A Place at the (Corporate) Table

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Comedian and TV show host Trevor Noah, who is an illegal human being, has of late been focused — like so many of his peers — on the issues of racism. Racism is an issue all of us must address (it’s not just a “black problem”), but Mr. Noah brings a lot of first-hand experience to the issue that most of us don’t have.

A native of South Africa, he is the product of a relationship that was outlawed under that country’s apartheid, and his own existence was illegal under laws that happily have been erased off the books if not in people’s minds. Holding children responsible for the “sins” of their parents appears to be as old as humanity, but I’m not really clear on how you go about outlawing biracial children.

And while it’s easy to shake our heads over the peculiarities of South Africa’s very recent and overt codified racism, it’s becoming clear — if it wasn’t already — that we have plenty of issues of our own here in the United States.

Mr. Noah, broadcasting what these days is under new billing as The Daily Social Distancing Show from his home, has been highlighting this topic, and last night turned his focus on corporate America, which of late has been busy offering what might only be platitudes in its advertising about equality.

I don’t remember the statistics he provided on minority representation in Fortune 500 companies, other than CEOs: black men head up four of those 500 companies, he said. (CBS This Morning found one more, so: five.) No women of color.

But he did not speak in favor of quotas or any other bean-counting method of boosting minority presence: what is needed, he said, is a fair chance to bring skills to the table. Then he highlighted a study, and I should have been paying more attention to tell you whose it was and when it was conducted. But here’s what they did:

The researchers put together identical resumes — same education, same work experience, word for word the same — except for the name.  So one resume would go out under “David Williams,” while another, with the exact credentials, went out under “Dante Williams.”

Exactly the same but for this one word, and “Dante’s” resume would be rejected 50 percent of the time where “David’s” was accepted.

If you can’t even get your foot in the door, how are you going to get on the rungs of the ladder?

I went to a forum at Western Then State many years ago where college students said the same thing about housing here in Gunnison: they would go to a rental to check it out, only to learn it was already “rented.” But when their white friends would go days later to the same address, it was available.

Those same students complained about a lack of hair care products locally. This was decades ago, and it took until last week for Walmarts countrywide to unlock products used primarily by people of color. Until just one week ago those products were kept under glass, next to readily-accessible products intended for white people. Not being in the market for much of anything hair-care related, I couldn’t tell you if the local Walmart (or the groceries) ever started carrying minority-aimed products and whether or not they felt the need to protect them from theft.

I have friends, classically-trained musicians, who talked (also years ago) about symphonies’ attempts to diversify. I don’t know if it’s still the practice, but back then the orchestras started conducting auditions behind screens. The aspiring musicians even had to take their shoes off, so the review panel couldn’t hear high heels and know the applicant was female (presumably — but here I am am making presumptions).

I don’t know that my friends were fans of this process, which they felt was rather impersonal and detached, but I don’t know what else you try if some recruiters are going to reject people based on name or appearance alone.

On the same day George Floyd was killed by police officers (I’m no court, but at the moment I’m holding all four culpable), a black man out watching birds in Central Park asked a white woman to leash her dog, as required by law. And then he used his phone to film her as she escalated the entire thing into a masterful hysteria of terror, literally shrieking into her phone to 911 that an African-American man was threatening her, when he very clearly was not.

That woman, Amy Cooper, lost her job because the man, Christian Cooper (no relation), had the presence of mind, or perhaps an awareness of the necessity, to film the interaction. She issued an apology and insisted she wasn’t racist, but afterwards I heard someone wonder how many times in her position she had set aside someone’s resume or interview because he or she just wasn’t quite white right for the job.

That’s the more insidious racism right there. The house about a block from Lake School here in town that used to hang a confederate flag in the window? You knew what those people were all about. But a kindly lady down the street with a rental unit that “I’m sorry; it just got rented”?

They’re both parts of the same egregious puzzle, only one is far more likely to go unnoticed and never called out for it. And those of us who wouldn’t have an ounce of trouble renting from the kindly lady could easily drift along thinking about what a liberal, tolerant town we’re lucky to live in.

As Mr. Noah put it last night (and here I’m paraphrasing), what the people who are underrepresented in corporate America —

[He also showed a clip of Congressman Al Green asking a bloc of white bankers to raise their hand if any of them expected to be succeeded by any woman or a man of color, and not a single one raised his hand.]

— are asking for is not a hand out, or even a hand up. What they want, he said, is for an equal opportunity to show you what they can do for your company. And if all these companies flashing happy pictures of multiple hues of people enjoying their products, or posting messages of solidarity, can’t put their HR where their advertising is, then this is nothing more than hollow lip service, same as always.

 

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