My guess is that companies find now what I did when I taught graduate courses in diversity or ran corporate workshops starting in the mid-1980s: that everyone denounces racism, says they believe in civil rights and thinks of equal opportunity as the solution to inequality.
Despite the presence of these widespread corporate activities, in most companies white males still disproportionately get the best jobs and most visible assignments. If that is the case, then what more do we need to understand or do’? Perhaps more provocatively, we might ask: if there are no racists, then why do we still have racial inequality?
I address these questions in my new book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, published by the Russell Sage Foundation and based on in-depth interviews with whites from across the country.
Three major themes emerged from my research:
1. Whites do good things for each other without doing bad things to others.
Most academic research, public-policy discussions and even corporate-diversity programs tend to start with the assumption that racial and other forms of inequality grow out of prejudice , bias (conscious or unconscious) and discrimination.
In this context, however, most will assume, like my students and my interviewees, that it is others (“those racists”) who are guilty of holding outmoded views, but that they themselves are innocent and act with good will.
But in a structure of inequality that already favors them, most whites do not have to do bad things to minority groups in order to gain advantages; they only have to do good things for each other, which they actively seek and do.
For example, I found that 99 percent of my interviewees received 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes with the extra help of friends or family members who could give them inside information, use influence on their behalf or offer them opportunities, such as jobs or promotions, not available to others.
Discrimination and favoritism are not just different sides of the same coin, because while discrimination is illegal, favoritism or offering advantages to family or friends is not.
In the post-civil-rights period, it is arguably the favoritism that whites show toward other whites that reproduces racial inequality more than the discrimination of whites toward people of color. While companies tout the importance of inclusion, they too often overlook that whites are often including other whites and that that is perhaps more of a problem than their exclusion of people of color.
For example, many companies give preference to referrals from their current employees, especially for middle- and senior-level positions. In some cases, they even pay their current employees a reward for making such referrals. These practices are likely to reproduce the existing composition of the workforce, undermining other efforts to be inclusive and diverse.
2. Whites believe in equal opportunity but spend their lives seeking unequal opportunity.
I found that when asked about solutions to inequality, my interviewees, like most in the country, claimed fairness was defined by “equal opportunity.”
Although most claimed to support equal-opportunity policies as the solution to inequality, people get jobs throughout t heir lives by actively seeking the help of family and friends in an effort to gain unequal opportunity. They all sought unequal opportunity when they needed a job or looked for a promotion, and that is how most found jobs most of the time.
This is not, however, how the interviewees thought about their life paths.
Instead, when asked how they got to where they were currently in their lives, almost all said that they got to their current positions through hard work, motivation and persistence. Few mentioned that someone had helped them, even though almost all had help most of the time.
3. Whites play up having “done it on their own” and downplay having group-based advantage.
The strong belief these interviewees had that they “did it on their own” is contrary to the group-based advantage that they actively sought in order to gain advantage or to get “ahead.” It is an unseen advantage when people get access to good jobs or promising opportunities that are not available to others.
Because of the segregation that still exists in so many of our neighborhoods and institutions, help is not exchanged with just anyone. Help is given to those who are close to us, those with whom we identify and those who are fundamentally “like me.” Seeing the issues of diversity and inclusion through this new lens raises issues for executives, diversity officers and employees alike to consider. Companies have given too much attention to preventing whites from doing bad things to minority workers, without giving nearly enough attention to the outcomes of whites helping each other. Too much focus has been given to equal opportunity without enough attention to the patterns of unequal opportunity that are prevalent in the workforce of every company.
If favoritism rather than discrimination is the key mechanism for job placement, then companies need to examine their policies anew. Employers need to understand, for example, that giving special attention to referrals can mean fostering unequal opportunity as a natter of policy. We need to be sure that opportunity is indeed equal and merit-based, rather than based only on who knows or has recommended whom. We have come a long way over the last several decades, but there is more to do. We must attend to the things that have so far escaped our notice in order to have the vision to achieve the progress that we believe is necessary and warranted.