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

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are the latest politicians to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Blacks. Dr. Claude Steele, educator and expert on stereotypes, gives advice on the dangers of these kinds of misstatements, their impact on the workplace and how to handle them.

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 Mentoring—Allow 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.

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