Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic
A good friend of mine is an associate at a white-shoe law firm that just went through a major round of layoffs.
Workplace diversity is very much on her mind now because during the job cuts at her firm, it became glaringly apparent that people of color were massively over-represented in the pink slips department. If there are additional personnel cuts, she now wonders if she - a woman of color herself - will be among the next to go.
The current recession is already dealing a severe blow to the scant progress that has been made regarding racial diversity in the workplace.
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely as whites to have reported being laid off or fired in the previous 12 months, about two-in-ten blacks (21%) and Hispanics (19%) versus one-in-ten (11%) among whites.
More African-American men are losing jobs than at any time since World War II, according to a report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.
The trend is alarming. New research by Eden King, an assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University, suggests that workplace discrimination increases when people feel threatened by economic downturns.
According to King, "In good economic times, people know they are supposed to support diversity and will tend to hire a minority candidate to get affirmative action points. But when times are tough, people tend to look out for their own group and isolate outsiders, and that's when discrimination can begin to rear its ugly head."
The playing field has never been level, but this recession is likely to make things even worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, blacks and Hispanics of both genders already under-earn their white counterparts by two to three hundred dollars per week.
One of the arguments you often hear from organizations that are resistant to changing their recruiting tactics is this: "We're looking for the best candidate for the job. We shouldn't have to lower our standards to artificially boost diversity."
What's the unspoken assumption here? That people of color have sub-par qualifications and can’t possibly be among the "best candidates."
Unfortunately, this same assumption may be carried over to decisions about who gets laid off and who doesn't.
When you end up with situations like the one at my friend's law firm - where people of color are disproportionately affected by layoffs - you begin to understand the breadth, depth and width of the problem.
I suspect that this recession will soon lay bare which companies are truly committed to diversity, and which ones have just been saying what they thought people wanted to hear.
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