Diversity or Diversion?

Experts express their views about the effectiveness of diversity programs and offer suggestions on how to improve them

a lot of individuals in a room look different, or they may have different educational experiences, geographic locations, or differences of origin. But, if you have invited all of these people into the room expecting them to assimilate into the environment, then you have diversity representation without true diversity.

MARK WILLIAMS: When you say diversity, it depends on where you are on that continuum and where you think your group is. Some people believe that their group is still dealing with basic issues of dignity and human rights, so they want to have a discussion about oppression in society and corporate America. Some groups believe that the discussion is still around segregation, meaning that their group is not included [and is] isolated, or not invited to fully, formally participate in the corporate game. Some groups are trying to have a discussion about civil rights, and they’re trying to get laws passed to protect their group. Gays and lesbians, and seniors, for example, are having their own civil rights movement.

Other groups are having a multicultural discussion because they are looking across national lines. Then there are those that are thinking globally. I prefer to think there is a movement that began and is evolving [more] along a continuum than [on] a single word. The term is problematic because it leaves out the reality that we are in each of these places, having each of these discussions simultaneously. We never moved to diversity and then ended all of these other discussions.

It’s really about all of the work that is still going on in the American society and in corporate America.

TED SHAW: The term, diversity, is not one that African Americans chose. If we really want to look at its origin, as this is a legal discussion, it’s [also] a political discussion [and] a sociological discussion. But the legal framework, for better or worse, is going to control the parameters of the discussion.

Mark is absolutely right. This started off as a struggle for civil or human rights and dignity. In the ’60s up through the ’70s, we were talking about desegregation and integration. Those terms are usually thought of these days, particularly by more sophisticated African Americans, as somewhat Pollyannaish and outdated.

The point is that even while we try to struggle to maintain our own issues, [we are still under attack] because there is a savage [movement] under way on anything articulated on behalf of African Americans, particularly if it’s by African Americans. At the same time, we can’t isolate ourselves from all these other groups that have wrapped themselves in the mantle of civil rights, whether they are women, or gays and lesbians, because politically, it doesn’t work. We have to find a way to vote for ourselves and be able to do that without apology and, at the same time, work in coalition with other groups.

B.E.: Now that we’ve heard your definitions, tell us how diversity affects African Americans’ ability to achieve and to move forward, both as entrepreneurs and employees

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