Summary of Crossing the Thinnest Line
Copyright 2016 by Lauren Leader-Chivée
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The subject of diversity carries fresh urgency, with racial inequalities in the headlines, civil unrest reappearing and immigration igniting debate – even as the US grows ever-more diverse. This engaging report by diversity adviser Lauren Leader-Chivée makes a data-driven case that US businesses and civic institutions must prepare for a society in which members of minority groups will make up more than half the population within a few decades. No one escapes scrutiny here – business, government, educators and the media all must do more to give women and minorities a voice. While always politically neutral, getAbstract recommends Leader-Chivée’s persuasive case for championing diversity to HR professionals, executives, community activists and those who work with US immigration policy.
- The US will be a “majority-minority” country by 2046, yet racial, ethnic and gender inequalities persist.
- Companies that give women and minorities a voice in decision making will share in the “diversity dividend.”
- Even if you’re not a member of a minority group, you can “acquire” diversity by seeking out relationships with those who are different from you.
- Don’t try to be “colorblind.” Strive instead to gain a “multicultural” perspective.
- Fear of immigrants is rising, but new arrivals help power the economy.
- Immigrants “contribute enormously” to the US economy, with an impact exceeding their numbers.
- Political leaders deny minorities a civic voice with restrictive voting laws that disenfranchise the poor or elderly.
- TV, movies and books underrepresent women and minorities.
- Senior executives can set a powerful example by welcoming other perspectives.
- American society needs “a nation of champions” to promote diversity’s benefits.
Diversity Brings Opportunity
Consider an American paradox: Immigration and diversity fueled innovation and entrepreneurship for most of the nation’s history, but tensions around race, ethnicity and gender have stalled progress. Imagine American history without the contributions of such industrialists as Andrew Carnegie, who was Scottish; entrepreneurs such as Polish immigrant Helena Rubenstein; or technology leaders such as Sergey Brin, the innovator from Russia who co-founded Google, or Vinod Khosla, who was born in India and helped create Sun Microsystems.
“Can we…make our multifaceted diversity an economic and social asset, or will it continue to be our deepest and most painful source of conflict?”
Yet the US has still not decided, as a nation, whether diversity is an “asset.” Consider the ongoing fight for equal pay for women, persistent tensions around police shootings of African-American men, and debates over laws affecting the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.
America’s failure to fully embrace its diversity leaves many feeling that they have no voice in the political system – a deficit that does painful damage to the country. The effects can linger for decades. Despite the talk of robust economic growth in the Sun Belt, the Deep South states where Jim Crow once blocked social progress still lag behind the rest of the nation economically. By contrast, urban areas that welcome diversity reap the benefits. Dayton, Ohio, which has “immigrant-friendly” programs, found that foreign-born residents boosted its local economy by $115 million.
“The experience of crossing lines is so powerful and transformational that we should all strive to cross as many of them as we can, as often as we can, in every way that we can.”
Businesses lose when they fail to welcome diverse voices to the decision-making ranks or when they neglect the needs of potential female or minority customers. Book publishing is one example. A Pew Research Center study found that African-American women are the demographic group most dedicated to reading, yet minorities are “almost invisible” in the publishing industry. Embracing ethnic and gender diversity can pay off big for companies and for the economy at large. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, citing International Monetary Fund data, has said the United States could boost its gross domestic product by 5% by closing the gap in labor force participation between women and men. McKinsey consultants have shown that publicly traded companies with more women and foreign nationals in executive roles tend to see a higher return on equity – part of the “diversity dividend.” Diversity means opportunity – and companies would be wise to seize it. By 2046, racial and ethnic minorities are expected to make up more than half the population – making the United States a “majority-minority” country.
Author Lauren Leader-Chivée learned the value of a multicultural environment while growing up in Washington, DC, in the 1970s and 1980s. Her most fulfilling experiences were in diverse settings – Lafayette Elementary School, where at least a third of the students were immigrants or children of color, and Georgetown Day School, a welcoming institution that had at least three openly gay teachers in an era when such diversity was rare.
“The marketplace is littered with missed opportunities and products that failed because diverse voices weren’t in the room.”
She found far less fulfillment at the exclusive Holton-Arms School in suburban Bethesda, Maryland. She felt out of place coming from a liberal, Democratic, Jewish household when most of her classmates’ families were conservative, Protestant and Republican. She still remembers the pain of not being invited to a birthday party at a club that did not welcome Jews. These formative experiences led Leader-Chivée to her current work helping corporations embrace diversity, and spurred her to create All In Together, a nonprofit that promotes the interests of female leaders.
Diversity confers substantial benefits, from personal to social to economic. But it can also trigger conflict – unless people seek to understand one another’s experiences. Only then can individuals “cross the lines that divide.” Some people have “inherent” diversity because they are members of a minority group. But you can also “acquire” diversity in several deliberate ways: learning a foreign language, developing a friendship with a person of another race, or participating in outreach efforts, perhaps toward people in prison or those experiencing homelessness.
“Many Americans find it difficult to see or acknowledge the very real obstacles confronted by minorities and women.”
“Acquired diversity” can also come through life experiences, such as having a gay family member, living abroad or undergoing any experience that makes you feel like “an outsider.” One hopeful sign: Members of the millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 1997, have had greater exposure to diversity. Research shows they are more “inclusive” in their thinking.
“Bias is embedded in every step of the corporate ladder. And the higher the rung, the harder that bias is to prove and to upend.”
Even Abraham Lincoln broadened his perspectives through acquired diversity. Though he long opposed slavery, he once believed that African-Americans were inferior. Two things convinced him otherwise: his friendship with the great thinker Frederick Douglass and his high regard for the heroism of black soldiers in the Civil War.
