'Blacks Should Not Be Satisfied With Food Stamps': The Danger of Stereotypes

By Barbara Frankel


What should you do if one of your executives uses a negative stereotype, especially in a public forum How can you make sure your workplace doesn’t tolerate these types of damaging misconceptions, which impact morale and productivity Learn a lesson from recent verbal missteps by presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and see what Dr. Claude Steele advises you to do.

Gingrich announced that “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied cultural competence with food stamps.”

NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous called the statement “inaccurate and divisive.”

Santorum said at a campaign stop in Iowa: “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” After getting national criticism for the remark, he said he was “pretty confident that I didn’t say ‘Black,'” but the video shows that he did indeed say that. Watch the video.

Dr. Steele, dean of education at Stanford University and former provost of Columbia University, is the author of “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.” Dr. Steele, who analyzed these stereotypes at a DiversityInc event, told us that statements like these have long-term impact on workplace engagement and productivity. Watch the video.

“As my work has taught me and illustrates, stereotypes are not innocent or easily ignorable. They create pressures on people to see others in those stereotypes and degrade the quality of life for people who are stereotyped. They have a profound effect of creating discomforts that are attached to our identities,” he said. “Politicians resort to reinforcing old stereotypes about groups because it gives people belief that these things still are true it creates a sense of social reality. Even though Obama’s the president, it keeps them alive.”

What would he recommend you do if someone in your organization perpetuated a stereotype Be true to your values. “If I were leading an organization and this happened, if the opportunity arose in a naturalistic way, I’d condemn it and say this is something to be ashamed of. That’s what happened in the civil-rights movement; I’m old enough to remember when you could use the N-word in Congress, and that’s not acceptable anymore,” Dr. Steele said.

For more on clarity of values, read CEO Commitment: Why Visibility & Accountability Matter and Why Julie Goodridge Might Be the Scariest Person in Investment Banking. Also read Ask the White Guy: Decision Making, Clarity of Values & What to Do When It Goes Horribly Wrong.

The real danger, Claude emphasized, is in people accepting these stereotypes. “These people are dangerously trafficking in stereotypes and making this a normative behavior. That’s what happens eventually; behavior shifts and these are no longer the norm,” Dr. Steele said.

And people often accept these statements without checking the facts. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, offers food stamps. PolitiFact says participation is high, but that’s because of efforts since the Bush administration to increase participation. The largest group of SNAP recipients is white people, and most SNAP participants are younger than 18.

Facts are important in diversity work and in destroying stereotypes. Here are some diversity-management lessons demonstrated by companies in the DiversityInc Top 50 to address stereotypes in your organization.

Ensure Diversity Training Is Mandatory

Seventy-eight percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 require mandatory cultural-competence training for their managers, and 66 percent require it for their entire workforce. While one can’t regulate what comes out of an employee’s mouth, teaching people about the need for respectful speech, as well as what type of speech is hateful, goes a long way to avoiding these types of hurtful communications.

Former NBA star John Amaechi addressed the power of hateful words recently when he keynoted DiversityInc’s special-awards ceremony. Read highlights from John Ameachi’s speech and watch the video.

Get the Message Out Externally and Internally, Starting at the Top

From your CEO’s statement on diversity (which should be on your corporate homepage) to your mission statement to all your external and internal communications, the message of respect and inclusion has to be clear and constant. Allowing any stereotypes for any group, including white men, to be perpetuated in any way by your company opens the door for these kinds of comments. A no-tolerance-for-disrespect policy, from the highest ranks of the company on down, must be clearly and consistently articulated.

Mandate Cross-Cultural MentoringAllow Senior Leadership to ‘Walk in Others’ Shoes’

Formal, cross-cultural mentoring relationships enable people from different backgrounds to really get to know each other and enhance cultural awareness, especially for senior, white, male executives. The one-on-one nature of the relationship, both studies and DiversityInc data show, are critical to that increased knowledge. Progressively more companies also require both mentors and mentees to undergo cultural-competence training before beginning the formal mentoring arrangement. Ninety-four percent of DiversityInc Top 50 companies now have formal, cross-cultural mentoring programs.

Expose CEOs and Senior Executives to Different Employees Through ERGs

Ninety percent of DiversityInc Top 50 CEOs now meet regularly with leaders of employee-resource groups. That connection, one shared by other senior executives, is invaluable in developing understanding of the group’s constituencies. For more on the positive effects of CEO commitment on talent development, read Increasing Diversity in Talent Development.

Related stories/videos:

The G.O.P.’s ‘Black People’ Platform

New York Times’ op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow comments on and debunks the rhetoric from GOP candidates Santorum and Gingrich and how they play on existing racial anxieties.

Gay, Black Aide Defends Santorum

One of Santorum’s former aides, Chris Matthews, a Black and openly gay man, defends the candidate. Here’s what he said.

NAACP Blasts Santorum for Targeting Blacks in Entitlement Reform

A CBS news video shows Rick Santorum’s comments that single out Blacks as recipients of federal benefits. The NAACP says his remarks are “inaccurate and outrageous,” while Santorum denies he said “Black.”

NAACP Leader Blasts Gingrich’s Food Stamp Comment

Gingrich’s comments, as shown in a CBS news video, positions Blacks and other traditionally non-represented groups as jobless people relying on food stamps. NAACP refutes the inaccuracies and Gingrich denies his remarks were racist.

Newt Gingrich ‘Irritated’ By Outrage Over His Comments On Food Stamps

A Black person, Yvan Lamothe, speaks up to Gingrich at the candidate’s town hall in New Hampshire, and Gingrich aims to clarify his original remarks.

Black Woman Confronts Santorum Over Comments: ‘Why Do You Have A Problem Against Black People’

At a campaign event in New Hampshire, a Black woman confronted Santorum on his racist remarks. A Think Progress post provides an audio recording and a photo of the exchange.

Why Santorum’s Comment Isn’t Racist

An article on The Root calls attention to how the comments take root in a deeper fear by GOP members to discuss issues of race and truly connect with Black voters.

Rick Santorum To John King: I Didn’t Say Black People, I Said ‘Blah’ People

What did you hear Santorum say “Blah,” “Black” or something else Mediaite.com offers readers a “What Did You Hear Rick Santorum Say” poll and a video from the candidate’s appearance on John King USA where he tries to defend his statements.

Did Newt Gingrich really say Blacks should “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps”

Gingrich said that his comments aren’t racially charged if you look at them in context. Metro posts the full text of what he said for readers.

The Slanders Against Santorum Clarify the Real Conflict

This blog defends Santorum, saying NPR and leftists “manufactured a controversy” to slander “a man who’s one of the nation’s leading advocates for rebuilding African-American families.”

Sarah Palin defends Newt Gingrich: David Gregory of ‘Meet the Press’ asked ‘racist-tinged’ question

Palin says the “Food Stamp President” line wasn’t racistit was an answer to a reporter’s question that was tinged with racism. Was it a set-up

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