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Outside the Box: Your workplace is the last best hope for addressing racial inequality

In recent years, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives have become a mainstay of Corporate America. This trend is practical as much as moral, with a growing pool of evidence that companies with a diverse workforce outperform their peers

That’s the theory at least: for most Black Americans, the lived reality is starkly different. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed just how ingrained racial inequality is in this country, with associated job losses disproportionately affecting Black Americans. 

Now, with the recovery underway and a “Great Reshuffle” taking place in the world of work, Black Americans continue to miss out. The recent March jobs report did show a slight decrease in unemployment rates for Black Americans, but after consistent months of stagnant growth, Black Americans still face a significantly higher unemployment rate than any other demographic aside from teenagers. 

To be clear: I believe that the American businesses taking a stand on racial equality are being completely sincere. Indeed, I would go further and say they are leading in an area that has largely been abandoned by weakened national institutions and a lack of government focus.

So why are their efforts failing to shift the dial on job opportunities for Black Americans during our post-COVID recovery?

Read: PwC’s chairman wants to tackle systemic racism — and push corporate America not to ‘pass the buck’

The long and medium-term causes of employment inequality 

The main reason is that the course of the post-pandemic recovery is being dictated by long-term structural inequality. Income inequality that pre-dated March 2020 by decades meant that Black Americans had much further to fall during the pandemic compared to other groups, and they have much further to climb now that the recovery is underway. That’s why despite the U.S. becoming an increasingly multiracial society, and the focus on social justice campaigns contributing to more widespread awareness across the country, we are not seeing a corresponding increase in Black Americans’ overall labor force participation.

A medium-term factor is the ongoing unwillingness of this nation to grapple with the transparent and viscous backlash to diversity. Quite simply, we have not seen the tacit rejection of racism that we should have expected of a more modern America. Instead, we’ve experienced the normalization of extreme views and a steady stream of subtle, dog-whistle messages in public discourse.

This is not happening by accident. Fear is a powerful business model. It can win votes, secure clicks, and sell products. This particular aspect of that business model needs to be dismantled if we are to see any real change in the country. 

And change must come. Demographic shifts tell us that it is already happening. In the not too distant future, the U.S. will need to ensure the full participation of Black Americans in the workforce if we are to fulfill our growth objectives. If significant talent gaps emerge, growth will stall and America will become increasingly less relevant on the global stage. 

Read: Corporate brands stepped up during 2020’s racial reckoning — now comes ‘the hard work’ of real equity and inclusion

We can’t fix it alone

We can see this need coming, and it is prudent that we address it now. As a priority, that means identifying leaders to enable change. The Black community has continuously voiced opposition to racism. Time and time again, from the days of slavery onward, Black Americans have made it clear that we will never accept second-class citizenship. But now it is no longer solely upon us to address the racial inequality. For that, we need allies in the White community. 

When a White ally stands up and calls out racist behavior, clearly denouncing it and vocalizing that racism is unacceptable, it is a powerful statement.

Everyone in society who truly believes in U.S. values – including that every person was created equal – should make a stand to protect these values. When we do we are making another kind of declaration: that we will not accept an America where our dearest values are suspended.

Another voice of support will come from the business world. As mentioned, businesses are currently stepping into the vacuum of leadership in civil society around this issue, but they need to do much more than offer fine words. They need to create companies worth working for and be an ally themselves in taking a hard zero tolerance stance.

Choosing community within the workplace to drive change

Last year, eight million Black Americans quit their jobs to seek more inclusive work environments, but I suspect many won’t be coming back to the workforce so soon. Blue-collar workers in particular are tired of working in low-paying jobs where they often experience racial abuse or discrimination.

Employers should make it their priority to create roles where workers see value in their work and are paid a fair wage for a job well done. Importantly, this should be in an environment where they are valued and appreciated by staff and customers alike.

But there is a broader role to be played by businesses, and one that will have an enduring impact. The workplace could well be the last best place for people of different races and cultures to find community and connection. Not as some “melting pot” where people’s characteristics are washed away for a bland middle ground, but in an environment of mutual respect that celebrates differences and strives to find the opportunities to come together based on those differences.

As in so many other areas of Black American life, employment inequality persists. The Black community and its supporters have made all the appeals to dignity, fairness, decency and respect that they can make, but progress has not been sustainable. In fact, we are going backward.

The time for words is over. What’s needed now are meaningful actions from allies and businesses. Businesses need to introduce a paradigm where they facilitate learning around different cultures. Instead of leaning on the term “melting pot” to wash away what makes people different, celebrate holidays across religions and cultures in the workplace. Give your employees a bridge to have conversations, finding a common thread through these moments of rejoicing and recognition.

A more equitable world is possible, but only if everyone decides to choose community over chaos. 

Steve Pemberton is the chief human resources officer at Workhuman, the peer-to-peer employee recognition platform founded in a mission to make the workplace more human. Follow him on Twitter @istevepemberton.

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