, New York. My friends and I were bussed into an all black and Hispanic junior high school in the middle of a slum. It was a real war zone. People were killed there every year. Still, none of that made a difference. I’ve always thought of people as unique individuals. Period.
Of course, that’s how it should be. And I’ve no doubt that it will be. But not if we stay on the path we’re on. Ironically, the legislation that’s designed to reduce discrimination and promote diversity oftentimes reinforces the opposite behavior. The same is true of racially exclusive organizations and cultural norms like political correctness.
They promote resentment, poor work ethic, victim mentality, entitlement behavior, and yes, even racism. They undermine personal responsibility and accountability. They reduce organizational productivity and effectiveness. And they’re slowly eroding the foundation of our nation and our competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace.
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Don’t get me wrong. Civil rights, women’s rights, equal opportunity, it’s all good. It’s sad that they didn’t happen sooner. But things change. Organizations change. Cultures change. And when that happens, even the most altruistic goals and strategies can have unintended consequences that reinforce the wrong behavior.
When smart business leaders find themselves in that situation, the first thing they do is be completely honest with themselves about their situation. Then they come up with a common goal and figure out what kind of cultural change they need to achieve it. Then they make sure that everything they do reinforces the behavior needed to bring about that change.
So, let’s do that. For America.
First of all, I don’t think I’m going out on too long a limb by suggesting that we’re all looking for a colorblind society, and I mean that in the broad sense: race, gender, religion, nationality, and sexuality should play no role in the decisions we make in business, politics, or society. Period.
I’m sure that’s a goal we can all agree on. Now, let’s see if our current laws, our politics, and our cultural norms reinforce that behavior or not.
Take affirmative action, for example. Maybe there was a time when it was needed, but today, affirmative action is basically institutionalized racism. It provides advantages to certain select groups while discriminating against others. It doesn’t make us colorblind. It specifically forces us to look at and make decisions based on race.
Moreover, when people are hired, promoted, or admitted into schools based on anything but their merits, that changes their behavior. They either feel like they’re special when they’re not or like perpetual victims who can’t achieve things on their own.
In either case, it doesn’t teach them personal accountability and self-reliance. It teaches them to expect things they didn’t work for, to want things they don’t deserve.
Affirmative action also creates resentment in those who are passed over in favor of special minority groups. It teaches them that good grades and hard work aren’t as important as race. That, in turn, erodes their personal accountability and self-reliance. And you know what else it does? It actually reinforces racism. That’s just common sense.
It’s interesting to note that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once said that she was a “perfect affirmative action baby” because she was admitted into Princeton and Yale despite test scores that “were not comparable” to those of her colleagues. She said that “cultural biases built into testing” makes it harder for minorities to perform well.
Indeed, we’ve all heard that argument before. But if it’s true, I’ve always wondered, why not just fix the tests? Wouldn’t that be a whole lot smarter than providing advantages to generations of minorities and creating a society of people who feel entitled and resentful? Why erode the work ethic of an entire culture because of a standardized test?
I guess we’ll find out what the Supreme Court thinks about that in the coming months. The high court is expected to render two affirmative action decisions this year. How do you think Sotomayor will vote?
When it comes to politics and the media, we do a lot of double-talk about eliminating discrimination and racism while perpetuating both.
The Congressional Black Caucus, if I understand correctly, actually has an unwritten rule that white representatives are not allowed. How is that not discrimination? Then there’s Women Impacting Public Policy, an extremely powerful lobbying group that actually has a statement on diversity on its website. Ironic, isn’t it. I guess they only discriminate against Y-chromosomes.
We have media companies and cable channels that are race and gender specific. It’s hard to believe that, in this day and age, you can find television programs and movies that are staffed almost entirely by one race of people to the exclusion of all others. And somehow, that’s supposed to promote diversity.
Does that make any sense when we succeeded in integrating every aspect of American business and culture decades ago?
Perhaps the most egregious way that racism is perpetuated in the name of diversity is that executives and managers who have known for decades that discrimination is illegal are now being forced to endure diversity and sensitivity training that does little but perpetuate political correctness and pander to minority races and religions. That doesn’t make us more colorblind. On the contrary, it calls attention to it.
Here’s one last point to highlight the duplicity of racism and discrimination in American business, culture, and politics. When people disagree with President Obama’s policies, they’re sometimes characterized as racist. We even have a name for that. It’s called “playing the race card.”
Now, I ask you honestly, does that sound like it’s intended to engender colorblindness or to cut off healthy debate over important issues while perpetuating an unfair advantage?
Look, there was a time when racial and gender discrimination kept more than half of Americans from ever achieving the American dream. But now, the tide has turned. There are laws in place that strike fear into any employer who even thinks about discriminating against minorities or women.
At this point, it should be clear to anyone with common sense that much of what we do in the name of ending discrimination and racism actually perpetuates it. It holds back minorities from achieving their potential, creates resentment among the majority, reinforces our growing entitlement culture, and diminishes the personal responsibility and accountability of everyone.
It’s long past time for political and business leaders – for all clear thinking Americans – to declare the playing field level. To agree that, to achieve our common goal of becoming a truly colorblind nation, we have to let go of discrimination and racism in all its forms – in both directions.