When Cynara Robinson landed a job at Discovery Communications Inc., a Fortune 500 company, she relished her good fortune for two reasons. The job was an ideal progression from her previous experience at a film and video post-production company and the possibility of stepping into roles of increased responsibility seemed imminent. “Discovery had such a good reputation. I was open to the great opportunity it could present to me . . . the doors it could open,” she says.
It has been a year since Robinson resigned from Discovery, in part to pursue her master’s degree in African-American history at Howard University. An overriding influence on her decision to leave after two years was the seeming lack of opportunity for advancement. “I’m grateful for the experience it allowed me, but I just did not feel welcome to move on to another, better position there,” Robinson says. Given Discovery’s reputation for promoting diversity, her statement might be surprising. It is, however, indicative of the perception that some corporate diversity programs simply fall short. It also adds to fears among African-Americans that they are being pushed backstage as white women and Hispanics swell the “diversity” ranks.
An Elusive Prize
Discovery’s reputation for diversity is evidenced by its nearly annual placement on Working Mother’s list of “Top 500 Best Companies.” In 2003, the magazine recognized the company as Best in Industry. Discovery also has received accolades from women’s advocacy groups, such as the Association for Women in Communications and Women in Cable & Telecommunications, which named the company among the best in pay equity and advancement opportunities in its 2003 survey. Roughly 60 percent of the company’s employees and managers are estimated to be women, including CEO Judith McHale. Furthermore, with the globalization of many South and Central American economies, and steady immigration from those regions dramatically changing the face of the U.S. demographic landscape, Discovery has experienced rapid growth in both its Latin American division and its domestic brand, Discovery En Español.
In the spirit of diversity, it would seem that Discovery has successfully liberated itself from the old boys’ club that still dominates corporate enterprise. Yet, Robinson’s assertion that she saw African-Americans “trying to move to different positions and it was not happening for them,” suggests a disconnect between the company’s notion of diversity and the reality experienced by some of its diverse employees.
Has Discovery inadvertently created an entirely new club, a powerful network of Caucasian women and a handful of Latinos in leadership roles at the expense of African-Americans and other ethnic minorities? Company executives were not available for comment. However, many African-Americans at prominent U.S. corporations suggest this is the case elsewhere. They contend that the “equal opportunity” prize not only has yet to be won, but it may be receding before our very eyes.
The Historical Context
President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated affirmative action in 1941 with a mandate to employers and labor unions to take proactive steps to end discrimination in areas of national defense. Nearly 20 years later, via Executive Order 10925, President John F. Kennedy sought to end discrimination in federal employment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended those regulations to private enterprise, stating that “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” But the Civil Rights Act of 1991, in which Supreme Court rulings limiting federal protections against employment discrimination were reversed, spurred fierce opposition to affirmative action. In an era of quotas, in businesses and universities alike, many Americans were increasingly fed up with the issue.
Luke Visconti, publisher of the business magazine Diversity Inc. speculates that Americans, notably the powers-that-be, suffer from tunnel vision when evaluating progress. In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of whites claim that the dreams of the civil rights movement have been realized, while only 21 percent of Blacks agree. “We must complete the journey,” Visconti said in an interview with TNJ. Not only is it smart for business and the morale of the country, but African-Americans also hold a special place in the fabric of this nation, he asserts. “African-Americans are unique to this country, created out of slavery . . . [and have long] suffered under legislated racism.”
How will we know when the journey has been completed? “We can measure when it will be over [and] measure when things are not equal,” Visconti reasons.
The White Women Factor
Using personal income as a litmus test, African-Americans still have many more dollars to earn before enjoying the same status as whites. According to the most current U.S. Census figures, 56.5 percent of white men and 30.3 percent of white women earn $50,000 or more in annual salary, while only 4.6 percent of Black men and 5 percent of Black women earn that amount. White women generally outperform African-Americans when it comes to salary and rank on the corporate ladder.
Frances Kendall, a nationally renowned consultant on organizational diversity and author of the book Diversity in the Classroom (1995, Teachers College Press), says, “The people who have been the greatest recipients of affirmative action [are] white women.” Currently at work on a book about white privilege, she argues that “we live in a system that values whiteness.” When it comes to dismantling the status quo at U.S. corporations, Kendall claims, “It has been easier for white men to hire people that look like them [and] their wives, sisters, cousins.” This, in turn, enables a company to claim diversity. But in actuality, it’s no more diverse than a Neil Diamond concert. The trend promotes more of the same because, as Visconti puts it, white women will see the world according to their experience-specific lens and are likely to conceptualize diversity in an entirely different light.
