Is there a culture of racism at Duke University?


Welcome back to the 1950's:

During his first meeting with his supervisor, Freetage says he was asked “whether he had a problem supervising ‘blacks’”and added that he needed to “start writing up ‘those people’ in order to ‘keep them in line.’” That same month, Freetage said he “overheard a conversation regarding management’s instructions to ‘clean house’ in his department, specifically discussing their intent to fire ‘colored’ workers who they said were ‘lazy,’” the lawsuit states.

When Freetage asked whether their diversity training could be applicable in this situation, the lawsuit states an administrative assistant laughed at his question and responded “Yeah that’s all bull****. We don’t actually do that around here. It’s all for show.”

The house needs to be cleaned, alright. Starting with this particular manager. For you Duke fans and alum who may be tempted to write this off as "exaggeration" or possibly "missing context," just don't. I encountered an almost identical set of behaviors when I was a manager, and had to serve as a buffer to protect African-American employees on countless occasions. And I can also tell you this, with all confidence: racial discrimination of this intensity can only survive if multiple "tiers" of management are of a like mind. Not saying it goes all the way to the top, but it's not just this one man. Which leads me to a discussion on institutional racism:

Institutional racism is a systematic set of patterns, procedures, practices, and policies that operate within institutions so as to consistently penalize, disadvantage, and exploit individuals who are members of non-White groups (Better, 2002; Rodriguez, 1987). Researchers in this area find that institutional racism includes organizational procedures such as hiring, promotion, and evaluation; affects recruitment and promotion, institutional policies, and organizational climate; and may function at three distinct levels within institutions: attitudes and action of personnel, policies and practices, and structures and foundations (Barndt, 1991; Chesler & Delgado, 1987; Watts & Carter, 1991). Building on this literature on institutional racism and a model of organizational empowerment (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004; Zimmerman, 2000), we argue that institutional racism operates at three levels of an organization: the individual level, the intraorganizational level, and the extraorganizational level.

Institutional racism explains how oppression can permeate different organizational characteristics and dimensions. At the individual level, racism operates through staff members’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. At the intraorganizational level, institutional racism operates through an organization’s internal climate, policies, and procedures. These include the relationships among staff, which are rooted in formal and informal hierarchies and power relationships. At the extraorganizational level, institutional racism explains how organizations influence communities, public policies, and institutions. Also, institutional racism describes how organizations are affected by larger institutions (i.e., regulatory, economic, political, professional) and are shaped by the sociopolitical and economic contexts that frame an organization’s policies, procedures, and functioning.

If you want to root out racism and other discriminatory facets of your organization, there are a few "must-do" steps to take. One, your Human Resources leader/staff must be of impeccable character. And before you say, "No shit, Steve," consider this: if certain elements in upper management are racist, they may have (probably?) already contaminated that department or individual. Human Resources (you'll notice I capitalized that) should be a separate division, not subordinate to other division heads, and reporting only to the President (or operations VP). That doesn't mean HR doesn't/shouldn't interact with other leaders, it just means those other division/department heads' influence over the process is limited. You'll understand better why this is so important in a few minutes.

Second, your policies and procedures need to be written with an eye towards diversity, not conformity. At least those policies that deal with behavior and attire. Back to the OP:

In another instance, the lawsuit stated that when Freetage and his supervisor were reviewing job candidates, the supervisor showed him a picture of a Black applicant that had pink hair and makeup and stated “Do you think I want that walking around this place? Delete. This ain’t the ghetto.’”

Aside from this being blatantly racist, it's also a purely subjective analysis rooted in stereotypes. And unfortunately it's all too common. If you're going to have a dress code (you don't have to), it needs to be culturally neutral. Hair styles or the wearing of hijab or other adornments should not be regulated, or even inferred by ambiguous language. The same goes for obscenity, to a certain extent. We all slip up from time to time, and this can be abused by supervisors who want to get rid of somebody they don't like.

Somebody once mentioned to me that employee evaluations should be done away with completely, because of their subjective and discriminatory nature. I disagree, for a few reasons:

At the individual level, it is important to see how the extra- and intraorganizational factors impact how staff members complete their job tasks and interact with one another. Just as organizations occur in a social context, staff members function within that same structure. They have to decide whether to adapt (i.e., having the critical capacity to understand and make choices to transform a given context) or adjust (i.e., passively be manipulated by external forces) to that environment (Freire, 1973; Watts et al., 1999). It is this ability to see the impact of the sociopolitical environment and devise strategies to promote liberation that is the essence of what Watts calls sociopolitical development (Watts et al., 1999; Watts, Williams, & Jagers, 2003). In this context, cultural competence could be transformed into social competence, recognizing that it is important to recognize the sociopolitical context as well as unique cultural practices.

And this is where having an autonomous HR department becomes critical. Employee evaluations don't just provide insight about the employee being evaluated; they also reveal much about the supervisor writing the evaluation(s). Prejudicial trends in management can be detected (if you're looking for them), such as a tendency to gloss over negative aspects of some employees while highlighting those of others. HR needs the freedom from influence to adequately assess the integrity of the entire system, not just the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.

While taking these steps (a strong HR and good policies) are critical, don't make the mistake of assuming they will automatically fix your racism problems. Yes, people evolve and adapt, especially young people who have not been exposed to a diverse environment prior to joining the workforce. But some do not evolve; they develop behavior patterns that mask their prejudices, but that's not the same thing. They might be able to function well in many occupations, but management of subordinates is not one of them. Aside from their unfair treatment of employees, they are incapable of properly utilizing the human resources for which they are responsible. And that will inevitably lead to production loss, and (very possibly) an expensive day in court.



Kind of a yawner...

but it's incredibly important for those trying to make a living.