Darrell Davis, Voice United forum moderator and Assistant Dean of Student and Multicultural Affairs at Hamline University School of Law, kicked off the discussion about discrimination with some genuine bafflement. “People are displaying swastikas. We have kids hanging nooses on and around our college campuses. We’re seeing a proliferation of anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-GLBT–you name it–graffiti,” Davis observed. “People seem to feel free to say and do whatever they want….It just seems at time that you’re left scratching your head and asking, ‘What the heck have we achieved?’”
It would be unfair to say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did nothing to improve the lives of people of color. Public schools are integrated. Affirmative Action has addressed the more blatant employment inequities and discriminatory practices. And our next president might be a black man. But as Davis pointed out, it would be equally unfair to say that the problems of discrimination and racial abuse were eradicated with the passage of a law.
In fact, Velma Korbel’s assessment as Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is that human rights violations have held relatively constant. “We may have not seen as many noose incidents or black-face incidents reported in the press [as we have recently], but they’ve always been there.” said Korbel.
“And I believe because some of our purported leadership have given themselves permission to use words like ‘illegal’ to describe people and try to dismantle programs and opportunities that have been in place [since the passage of the Civil Rights Act], that these leaders’ followers automatically assume that they have permission to behave badly.”
Tyrone Terrill confirmed that some things just haven’t really changed. When the City of St. Paul’s Human Rights Department was founded about 40 years ago, 80 percent of its cases were about race and employment discrimination. Today, more cases are filed, and 80 percent are still about race and employment discrimination.
The Latino construction workers’ case action discrimination suit against Mulcahy, Inc. is just one example of what is promising to be a high-profile discrimination case playing itself out right now in the Twin Cities. In December of 2007, five high-ranking black Minneapolis police officers filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the city. The suit, filed on behalf of Sgt. Charles Adams, Lt. Medaria Arradondo, Lt. Lee Edwards, Lt. Don Harris and Sgt. Dennis Hamilton, alleges a pattern of discrimination against black officers in promotion, overtime, education and disciplinary issues. Adams is also suing the department over his transfer from the homicide unit; Harris and Edwards were demoted by Chief of Police, Tim Dolan from positions filled at Dolan’s discretion.
On January 31, 2008, attorneys for both sides appeared in U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis’s courtroom where assistant city attorney James Moore was prepared to argue to strike several of the suit’s allegations on the grounds that they are redundant, immaterial, impertinent or scandalous. One claim alleges that as a teenager, Chief Dolan placed hate literature in the lockers of black students at Minneapolis’s North and Henry High Schools. It also mentions a racist and threatening letter sent to a black officer in 1992 and inappropriate remarks made allegedly by a white lieutenant.
While Moore told Judge Davis he filed the motion in good faith because he questions whether the officer’s case is a class-action suit or a suit with specific hostile work environment allegations, Davis did not allow Moore to present his arguments during the hearing. Instead, he denied the city’s motion, asking why Moore was wasting the court’s time on a motion that he called difficult to prove.
Whether either of these cases makes it to trial, the fact that workers still have cause to sue their employers after more than four decades of anti-discrimination policies confirms the findings of a study featured in the January 20, 2008 issue of the Washington Post: diversity and sensitivity training is, for the most part, a failure.
The article stated that “a comprehensive review of 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. workplaces found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. The number of black, female managers fell by 10 percent and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians.”
More specifically, mandatory diversity training undertaken to avoid lawsuits or serve public relations goals–in other words, the kind implemented by a number of U.S. companies–is destined to fail. On the other hand, voluntary training attached to specific business goals, showed far better results. “Executives must treat diversity like any other business goal and put someone in charge,” said lead researcher and University of Arizona sociologist, Alexandra Kalev. Companies that take diversity seriously do so because they believe that it gives them a competitive edge in the marketplace. They appoint diversity task forces with the authority to make substantive changes, increasing female managers by 14 percent, black women managers by 30 percent and black male managers by 10 percent.
Unfortunately, this is just a long way of saying that lacking the moral imperative to become diverse, businesses need the economic imperative to do so or their efforts will be meaningless. Although having not been held accountable for racist behavior during their formative years, we shouldn’t be surprised when some of our business executives and other leaders feel emboldened to continue to act as they always have.