To Support Diversity: Listen, Learn, and Lead

Roy Wilkins, After Desegregation, What Next? Ebony Magazine, September 1963

The NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Established in 1909, the name is a throwback to the days of Jim Crow segregation.

After all the years, and landmark legal victories, why hasn’t the group changed its name?

“The NAACP was founded as a multi-ethnic organization by Whites, Blacks, Jews, Christians, male, female, etc,” the Rev. William Barber, the group’s former president said in 2008. In fact, the majority of the founders were white. The first chair was a white woman. So, in a sense, it was a “colored” organization dedicated to the eradication of racism and legalized racial discrimination and disparity.”

Could it be that America hasn’t evolved enough on race over the last 112 years to force a name change?

NY Times’ Dirty Racial Laundry

In the last week of Black History Month 2021, the New York Times Company made a startling announcement:

“Our current culture and systems are not enabling our work force to thrive and do its best work.”

That was a major finding of a report released on diversity at The New York Times Company, with the media conglomerate noting its workplace environment is a difficult one for its employees from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

The paper is facing some hard truths regarding the advancement of people of color.

Employees — Asian Americans, Black, and Latinos — spoke of being “invisible” and routinely called by the wrong name, making employees feel as if management identifies them as a color instead of as individuals.

The Times pledges to increase the number of Black and Latino employees in its leadership ranks from the current 9 percent of its workforce to a goal of 13.5 percent by 2026.

A 2021 study released by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that at the current pace, it will take 95 years for Black professionals to reach 12 percent representation at corporate America’s managerial level.

More Minority Voices Needed

Forced to act because of the threat of civil rights litigation, employers in the 1980s began to focus on diversity. The New York Times Company review and restated commitment to diversity could be seen by some as coming way too late.

But it is never too late to start doing what is right.

Like John F. Kennedy said in 1960, “A peaceful revolution for human rights — demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life — has strained at the leashes imposed by timid executive leadership.”

In that speech accepting the Democratic nomination, the future president called on Americans to boldly use their imagination, courage, and perseverance in solving the problems of the day.

“We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light a candle that can guide us through the darkness to a safe and sure future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.”

In that spirit, we should commend The New York Times Company for lighting a candle and bringing its problem to light. It is time for action.

In my work as a “press guy” in Florida’s state government communications arena, I have seen the state’s Capital Press Corps work up close. Many of America’s best journalists serving up headlines at the national level today came through Tallahassee. I have been fortunate to know some of the brightest, hardest-working, truth-seeking journalists of our age.

Former Tampa Bay Times reporters Michael Bender, Peter Wallsten, and Jo Becker are now at The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, respectively.

Former Tampa Tribune reporter Margaret Talev is now the managing editor for politics at Axios and served as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Washington Press Club Foundation.

Lesley Clark, who covered state government for the Miami Herald, now writes for E&E News after covering the White House for McClatchy.

As an Asian American, former Palm Beach Post writer S.V. Dáte brought a diverse viewpoint to Tallahassee can now be seen regularly in the back of the White House Press Room where he works as the senior correspondent with HuffPost.

How about Black journalists who covered Florida state government during the terms of Govs. Lawton Chiles, Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist, Rick Scott, and Ron DeSantis?

Scanning my memory, I can think of just one Black reporter who covered Tallahassee and is working today in the nation’s capital covering national policy and politics.

His name: Touluse Olorunnipa. He is a former Miami Herald reporter who now works at the Washington Post.

Black Issues Matter

Sixty percent of America’s Black workers live in the South, McKinsey & Company reports. Florida is home to 8 percent of America’s Black labor force.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on median weekly earnings shows in 2019, full-time workers in Florida are paid 11 percent less than full-time employees nationally. Median weekly pay for full-time wage and salary workers in Florida stood at $822 — $95 a week less than the $917 earned by full-time workers at the national level. The difference: $4,940.

Data also shows a pay gap exists between White employees and their Black and Latino counterparts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the fourth quarter of 2020, median weekly earnings of full-time workers were $984 in the United States. At 40 hours a week, that translates to $24.60 an hour. In comparison, earnings of Blacks ($792) and Latinos ($742) working full-time jobs were lower than those of Whites ($1,007) and Asians ($1,261).

McKinsey and Company’s researchers found “45 percent of Black private-sector workers (approximately 6.7 million people) work in three industries that have a large frontline-service presence: healthcare, retail, and accommodation and food service. These industries also have some of the highest shares of workers making less than $30,000. In retail, 73 percent of Black workers fall into this category; in accommodations and food service, that share is 84 percent.”

Florida’s leaders over the last generation have built the state’s economy on a foundation of pro-business economic policies. The work has earned accolades. The state’s business promotion arm, Enterprise Florida notes how the focus on employers has earned accolades, highlighting:

  • No personal income tax
  • #2 best state for business (Chief Executive)
  • #4 lowest private sector unionization rate (unionstats.com)
  • #3 corporate tax environment (Area Development)
  • Top 5 business tax climate (Tax Foundation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

In Florida, the state’s economic development pillars are held up by the labor of Black workers. The decisions lawmakers make in Tallahassee on policy issues related to Florida’s economic success, sustainability, and financial security reverberate in Black homes across America.

In my 30 years working in state politics and policy, I can think of just a mere handful of Black reporters who covered Florida’s Capitol including excellent journalists like former public radio reporter Danae Jones Aisher and the incredible Tia Mitchell, now with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Joy-Ann Reid, the inspirational groundbreaking host of MSNBC’s The ReidOut program, spent a hot minute covering Florida politics from South Florida, but not as a Tallahassee-based government beat reporter.

