June 20, 2023

Equality and Affirmative Action Are Imperiled, but Business Leaders Can Help Overcome the Obstacles

Since 1866, when the first organized celebrations occurred, Juneteenth has been a day to commemorate freedom and inclusion in the wake of a bitter civil war fought on the grounds of eradicating or preserving — depending on which side of the conflict one stood — inequality, servitude, and the treatment of people as property. Despite legislative and social momentum over the years, progress has been relatively slow. And since 2016, that same progress has been shifted into reverse. Bills are being passed in states that threaten DEI initiatives, workplace discrimination, the accurate teaching of history and race theory, with two Supreme Court decisions expected to end Affirmative Action. The socioeconomic ramifications of legalized discrimination will have profoundly negative consequences, particularly with recession looming. But history also teaches us that resilience, resolve, and action can prevail. Business leaders have incredible opportunities to help where other institutions have fallen short.

The Origins and Importance of Juneteenth

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all enslaved peoples held by states in rebellion “shall be then, henceforward, and forever free.”  But slavery and the war over it endured until the end of 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished chattel slavery. Texas, not a federally held territory, was the most remote Confederate state, with virtually no Union presence. Enforcement of the proclamation generally relied on the advance of Union troops, so it wasn’t until Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, that liberation seemed possible. Thus began the longstanding tradition of celebrating this day, which we today call Juneteenth.

Juneteenth was given federal status by President Biden in 2021. But as NPR’s Alana Wise pointed out, “Widespread recognition of the holiday was slow moving. For years, it was a relatively obscure holiday celebrated among Black people with little acknowledgment or understanding from outside cultures and communities.”

“Juneteenth celebrations are a chance for this country, for the United States to rethink not only its origins, but the relationship of everybody who lives in this country to each other,” said Greg Carr, associate professor of Africana Studies at Howard University. “In many ways, Juneteenth symbolically becomes a litmus test for the possibilities of this country.”

A Litmus Test with Troubling Results

As a litmus test for race relations in the United States, Juneteenth has already exposed potential problems in its three years as a recognized holiday. One concern involves “corporate money-grabs” that take advantage of the day to “potentially weaken the gravity of such a historic event,” as Wise explained. “And politically, the holiday has been weaponized by some… as part of an ongoing culture war that claims truthful acknowledgments of race and racism are a ploy to demonize white Americans.”

A cursory perusal of mainstream media coverage also reveals a challenging pattern. In ranking all of the stories about the holiday through their position in the news feed, this is how the day has been prioritized.

  • First, several light stories appear to enlighten readers on the history of Juneteenth. 
  • Second, horrifying articles about a mass shooting in Illinois during a Juneteenth celebration with headlines such as “Juneteenth celebration horror: 23 shot, 1 fatally, at Illinois event” or “23 Shot, 1 Fatally, at a Juneteenth Celebration in Illinois.” With no suspect or motive forthcoming at the time of this writing, it’s hard to believe this crime was not motivated in some fashion by hate.
  • Third, an entire series of reporting on which retailers will be open or closed.
  • Fourth, a whole slew of articles covering the hot and humid weather that will affect people enjoying their new day off from work.
  • Fifth, toward the bottom of the barrel, we finally see some articles about the importance of Juneteenth in African American communities and how society can do a better job of working toward true equality, inclusion, voting rights, and pay parity. 
  • And at the very end, an enlightening editorial in CNN by John Blake that breaks down the myths of slavery we’re often told: that the Emancipation Proclamation ended servitude and that enslaved people from Africa were uncivilized, uncultured, and primitive people. Consider the poignant example of an enslaved person called Onesimus who changed the way Americans treated epidemics, pioneering a technique to prevent the spread of smallpox that he had learned from his native West Africa.

Evidence of Increasing Discrimination

There is no single, universally accepted definition of racism, and there is no single, comprehensive data source that tracks it over time. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that bigotry is on the rise in the United States. In fact, of the 20 states that don’t recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, 13 have also passed harsh anti-LGBTQ+ laws in addition to bans on DEIB.