A white woman herself, Kendall agrees. “We are not always aware [of the connection] between skin color and success because our whiteness has put us in good stead” in the first place
Battle of the Minorities
Kendall contends that, statistically, darker-skinned people tend to face greater adversity in corporate environments. Indeed, in the crowded universe of diversity, many African-Americans are concerned that they are not only competing with white women, but with lighter-skinned Latin Americans as well. However, Census statistics suggest that this may not be the case. According to Census, the median household income for Hispanics is $33,447, whereas the median income for an African-American household is $30,439. The difference is marginal and positions both groups at the bottom of the totem pole. Moreover, Latin Americans who speak with an accent and carry the weight of their color are more likely to face discrimination than African-Americans. Even so, the undeniable difference is, “Latin Americans were never slaves in this country,” Visconti notes.
Still, with Hispanic political, community and business activists aggressively promoting their community as a formidable political and consumer constituency, the argument persists that focus on African-American issues, including efforts to make inroads into corporate America, has diminished. Kenneth Arroyo Roldan, CEO of Wesley, Brown & Bartle, a leading diversity recruitment firm, disagrees. “Despite the perceived prominence [of Hispanic-Americans], the more things have changed in the corporate arena, the more they have stayed the same. When [one] looks inside the corporate corridors there still remains a dearth of Latinos in the corporate executive suite,” he says. “In my six years [here] we have been approached two times by the Fortune 500 to discuss their dire need to bring in Hispanics. Both companies never [followed through].”
Arroyo argues that “diversity” still equates to African-American talent. “The proof is evident. Currently there is only one Latino CEO in the Fortune 500, Carlos Guttierrez at Kellogg’s,” he says. Often, he notes, the inability to let go of “cultural inhibitions” deprives many minorities of corporate success.
Instead of engaging in a battle of the minorities, African-Americans and Latinos should work together to affect change, given the country’s demographic trends, many say. Unity, the argument goes, is their greatest tool. African-Americans and Hispanics reportedly will make up 12.9 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of the U.S. population by 2020, comprising together a powerful one-third of the political and economic constituency.
At Viacom International Inc., Betty Panarella, vice president for employee relations and development, takes a pragmatic stance on diversity. “It’s a no-brainer for us. . . . We have to be able to reach our audience, we have to be able to address those demographics and have people in the company who know how to do that.” Doing so involves a roster of recruitment programs, such as networking sessions between minority writers and producers, developing a talent showcase geared toward African-Americans and active participation in the National Association of Minorities in Communications (NAMIC). Viacom, which owns CBS, MTV, BET, Showtime and publisher Simon & Schuster, also supports an internal mentoring program as part of a companywide initiative to leverage in-house minority talent to its fullest potential. “Diversity is a big part of our formula and an expectation across all of our companies,” Panarella told TNJ. That formula extends to vendors and suppliers, she says. “We are always seeking to work with minority contractors.”
Viacom is a founding member of the New York and New Jersey Minority Supplier Development Council (formerly the New York/New Jersey Minority Purchasing Council), which assists minority vendors in securing procurement contracts.
When it comes to preparing African-Americans for recruitment in corporate America, there is no shortage of pragmatic approaches in the Black community. The National Urban League, for example, touts its signature program for college students as such an approach. The program, Black Executive Exchange Program, or BEEP, is a forum for dialogue between the students and executives from leading corporations and government agencies. They focus on such issues as management, communication and leadership. “BEEP has provided immediate and long-term benefits to more than 750,000 students and has gained the cooperation of more than 650 corporations,” an Urban League spokesperson says.
The Executive Leadership Council & Foundation, whose goal is to prepare the next generation of African-American corporate executives through a support network, mentorship and public leadership forums, and INROADS, a program for minority college students, are other reputable examples of pragmatic approaches to diversity.
For corporations seriously concerned about survival in tomorrow’s marketplace, diversity in recruitment and procurement needs to be the rule, not the exception. More important, their diversity initiatives must be inclusive, working for all diverse groups, rather than at the expense of one or some. If there is a perception that diversity initiatives are not working, “we must deal with that reality,” says Visconti. “Why not do what will give you the best results?”
By K. Emily Bond