This two-part series on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) covers the background of DEI, its forerunner, Affirmative Action, and the causes for and against these programs that some consider sometimes helpful, or hurtful, to the Black experience. Part two delves into Black women and DEI works that cater to this segment of the population.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Many companies say that these aren’t just buzzwords in the post-George Floyd era to ease the racial tensions felt by Black people who make up 15 million (or 12 percent) of the 125 million U.S. private-sector workforce. Or are they just some filler words with no substantial backing when it comes to promoting better working conditions for Black people and other minorities?
Depending on who you ask, experts in the DEI space and companies leading these conversations have very strong opinions on why DEI is a noteworthy cause and not just more HR-style lip service.
With some major strides resulting from Affirmative Action policies (now in place for decades) working their way through the DEI pipeline, shouldn’t equity and racial justice already be an established notion on and off the job? If so, why then would so many Black people leading the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement still have to shout that indeed, “Black Lives Matter?”
DEI Gets it Right?
Mary Mbiya, director of Diversity & Inclusion at Flagstar Bank, told the Michigan Chronicle that DEI work is important work at the organization now more than ever, especially after the death of George Floyd.
“The murder of George Floyd was a game-changer for Flagstar because it marked a new level of engagement with our employees,” Mbiya said, adding that diverse talent acquisition is one of the pillars of Flagstar’s DEI strategy. “We’ve made progress here. For example, we require diverse slates of candidates during the interview process at the high-band levels and review our talent demographics quarterly. Also, all our recruiters have been trained in diversity recruiting. And to help employees advance in their jobs, we piloted mentoring circles last year where employees go through a six-month mentorship program, and we track their career for two and a half years. Over 40 percent of the participants represented ethnic groups. And because diversity in the workplace is so key, it’s a journey we don’t see ever ending.”
Kalfani Ture, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Urban Ethnography Project, assistant professor at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland sees DEI a bit differently.
“If DEI is the band-aid used to cover the old and worn-out squture of Affirmative Action, then part of the solution means that we must take off the bandage and expose the unhealed wounds,” Ture said. “I only sadly predict that suture will be torn off by the desperate and our Democracy will be scarred even more.”
No matter which side of the aisle one stands on the pros and cons of DEI, one thing is for certain, a turning point in the DEI conversation took place after Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in 2020.
Milestones for the Workforce
Many in the DEI space said that their organizations changed for the better to be more in tune with their employees. Angela Thompkins, vice president and chief diversity officer at Consumers Energy, agrees.
Launched formally in 2020, Thompkins said that Consumers Energy’s DE&I focus is one with intentionality and opportunity for the company’s employees to embrace its longstanding cultural values daily.
“As one of Michigan’s largest employers, we know we can’t be silent. We have 8,500 employees and know these issues affect their lives and the communities where we all live and work,” Thompkins said, adding that DE&I centers on creating a “culture of listening and learning.”
“We’re starting by intentionally slowing the pace to meet employees where they are in their respective DE&I journeys,” Thompkins said. “Building a cultural foundation requires getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s about creating a safe environment to engage in dialogue—not debate. We create opportunities to let our guard down, be curious and seek first to understand one another. Our goals are to inspire difficult conversations, get past discomfort and embrace our differences to improve our working relationships and deliver better results for our company and our customers.”
Even before the Floyd tragedy, for decades past, DEI, which has taken on many forms and names, has had a somewhat of an uphill battle in its purpose of advancing equity among Black people and other people of color, who are all too often left out.
According to www.mckinsey.org, data from 24 participating companies (ranging in size from 10,000 to 1.4 million U.S. employees) revealed some insights about how Black employees are lacking in representation, even as companies continue to successfully hire Black employees at the frontline and in entry-level jobs.
The report notes that there is a “significant drop-off in representation at management levels.”
In those respective companies, Black employees make up 14 percent of all employees, compared with 12 percent for the U.S. private sector overall, yet at the managerial level, the Black share of the workforce drops to 7 percent. Across the senior manager, VP and SVP levels, Black representation holds steady at 4 to 5 percent.
The need for Black representation in the workplace grew into the movement known as Affirmative Action, initially established in 1965 by the federal government through an executive order signed by President Lyndon Johnson, to obtain equal employment opportunity after the past discrimination practices prevailed in the workplace. Not only were more Black people hired and recruited at work and through college, but more women, veterans and differently-abled people were brought into the fold.
According to a 2012 study on Affirmative Action it was noted that “government policy has contributed to higher diversity rates at U.S. workplaces” between 1973 and 2003. Also, Black and Native American workers were the “primary beneficiaries” of the policies.
Ture said that for Affirmative Action to exist, it had to allow diverse candidates in.
“What DEI does is says there are a number of minority people who deserve access to the American Dream but it doesn’t single in [on] the issues that African Americans have of this society,” he said. “DEI really … pivots again away from Blackness.”
According to “Diversity + Inclusion: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Make It a Priority,” 48 percent of employees believe that respect is the most essential factor for a culture of inclusion while 61% percent of employees believe diversity and inclusion strategies are beneficial and essential.
Mbiya said that she, too, has seen progress in Flagstar’s DEI program.
“Flagstar today is a stark contrast to the Flagstar of five years ago,” Mbiya said. “Today we talk openly about issues of race, equity, privilege, voting rights, the glass ceiling, generational gaps—the full gamut of issues in the headlines and on our minds. We speak out where we never did before, and we celebrate our diversity as we never did before. Juneteenth, Native American Heritage Month, Pride Month, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Diwali, Veterans Day, and much more, all have a place at Flagstar; but none of it would have happened without the leadership of our CEO and executive team who’ve been all-in from day one.”
Stephen Dorsey, a Canadian author who is multiracial and multilingual, told the Michigan Chronicle that with all of the strides made in the DEI space, even more improvements are needed.
“There should be urgency,” Dorsey said of ramping up DEI efforts.
Dorsey, who wrote a book, “Black & White: An Intimate, Multicultural Perspective on ‘White Advantage’ & The Paths to Real Change” talks about how systemic racism is not unique to the U.S., and countries like Canada are diving deep into their own history of racial discrimination to both accept hard realities and implement real change.
Dorsey said that there is a “global reckoning” happening around anti-Black racism efforts he is encouraged by today.
He added that working in the corporate world and often being the only Black man in the room he’s had his fair share of experiences that shaped who he is.
“Does DEI have more work to do?” Dorsey said he is asked that question often and he said it’s simple, really. “We’re at the end of the beginning. I think we’re just in the part where we’ve raised awareness … but now we need to move this by an awakening of allies that work needs to be done to eliminate systemic racism in the institutions that govern everyday life.”