Diversity and Inclusion: The “Business Case” Postmortem

by Matthew Whitaker, Ph.D.

“The business case” was rarely if ever mentioned by activists, educators and politicians, while calling for our national holidays and heritage months, such as our current Black History Month, but corporations have found ways of leveraging these moral imperatives on behalf of profitability. How many of you saw the recent barrage of culturally conscious Super Bowl LI commercials? Corporate America didn’t spend 4.5 million dollars for each, elaborate, thirty-second Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) statement, to boost their “street cred” or increase their chances of getting into heaven. Goodwill had to factor into the equation, but altruism no doubt took a back seat to analytics that confirmed that culturally sensitive imagery and messaging touches hearts and loosens purse strings.

The frustrating aspect of this “make the business case” merry-go-round, as I alluded to at the outset, is that it reflects, at worst, an amoral approach to capital development. The moral implications of D&I are “pinched nerves” on the spinal cord of the business world, because many leaders view them as threats to their comfort zones, autonomy, privilege, and power, not as opportunities to, as Ronald Levy argues, embrace their civic and principled duty to “fully realize” all of the “potential” in our midst. The latter requires far more courage and leadership than the former, because it’s predicated upon openness and selflessness, which are often allergens to titans and type-As. A senior VP once told me, for example, “we want to hire a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and do more of the ‘D&I stuff,’ but we have to wait until the market improves.” I said, “I don’t recall your diversity ‘statement’ tethering your ‘commitment’ to market conditions.” This shouldn’t have surprised me, however, as President Calvin Coolidge said it best, “the business of America is business,” not freedom, justice or equality for that matter, or the people, our employees and consumers, who drive them and give them meaning.

The “business case” babble, at best, reflects a Byzantine approach to enterprise, as anyone who spends significant time outside of a C-Suite bubble knows, culture, diversity, and inclusion sell themselves. They always have. Cue Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from Star Trek, “my goodness man, we are the ‘business case.’” Our collective inter-personal and inter-cultural capital is our greatest asset. We don’t have to go looking for it. It’s like The Force, its everywhere. If you’re one of the leaders who’s asking your CDO’s team (or more likely your HR department, because you don’t think enough of D&I to higher a CDO) to make the business case for D&I, you are probably being mocked and derided behind your back as a dinosaur at best, and a closet or clueless bigot at worst. This may not mean much to you, but it means something to your employees, especially your non-White, non-hetero-centered, female, disabled ones, and your bottom line is tied to their happiness.

I’m a new breed of D&I leader, so I’m going to give it to you straight. My Johari Window tells me that most leaders worth a grain of salt want to be given the real skinny. Some may stroke your egos to maintain a steady income stream, but in the end, they may compromise your legacy and jump ship the minute “something better” comes along.

Sure, people of color want access and jobs, but we don’t need highbrow research, such as that published in the April 2009 American Sociological Review, to tell us that “workplace diversity is among the most important predictors of a business’ sales revenue, customer numbers and profitability.” Nevertheless, it must be noted that sociologist Cedric Herring demonstrated in that 2009 piece, that “companies reporting the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of racial diversity.” The fact that highly regarded captains of industry are still calling upon D&I specialists to “make the business case,” given this reality, reveals just how out of touch and/or stubborn many of them are. If corporate leaders choose to ignore the clear and present need for D&I, and its benefits, especially amid this extremely contentious era in American life, they are probably among the persistent “colorblind” crew, who cling to the notion that they “don’t see color, only people,” which is like saying “I don’t hear accents, I just hear voices.” Then again, many just don’t care.

Sadly, many who “get it” fail to act. Fearing the loss of social, economic, and political capital, they become nothing more than rhetorical warriors in the fight for equity and inclusion. They are unwilling to be vulnerable in solidarity with the maligned and marginalized. To be a true change agent for D&I, however, is to be vulnerable. People of color, women, the LGBT community, immigrants, and the disabled, regardless of their pedigree, are vulnerable populations who bear a tremendous and disproportionate burden of stereotyping, bias, scrutiny, discrimination, misrepresentation, and professional repudiation. Our successes in the face of tremendous obstacles are often ignored and minimized, and our mistakes, unlike those of our White male peers in particular, are amplified and demonized. This is our burden and you are not an ally if you are unwilling to bear it will us.

Indeed, as author Greg Tate argues, many White people, including powerful leaders who profess appreciation for our culture, and empathy with our struggle, systemically and coldly abandon us when our “cool” is compromised, and we need moral and tangible support. They want the culture, not the people who produce it. They want “everything but the burden.”

Black people, for example, know that “Martin Luther King had a dream.” We know it better than most, because his dream, before his light was extinguished, had our economic liberation at its core. In fact, he was assassinated to thwart the forward progress of diversity and inclusion, especially in the epicenter of American power and privilege, the business and political worlds. Before any political or business leaders speak at events honoring King, therefore, I urge you to take stock of your workforce, peers, board, friends, and philanthropy, and ask yourself if King’s dream is operationalized in your life. How many burdens, particularly those of people of color, have you taken upon yourself to help them bare and shed? How many times have you said “no” when you could have said “yes?” How many phone calls have you made? How may positions have you created and how many checks have you signed?

We welcome and appreciate symbolic support, but quite frankly, we don’t need it. Most of our preachers, teachers, and activists are more powerful speakers than the average politician and CEO. We have to be. We feel the urgency bone-deep and have to be well above average just to get an audience. What we need and want from others, particularly White leaders, is social, economic, and political triage. What a medic would do for a wounded soldier, we need from you in education and the workplace. We need fearless and committed intervention. We need access, jobs, equity, and capital. We need verbal support to be backed by measurable deeds.

True supporters of D&I must demonstrate it through substantive, measurable actions, that reflect the needs and desires of the communities from which you draw resources, and within which you wield power. The trouble with the business case is it’s too often seen through the lens of homogenous and disconnected leadership. Communities have their own “bottom line,” and if “allies” of D&I continue to behave as if the latter doesn’t, the former’s bottom line will begin to suffer in direct proportion to the massive demographic shifts unfolding before us. This is not the path to progress, for “America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity,” argued Louis D. Brandeis, “lies the path of progress. It acted on this belief; it has advanced human happiness, and it has prospered.”

For whom and to what end is the question? Has the rising tide lifted all boats? No, and this is largely because too many “allies” have sublimated their commitment to D&I to their personal and professional interests and stability. To them, we are not worth the risk. By refusing to take risks on our behalf, however, they are in effect acknowledging our struggle while rebuking our burden. There is something voyeuristic, cold-blooded, and yet quintessentially American about this, but then again, it’s not personal, it’s just business, and “the business of America is business.”

Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Founder and CEO of the Diamond Strategies, LLC (DSC) and Editor-in-Chief of MCU VO!CE – MyClickUrban. He is also the 2016 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance (DLA) Diversity and Inclusion Leader Award winner and a decorated educator, author, community engagement specialist, motivational speaker, and founder the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, winner of the 2014 DLA Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker and DSC can be followed on Twitter at @dstategiesllc.

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