the areas of workforce diversity, senior management diversity, supplier diversity, and board diversity, such outreach efforts amount to so much window dressing.
And why focus on African Americans and ethnic minorities? Because while it is both morally right and good business to create a level playing field for all the diverse groups which make up America, the inclusion and advancement of African Americans and members of other ethnic minority groups remains the primary benchmark of a company’s diversity efforts. A major corporation that has successfully included, for example, white women, the disabled, and older workers in all aspects of its business has not succeeded as a practitioner of diversity if African Americans and other people of color are absent or limited to the lowest rungs of its operation.
You can’t get more bottom-line than that. So why has the discussion of diversity become so complicated? According to David A. Thomas, the Naylor H. Fitzhugh professor of business administration at Harvard University, “Diversity brings people to where there’s the most challenge and pain in an organization, and today that’s more likely to be [the subject of] race than any other issue.”
The challenge of creating a spirit of inclusion while remaining uncomfortable with the subject of race is why many companies are anxious to measure their diversity efforts against almost anything besides race and ethnicity—often stretching the definition of “minority” beyond the realm of credulity. This is not surprising when you consider what led to diversity being established as a priority for corporate America in the first place. Diversity’s roots are in affirmative action, a concept introduced to the nation in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925. Among other things, the order mandated that projects financed with federal funds “take affirmative action” to ensure that hiring and employment practices are free of racial bias. This led to subsequent legislation and social reforms originally aimed at ending racial discrimination and undoing the damage of centuries of economic exclusion, injustice, and discrimination against African Americans, but eventually expanded to protect members of other groups, including ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, women, and the disabled.
Enforcement of these laws, as well as the urban unrest of the 1960s and ’70s, led to a grudging lowering of the barriers to corporate America, as major companies were pushed to balance the scales after decades of institutional racism and Jim Crow. Over the past 16 years, beginning with the 1989 Supreme Court decision of City of Richmond v. Croson, affirmative action has been pushed to the back burner by a plethora of corporations and government agencies. Today, diversity has been embraced in part because it is a semantic “pill” that is easier to swallow for white Americans, many of whom still find the concept of affirmative action difficult to choke down. “Diversity still, in many places, has become the softer word that we all adopted to communicate around racially tinged issues,” explains Joe Watson, president of StrategicHire in Reston, Virginia.
Corporate America’s growing emphasis on diversity over affirmative