Immigrants “contribute enormously” to the US economy. Foreign-born residents make up 16% of the workforce, and generate more than 14% of the Gross Domestic Product. They are 18% of US small-business owners. The roughly 13% of today’s US population that is foreign-born represents about the same percentage of foreign-born people in the United States throughout its history.
“Learning how to cross the visible and invisible lines that divide us couldn’t be more urgent or important.”
America has a complicated history with immigrants – the country has both welcomed and excluded them. The Statue of Liberty, with its famed inscription by Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor …”), symbolizes the nation’s aspiration to be a land that welcomes those who are fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. Yet the US has repeatedly passed laws designed to bar immigrants, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Much of today’s rhetoric about illegal immigration from south of the border presumes that “legal” immigration was once the order of the day. But for much of US history, the country had “no national system” for “controlling the flow” of immigrants. Many immigrants arriving by ship “stepped off the gangplank into American society” – accepting job offers while still on the docks. By some estimates, by 1925 America had 1.4 million residents who were in the country outside the bounds of immigration laws. Four years later, the government approved an amnesty for illegal immigrants “of good character” – itself a subjective standard.
The current opposition some people feel toward immigration has reached levels that are unparalleled in modern US history. However, a lot of the hostile rhetoric derives from myths and misconceptions. For instance, some immigration opponents believe laborers from Mexico make up the bulk of illegal immigrants from South and Latin America, but the flow of workers from Mexico fell off significantly after the 2008 economic meltdown. Today’s immigrants from Latin America are often women and children fleeing gang violence in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Congress should pass immigration reform to position America to welcome more of the millions of foreigners eager to contribute to its economy, while addressing issues such as security and social services. Congress should expand the number of skilled foreign workers admitted for up to six years under the H-1B visa program. These efforts would boost businesses and lift the economy. But such steps have stalled amid partisan wrangling.
The US is becoming so diverse that American white people can no longer think of themselves as being the “default racial category.” The lifting of restrictive immigration quotas in 1965 brought waves of new residents from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Interracial marriages are on the rise, increasing the number of biracial or multiracial children.
“It’s a profound loss for our nation and for our democracy that we have left so many out of our political process.”
These changes make some Americans uncomfortable, leading to “an epidemic of diversity denial.” Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Sam’s Club and one of America’s most successful African-American women executives, faced online criticism and threats of a boycott after she told a CNN interviewer about the company’s commitment to diversity.
“We have to find shared experiences…to fully appreciate the value that difference brings.”
Consider the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed in response to police shootings of black teenagers and men. The competing slogan, “All Lives Matter,” may sound innocuous, but it can be “shorthand” for questioning the racial inequalities that Black Lives Matter emphasizes.
In interactions with law enforcement, African-Americans “are nearly twice as likely as whites to be arrested and four times as likely to experience the use of force.” Blacks disproportionately fill US prisons: While only about 30% of the United States’ population, they account for 60% of those behind bars. Many prosecutors exclude black people from jury pools, using tools like “peremptory challenges.”
“We categorize everyone around us all the time. When we encounter someone new…we decide whether we have something in common and accept or reject him or her accordingly.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as 21 states enacted new voter restrictions, including voter ID laws, between 2010 and 2016. These laws disenfranchise the poor or elderly, particularly minorities. To push back against such movements, advocacy groups should work for repeal of restrictive voter laws. Political parties should recruit more women and minorities to run for office. Local governments should diversify their police forces and build trust between offices and neighborhoods through “community policing.”
A Tone-Deaf Decision
Businesses make better decisions when they bring diverse voices to the table. When they don’t, the results can be disastrous. When IBM set out to promote science and technology careers for women, it settled on a “Hack a Hair Dryer” campaign. The promotion, launched in fall 2015, featured a YouTube video challenging women to invent new ways to use a hair dryer – to propel table-tennis balls, for instance, or to blow air through a harmonica to make music.
“If everyone spent more time asking those who are different from us to help us understand their experience, or simply acknowledged when we’re uncomfortable, we might go a long way toward thinning the lines between us.”
The campaign triggered widespread ridicule. Women scientists denounced the campaign for its sexist stereotypes, and the company scrapped it. IBM – ironically one of the few Fortune 500 companies with a female CEO – lags in diversity, and might have avoided the Hack a Hair Dryer debacle if more women had joined the conversation prior to the launch.
“Learning to understand and respect differences, then turn them into bridges rather than barriers, takes sustained effort and commitment.”
Books, movies and TV underrepresent women and minorities. Although racial minorities constitute about 38% of the US population, they are cast in fewer than 27% of movie roles. Women, who are roughly half the population, received only 30% of speaking roles in films. The lack of diversity among the 2016 Academy Award nominees prompted a major backlash on social media with the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite.”
“Diversity is fundamental to a range of social and economic benefits, yet we’re only beginning to understand what it means and how to deal with it.”
Television has made strides toward diversity, with African-American protagonists in shows such as Scandal, Black-ish and Empire. But sustained, meaningful change seems unlikely until media companies bring more diversity to their leadership ranks. For example, 96% of the heads of movie studies are white, and 61% are male.
Change to Promote Diversity
Change will come when senior executives bring diverse voices to corporate decision making, and hire and promote women and minorities. Some people profess to be “colorblind” – but that sidesteps the real problems confronting people of color. Instead, try to develop a “multicultural” viewpoint. Work to understand and celebrate other people’s perspectives from the standpoint of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
“Diversity of all kinds powers economic growth and prosperity more directly and dramatically than almost anything else.”
To fulfill its promise as a land of opportunity, America must become a “nation of champions” dedicated to diversity. The benefits – for people, companies and society – will be substantial.
About the Author
Lauren Leader-Chivée is an executive adviser to Deloitte Consulting. She founded and leads All In Together, a nonpartisan campaign to build women’s political and civic involvement.
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