In just the 10 days following the US election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 867 hate harassment incidences ranging from racist and threatening graffiti, fliers, to physical attacks. The unusually high number of incidents were primarily anti-black and anti-immigrant and the most common venues were schools and colleges. In addition, the New York Police Department said it has seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes following the election of Donald Trump, with the majority of incidents directed at Jews, according to New York news outlets. In a discussion with colleagues, the question came up as to whether the sudden emergence of the dark forces of hate demonstrates a failure of the diversity & inclusion profession.
Why haven’t D&I professionals had a more positive effect on the country? Have they been focusing too much on unconscious bias and non-discrimination rather than to overt prejudice? Or, have D&I professionals been so hamstrung within the corporate structure that they’ve been sidelined and their impact substantially limited? What can and should be the role for diversity professionals going forward? How can they best intervene directly and indirectly to stop the growth of dark forces in our communities?
The diversity struggle has always been a bumpy ride and the search for wording to make it more acceptable is ongoing. Cultural trends have forced diversity pros into pretzel-like, touchy-feely, aspirational verbiage. ‘Multiculturalism’ was so dissed that we morphed to diversity terminology. That didn’t impact behavior as we’d hoped, so we went to Diversity & Inclusion in hopes of going beyond the numbers hired. Many folks have dropped the word diversity altogether, trying to ditch the negative baggage, and just use Inclusion. I saw one office drop the word ‘diversity’ completely from its title. Yet, since the election, that same office lost 50% of its personnel.
Beyond the language dilemma, the field of diversity has a history of morphing with cultural trends. Diversity moved on from an early emphasis on affirmative action to focus on non-discrimination and anti-harassment. In recent years, the intensity and reach of the global economy broadened the focus much further. International commerce and manufacturing came to the US, and we sent our own industries abroad. Diversity professionals kept up with and cultural competency required in the global village. Their work now includes diverse team building, global leadership, and cross-cultural communication.
There were many left behind in this globalization and technology era for whom inclusion was, all too often, a distant dream. Those affected are frequently described by the label: White working class. In reality, this group consists of multiple categories of impoverished citizens. They include rural America, inner cities, and those associated with industries that were sent elsewhere or bordered on obsolete. They are joined by debt-laden students and part-time workers whose futures do not resemble the American dream.
Our economic inequality dilemma is not owned by diversity professionals, or at least, not by them alone. Increasingly they are isolated in corporations, squeezed budget-wise, and limited too often to creating low-friction events, like culture festivals. Economic woes, particularly since the Great Recession, have caused the American sense of individualism to visibly morph into tribalism. Like rats in an overcrowded cage, the tribes hurl accusations and blame for economic disenfranchisement at each other. The result has been a hostile, divisive political environment that feels like a civil war.
Prior to the election, diversity professionals resorted to ‘unconscious bias’ to increase accountability and lower prejudice, discrimination, and harassment. Being unconscious, any blame was politely implied, not assigned. Now, acting out the ‘unconscious’ is growing more acceptable and if there is any blame, it is assigned to the opposition. Social networks and the internet have speeded up and intensified the process, encouraging intense emotions, particularly negative ones, to replace training and education.
There needs to be a rethinking of the diversity profession today. There are discussions in the works and some changes already. For example: I’ve rarely seen the phrase “White Privilege” since the election. As discussions get underway, There has always been a perception by some of D&I as Political Correctness. Now, discussions will need to address a cultural trend that sees the PC of diversity as irrelevant. Ironically, this sharp U-turn in the culture has been accompanied by overt incidences of harassment and hate. Some of my D&I consultant colleagues report a major post-election increase in the demand for their services. Perhaps the role of diversity professionals is about to emphasize intervention and prevention rather than team building and recruitment.
If the huge uptick in hate incidences can be seen an outgrowth of the election, we can look at diversity professionals, often dissed as ineffective, as successfully keeping a lid on those ‘unconscious’ feelings until the current Trump phenomenon. Yet, many Diversity professionals in institutional settings feel their organizational change impact has been hemmed in and their impact on society has been indirect at best. Few diversity pros hired in the corporate sector were given, or allowed the luxury, of being social activists directly. Now that certain biases have become empowered as pro-American, diversity pros are facing a new era, as are diversity advocates invested in social action.
Today, as I was driving to a university meeting, I saw two grown men fighting on the campus sidewalk, punching each other in the head. One threw the other to the ground and kicked him repeatedly. No one stopped them. I stood on my horn as I drove by and shouted to them to stop. In my youth, I studied judo and karate so that I could intervene on incidents like these. Frankly, as a tiny, grey-haired lady with fragile bones, I was afraid to get more physical. I wondered if I’d failed my professional and personal mission by not doing so.
How are we to move forward in this new environment? Answering that question will require a renewed sense of purpose and an iron will. The audiences have changed, the environment has changed, and the economic realities are in flux. The resulting burst of anarchy that we are now experiencing requires marrying diversity training to conflict management and problem solving. Further, there will need to be a new emphasis on religious diversity that both exposes the players to different belief systems and recruits religious leaders as partners. Who better to offset the hate and intimidation that is being normalized than the designated religious leaders of diverse cultural groups? The combination of these leaders and diversity professional may be able to overcome the anarchistic violence, whether emotional, verbal, or physical that threatening to divide America permanently.