Civil Rights Leader, Rev. Jesse Jackson highlights voter protection during 2000 election recount. (Note: Article Author Ryan Banfill is standing in the back, behind the camera, between the signs.) (State Archives of Florida/Vipperman)

I’ve had a front-row seat during a consequential time in Florida. The state has been a stage that has launched issues of utmost importance to the Black community into the national spotlight including:

All these issues were well covered by Florida’s media. Still, I cannot help but wonder what was missed because the demographics of the media covering elected officials fell way short of the diversity in the state’s population.

Stop Talking About Diversity. Start Practicing It

I am Black and White, just like the great musician Bob Marley and former President Barack Obama. I proudly embrace my family history as one of defiance where love conquered fear. My late mother and father who were married four years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v. Virginia decision legalized interracial marriage.

I mention this because, with my background — like fluently bilingual people — I can see the world through a lens that understands the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to the table.

I have been in meetings where incredibly intelligent, educated, and well-meaning people with good hearts have made racially insensitive statements or floated offensive ideas to get a point across. Often, I was the only Black person in the room, and it often fell on me to have to explain why a statement, idea, or attitude was racially out of bounds.

Here is the problem with that approach: When you are the only person raising the issue, you start becoming the issue. So, you hold your tongue. In the process, you begin to hold the microaggressions inside.

It’s not so helpful when you feel compelled to remain silent on the relatively minor issues and remain in the good graces of management.

It’s like football, where the person who responds to an attack is the one penalized.

You may say, “Oh, that doesn’t happen.”

Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Marilyn Booker is the former global head of diversity at Morgan Stanley. She once was Morgan Stanley’s public face on diversity. She testified before Congress on the issue. Things have changed dramatically. She has filed a lawsuit accusing the bank of firing her for pushing senior executives at the bank to restructure a program to train Black financial advisors.

In Summer 2020, a report from the Society for Human Resource Management found: “When an individual aggrieved by overt or aversive racism describes his or her experiences, listeners have a natural tendency to be defensive or to find parallels with their own experiences. This is conflation, the most common mistake made by those guilty of inadvertent racism. We must listen to others with an open mind, hearing their story without injecting ourselves into it. All workers, leaders and HR professionals must make listening a top priority.”

AI: Can’t See Black People?

The lack of the Black perspective at the table in the development of innovative technologies could become a preventable tragedy.

Georgia Tech researchers in 2019 discovered the software operating driverless cars could not see Black people. The software had trouble seeing people with dark complexions. It’s called algorithmic bias and it happens when human bias makes its way into automated systems.

That matters a lot when you are the person standing in the crosswalk when a driverless car comes through the neighborhood and cannot see you.

Researchers at MIT and Stanford in 2018 found skin-type and gender bias in three commercially released facial analysis programs. According to MIT, “The facial recognition programs failed to recognize photos of a Black woman, reporting, in several cases, the programs failed to recognize the photos as featuring a human face at all.”

The findings prompted a crisis at Google involving the firing/resignation of Timnit Gebru and others involved in the program. The company recently announced it plans to tie achieving diversity and inclusion goals to the pay of Google employees at the vice president level and above.

The lesson: Include more Black people in the process and do it in a way that is visible, authentic, and lasting.

Spurring Diversity: Necessary Action

Critics may complain that establishing hiring goals are a form of affirmative action.

It’s not.

Charles Rankin, Ph.D. spent 40 years serving as the director of the Midwest Equity Assistance Center at Kansas State University. I should note, Dr. Rankin is my uncle and his work to promote education and social justice made a lasting influence on my life and the work I have done.

I remember asking him about his thoughts on calls to repeal affirmative action in hiring and education. He said, “Ryan, never forget, there are no affirmative action graduates. Each person walking across a commencement stage has worked over years to earn their degree. They don’t give it to you because you’re Black.”

He created a scholarship program at Kansas State University to increase the number of Black men as classroom teachers, a passion passed down from his mother, (my grandmother) Pat Rankin.

“My mother used to say, ‘You can’t be one, unless you see one,’” Dr. Rankin told Kansas State’s School of Education newsletter, explaining the need for organizations to show their diversity over simply talking about it.

Diversity is Possible: Start Now

We shall overcome, someday. It’s more than a lyric to a nice old song. It is a pledge made over generations to put in the hard work required to repair the world.

I believe in justice as a universal value. Ultimately, the day will arrive when workplaces will reflect America’s rich diversity. That will be the sign for us to entertain updating the NAACP’s name to celebrate the advancement of people of all colors.

Until then, America needs an urgent action plan on race. The first step is for everyone to be brave enough to look into their hearts, examine themselves, and accept personal responsibility for solving this problem. It will require bravery, creative ideas, and persistent tolerance because a lot of people’s feeling will be hurt as old paradigms are left to history.

One thing to know it that the days where race in America was a bilateral discussion are over. We’re going to need a big table for this talk, with engaged representatives from every community and every walk of life working together.

We can keep America’s elusive promise of liberty and justice for all.

It’s achievable if we work at it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ryan Banfill is founder of The Message Clinic, LLC. He is a 30-year veteran Florida communications professional who has earned recognition as an Emmy Award winning television producer; Speechwriter and Press Secretary to former Gov. Lawton Chiles; Communications Director for the Florida Democratic Party; and has provided counsel to elected officials and public and private-sector leaders in education, business, and life.

Ryan Banfill is a marketing/communications strategist. He is the founder of The Message Clinic, providing concierge communications services for influencers.

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