“More than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today. More than four-in-ten say the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and there is some skepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey. The study also found that:

  • about six-in-ten Americans (58%) say race relations in the U.S. are bad, and of those, few see them improving;
  • some 56% think the previous president made race relations worse;
  • a majority of all adults (56%) say being black hurts people’s ability to get ahead, and 51% say the same about being Hispanic, and;
  • in contrast, 59% say being white helps people’s ability to get ahead.

Masood Farivar, writing for Voice of America, also noted that hate crimes in the nation have risen steadily since 2022: “U.S. hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years, driven by factors ranging from a surge in anti-Asian sentiments during the COVID-19 pandemic to anti-Black animus in reaction to racial justice protests that broke out across America in 2020 after the killing of African American George Floyd while in police custody. If the increases seen so far this year hold, it would mark the fourth consecutive year in which hate crimes have risen in the United States.”

Farivar’s assessment is supported by FBI hate crime statistics. In 2020, reported incidents of hate crimes increased by 949, contributing to a total of 8,263 hate crime incidents against 11,126 victims. 

  • The FBI found that 62% of victims were targeted because of the offenders’ bias toward race/ethnicity/ancestry, which continues to be the largest bias motivation category. 
  • Participating agencies reported 5,227 race/ethnicity/ancestry-based incidents in 2020, a 32% increase from 2019. 
  • Anti-Black or African American hate crimes continue to be the largest bias incident victim category, with 2,871 incidents in 2020, a 49% increase since 2019. 
  • Additionally, there were 279 anti-Asian incidents reported in 2020, a 77% increase since 2019. 
  • The other largest categories of hate crimes include anti-Hispanic or Latino incidents, with 517.

In its own research, as added context for the FBI’s 2020 data, the Anti-Defamation League had seen an overall 22% increase of hate crimes in the United States in 2019. 

But continuing to suppress those working toward equality will offer no advantages to society or the economy. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo emphasized this argument in his September 2021 blog post: 

“The exclusion of communities of color from the ladder of economic opportunity holds back economic growth for the entire country. Pursuing racial equity is a vital opportunity to drive innovation and boost growth across the U.S. economy.” When people gain access to the resources they need to build their economic future and withstand financial shocks, it is not just good for individuals and their families, but it also benefits the communities where they live, work, and invest, with beneficial spillovers to the economy as a whole. Likewise, when investments are made that allow millions of people who have been held back economically to reach their full economic potential, it gives the United States an important advantage in an increasingly competitive global economy. We cannot afford to leave talent and opportunity on the table.”

DEIB and Affirmative Action in Trouble

On a state level, some legislators are passing bills to hobble DEIB efforts, which will inevitably impact large communities of Americans, along with the opportunities to which they have access. On a federal level, the Supreme Court could introduce new complications if it decides to ban Affirmative Action as a factor in university admissions decisions, as it is expected to do before the term ends this month.

“Enrollment at the University of Michigan Law School and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law among Black, Hispanic and Native American first-year students plummeted after both states banned affirmative action in public university admissions,” explained Karen Sloan for Reuters. “But over time each school found new ways to boost their percentages of those diverse groups beyond pre-ban levels by adopting strategies that other institutions likely will mirror if the Supreme Court prohibits public and private colleges and universities from considering race when admitting students.”

Nine states now prohibit affirmative action, and law school administrators there said they are fielding requests from out-of-state colleagues on how to enroll diverse classes when race cannot be taken into account. Regardless of the ideological battles being waged by politicians and lawmakers, business and education leaders understand the negative consequences these actions can have, and they often find creative ways around prohibitive laws. Here are some ways administrators at Berkeley and Michigan Law circumvented the restrictions to maintain diversity.

  • They collected detailed financial data from accepted students through need-based scholarship applications in order to direct financial aid to them in hopes they will enroll.
  • They prioritized pipeline programs that encouraged minority students to consider legal careers early on. And they have students, alumni, and faculty with similar backgrounds reach out to accepted students during the admissions process.
  • They targeted recruiting efforts at events geared toward minority applicants and at colleges and universities with significant minority enrollment.

