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Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: No More Business as Usual

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

Racism in Organizations

Over a century ago, renowned scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois fearlessly proclaimed that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois, 1903).  Despite the fact that laws have been passed to address overt discrimination, racism is still quite prevalent in organizations in the twenty-first century (Avery, Volpone, & Holmes, in press).   Certainly, organizations play an important role in our society.  We learn, teach, work, play, produce, entertain, worship, and do so much more within organizations.  Nonetheless, the recent murders of unarmed Black men and women (e.g., Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Tarika Wilson, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, etc.) have birthed renewed protest over systemic racism with millions around the world joining in to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter and proclaim, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a refrain that speaks directly to the violence that Black people experience at the hands of the police.  While protests and movements fighting to end racism are not new, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has made it clear that it is committed to disrupt business as usual

What is Racism?

Beverly Tatum (1999) defined racism as “a system of advantages that is based on race” (p. 7).  She asserts that racism should be understood as more than individual prejudice, but rather through a macro perspective that recognizes the systemic privileges afforded to White Americans and relatively withheld from non-White Americans or racial minorities (Avery et al., in press). In the U.S., racism does not solely rely on one’s skin color, however, one’s skin color can determine the level of privileges that may be afforded to or withheld from an individual (e.g., Harrison & Thomas, 2009). This racism-generated phenomenon, known as colorism, made it possible for some non-Whites whose skin color was light enough to pass as White and receive the privileges associated with White skin in America (Gates, 1997).  Additionally, colorism can explain some racial differences in outcomes within racial minorities wherein racial minorities of darker skin complexions are generally more adversely affected than their lighter skin counterparts.  This system that grants advantages and privileges based on skin color has also engendered what is known as internalized racism wherein some non-White individuals overvalue aesthetics and characteristics associated with the White race and devalue those associated with their own race (Golden, 2005).

What Types of Racial Discrimination Occur in Organizations?

Generally, we address two forms of discrimination within organizations:  formal and interpersonal.  Formal discrimination refers to the racial differences in human resource management (HRM) outcomes and the common tendency for behavior to produce differential rewards or punishment depending on one’s  race (Avery et al., in press). Interpersonal discrimination relates to the everyday discrimination, microaggressions, bullying, and incivility based on race that people may experience within organizations (Avery et al., in press).  Due to the fact that formal discrimination is more overt, incidences of formal discrimination are generally more easily addressed and have somewhat declined.  In fact, because of its more overt nature, some people believe that formal discrimination is more problematic than interpersonal discrimination.  However, a recent meta-analysis (Jones, Peddie, Gilrane, King, & Gray, in press) revealed that the deleterious effects of formal and interpersonal discrimination on job attitudes and well-being are virtually indistinguishable.  Therefore, managers and leaders should work diligently to rid their organizations of both formal and interpersonal forms of discrimination.

New Language Needed to Discuss Racism

Many people fail to identify racist acts as racism when those acts are not the overt, formal, “old-fashioned” form of racism that characterized the government-enforced segregation and state-supported violence against racial minorities during the pre-Civil Rights Acts passage era.  Reserving the term racism only for the overt, “old-fashioned” form does a disservice to all and fails to acknowledge that how racism is manifested has changed dramatically over time (Holmes, 2013).  Despite their different names and scholar-group origins, the newer manifestation of racism is referred to as modern, aversive, and symbolic (MAS) racism and are based on similar tenets and make similar predictions (Henry & Sears, 2002). MAS racism relies upon more covert expressions that are enacted in more subtle displays of racial inequality and animus (Brief, Dietz, Cohen, Pugh, & Vaslow, 2000; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000; McConahay, Hardee, & Batts, 1981; McConahay, 1983). MAS racism takes into account that public displays of racism generally violate current cultural norms and the racial antipathy of Blacks is based on (a) Whites’ shifting cognitive beliefs about Blacks, (b) the idea that Blacks violate “traditional” American values, and (c) perceptions that Black culture is inferior to and exists outside of “traditional” American culture (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1998; Henry & Sears, 2002; McConahay, 1986; Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995). A key component of MAS racism theories is that White Americans who exhibit these contemporary racist attitudes see themselves as egalitarians and will refrain from discriminating when doing so would jeopardize their self-concept of being non-racist (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1998; Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986; McConahay & Hough, 1976; McConahay, 1986).  MAS racism predicts discriminatory outcomes toward Blacks as well as support of more conservative political candidates and anti-Black policies (e.g. banning affirmative action, etc.; (Avery et al., in press; Awad, Cokley, & Ravitch, 2005; Brief et al., 2000; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000; Nail, Harton, & Decker, 2003; Tarman & Sears, 2005). Although MAS racism theories originated in the U.S. and focused on Black-White race relations, the theories have been used to explain racism on other continents (e.g., Europe) as well as with racial sentiments among other non-White Americans (Nail et al., 2003; Pettigrew & Meertens, 1995).  As the recent e-mail leaks of several Sony executives reveal, racism is still quite prevalent in U.S. organizations despite the fact that Black employees are not likely to be ever called the N-word by colleagues in the workplace.  MAS racism begins to provide the new language needed to discuss racism, but much more work needs to be done.  What is certain, however, is that there will be no more business as usual as more and more people are taking a stand to disrupt the status quo and end racism in organizations. 

*Dr. Holmes can be reached on Twitter @OHIV. 


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