Ask the White Guy: Black Troublemaker or Honest Broker?

A reader asks: "Does it make me a troublemaker if I point out that promotions are going to lesser-qualified white people?"

Question: Why does leadership get upset when African Americans question the hiring of individuals less qualified than themselves in promotion positions? And why are the individuals labeled "trouble makers?"


Answer: In my observation, there are few words more loaded than "qualification." I think many qualifications are designed to protect those who are "in the club" from those who are not.

One example of bias that masquerades as a "qualification" is standardized tests, specifically the SAT and ACTs, which act as gatekeepers for the better colleges and universities—and therefore to membership in the middle class. The College Board (the billion-dollar-plus not-for-profit that produces the SATs) issued a report that states "the primary purpose of the SAT is to measure a student's potential for academic success in college." The report goes on to say that there IS a correlation between SAT score and first-year success in college (which makes sense if you use the SAT test as a gatekeeper, which most colleges and universities do).

A correlation that the College Board doesn't promote is that SAT scores also correlate to family wealth. In other words, lower-income families have children who score lower on their SATs; wealthier families have children who score higher. Family wealth has nothing to do with being intelligent or talented but has everything to do with the kind of public school you have access to. Most of our country's poorer school districts are nothing better than systemized institutions of talent squandering, despite the heroic efforts of some dedicated administrators and teachers, because they are not funded—and held accountable—to properly do the job.

Yet another correlation is that race and wealth are connected in this country. According to a recent Pew Research report, Black and Latino families have one-twentieth and one-eighteenth the household wealth of white households, respectively. This is a figure that has doubled since the subprime crisis, which was primarily caused by criminal predation by mortgage lenders, spurred by demand from Wall Street banks.

So, there is a vicious cycle for poor families, who are disproportionately Black and Latino: First we'll keep you ignorant. Then we'll deny you access to better yourself, and then we'll punish and/or bamboozle you for being poor and ignorant. The pernicious nature of this cycle spills over to all members of a group when the stereotype is reinforced. Dr. Claude Steele describes this as stereotype threat. Watch the video below.

Different Perceptions

Now to answer your question. Before I became better informed, like most white people, I probably would have brushed off your assertion as being paranoid. But if you understand what's going on (and I have a better grip on this now), the fact is that it's not paranoia, it's a real concern that arises from the knowledge that some groups in this country are persistently, perniciously and consistently discriminated against for reasons of race, gender, orientation, religion, age and disability. (There are other factors, but these are the major ones.)

Your situation is difficult; it is almost impossible to discuss an opinion on a subject where there are two very different perceptions of reality. What might be a topic of normal conversation if we are all on similar levels of perception ("Is that color pale green or chartreuse?") becomes loaded with implications, implied wrongdoing, guilt and emotion. I do not assume your management is racist (they may be, but let's assume they aren't for the sake of this point). Therefore, by talking about what is plainly racial bias to you and invisible to your management, you are coming up against their reality, which is based on white privilege. Having grown up never worrying about race, white people have the privilege of never thinking about it from a personal perspective. Therefore, we cannot possibly truly understand what it means to have to think about it all the time. I have dedicated my life's work to understanding diversity, but, in America, I cannot possibly understand what it means to be aware that every situation I'm in is fraught with potential discrimination based on the color of my skin.

Are You a 'Troublemaker'?

When you challenge or question decisions where race (or privilege) is a factor, you are shaking the very foundations of what most white people believe to be true: that our country is a meritocracy, that we all compete equally and that the outcome is fair. But it's not, and, although you wanted to discuss inequity in promotions, what you ended up doing was challenging the core of your leadership's grounding in reality, which made you a "troublemaker" in their eyes. You wouldn't be a "troublemaker" in an organization that is run to optimize performance because part of that optimization is diversity education, the tools to make opportunity equitably distributed (like employee-resource groups and mentoring)—and accountability for equitable talent management.

Frederick Douglass said, "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck." However, it is an ironic fact of life that the oppressed must lead the oppressor out of oppression. You would think that feeling the chain around our collective necks—the failure to thrive of the very Black and Latino youth that will soon be more than half the children in our country—would lead us to action, but it takes a precipitating factor (for example, photographs of Bloody Sunday to move Lyndon Johnson to meet with Dr. King to try and solve the problem of civil injustice).

This doesn't mean, however, that you have an obligation to do this in your current job. I can tell you that the environment is better in DiversityInc Top 50 companies. You're a professional in the medical industry—look at our list of top 5 hospitals. Check out our career center. No place is perfect, but you can put yourself on a more equitable path by picking a more progressive place to build your career. In a well-run company, equity in hiring, talent development and retention is measured and leaders are held accountable.

People are given the tools to manage a diverse workforce and develop business relationships with people who are "different." Not because they sing "Kumbaya" in the board room, but because talent is equitably distributed—and therefore, proper leadership makes sure its human assets are treated equally and are managed to optimum performance. It's about profitability and sustainability, and better-run companies have more opportunities for all people, not just underrepresented people.

Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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