Equality Is Imperative to Success

Promoting equal treatment promotes economic growth, innovation, and opportunity.

  • A study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that closing the racial wealth gap in the United States could add $1.2 trillion to the economy by 2028.
  • A study by the Center for American Progress found that eliminating racial disparities in employment would boost the U.S. economy by $2.3 trillion over the next decade.
  • A study by the Institute for Policy Studies found that closing the racial wealth gap would increase the homeownership rate among African Americans by 10 percentage points, which would generate $1.5 trillion in economic activity.

For businesses, equity and inclusion leads to optimizations in performance, productivity, and growth.

  • Diverse perspectives and innovation: Embracing racial equality brings together individuals from different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. This diversity of perspectives fosters creativity and innovation within a business, leading to better problem-solving and the generation of fresh ideas.
  • Enhanced customer base and market share: Achieving racial equality can help businesses connect with a broader range of customers. By understanding and respecting diverse communities, businesses can better serve their needs and preferences, ultimately expanding their customer base and increasing market share.
  • Talent acquisition and retention: Embracing racial equality demonstrates a commitment to inclusion, which can attract and retain talented individuals from diverse backgrounds. This enables businesses to tap into a wider talent pool and access a broader range of skills, knowledge, and experiences.
  • Improved decision-making and performance: Diverse teams are more likely to make better decisions and achieve higher performance. When individuals from different racial backgrounds collaborate, they bring unique insights and perspectives, leading to more comprehensive and effective decision-making processes.

How Business Leaders Can Help

  • Foster an inclusive culture: Businesses should create an inclusive and welcoming environment where individuals of all racial backgrounds feel valued and respected. This involves promoting diversity in leadership positions, implementing inclusive policies and practices, and providing diversity and inclusion training for employees.
  • Eliminate bias in hiring and promotions: Establish fair and unbiased hiring and promotion practices. Implement blind resume screening, diverse interview panels, and objective criteria to ensure that decisions are based on qualifications and merit rather than personal biases.
  • Address pay inequities: Conduct regular pay audits to identify and address any racial disparities in compensation. Ensure that employees receive equal pay for equal work and establish transparent pay structures that promote fairness and equality.
  • Support employee resource groups: Encourage the formation of employee resource groups (ERGs) that focus on racial equality and provide a platform for employees to share experiences, support one another, and offer input on diversity initiatives.
  • Diversify supplier networks: Expand supplier networks to include businesses owned by individuals from different racial backgrounds. This promotes economic opportunities for minority-owned businesses and contributes to a more equitable business ecosystem.
  • Engage in community initiatives: Actively engage in community initiatives that promote racial equality. This may involve partnering with local organizations, supporting scholarships or mentorship programs, or participating in community events that celebrate diversity.
  • Support remote work: Remote work allows companies to break down geographical barriers and open up opportunities for individuals who may have limited access to employment due to their location, such as those in rural areas or disadvantaged areas who can’t afford to live close to physical offices in expensive metropolitan regions. In a remote work environment, individuals are also evaluated based on the quality of their work and outcomes rather than their physical appearance or background. This flexibility can be particularly beneficial to individuals with disabilities, caregivers, or those facing personal circumstances that make traditional office-based work challenging.

Ideologies grounded in exclusion lead to precisely that: they exclude skilled talent from the workforce, consumers from the economy, tourists and new taxpayers from states, expert perspectives from marketing, and thought leaders from groundbreaking ideas. America’s greatness sprang from the idea that a unified country, with opportunity for all citizens, would solidify success. The benefits of fostering equality have been measurable in this nation: cultural enrichment, civic engagement, increased workforce participation, enhanced productivity and engagement, expanded consumer bases, reduction in discrimination-related costs such as suits and legal battles, booming entrepreneurship, and much more — all of these things empowering our economic prosperity. 

If history has taught us anything, it’s that resilience, resolve, and rising up to surmount obstacles along the way are how improvements are forged. But progress requires a unified front and a growth mindset. Where other institutions have fallen short in recent years, businesses can still help make a difference.

Photo by Laurenz Heymann on Unsplash

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