Tackling Racism in the Workforce

Panelists call for action on multiple fronts to drive change

How do we drive change to address systemic racism in the workplace? Use your voice, use your vote and use your purchasing power.

That was one of the primary messages emerging from the first of a series of “Critical Conversations” panel discussions sponsored by Chancellor Mauli Agrawal of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the university’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion.

Panelists discussed how racism – often unconscious but no less real – remains pervasive in the American workplace, despite years of training programs and volumes of legislation. In order to continue the anti-racist momentum arising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, panelists said people of color, and their white allies, must use multiple avenues of leverage to drive ongoing awareness and action. More than 600 people tuned in.

Participating panelists included:

  • Gary O'Bannon (Moderator), Executive in Residence, Henry W. Bloch School of Management and former Director of Human Resources, City of Kansas City, Mo. 
  • Clyde McQueen, President and Chief Executive Officer, Full Employment Council
  • Uzo Nwonwu, Corporate Legal Counsel, UMB Bank
  • Jeffrey J. Simon, Office Managing Partner, Husch Blackwell LLP
  • A'yanna Tomlin, UMKC student, studying Business Administration 

Racism in the workplace is rarely overt or obvious, Nwonwu said, and it is often sanctioned by “facially neutral” language: a policy or standard that does not mention race, but has the net effect of favoring white people and exploiting disadvantages that are more prevalent or powerful among people of color.

Simon said an example would be a standard that favors the connections that white males have to power structure networks, such as minimum revenue generation standards for partnerships in a law firm.

It can also be subtle, McQueen said. When people of color are not acknowledged or recognized in group interaction, they sometimes lose confidence and become withdrawn.

“They take themselves out of the game,” he said.

Tomlin said people of color often feel pressured to practice “respectability politics” in the workplace: “Putting on an act, a face, to make the other people in the room more comfortable.”

Government and business policies also play a powerful role in workplace racism, panelists agreed. Those policies, for example, drive many of the best job opportunities well outside of the urban core, out of reach of underfunded public transit systems that people of color depend on.

Too often, workplace diversity programming is a check-the-box exercise with little impact on entrenched company culture. Panelist offered several strategies for moving past that barrier.

McQueen said organizations must commit to monitoring progress and reporting improvement – or the lack thereof – in an honest and transparent manner. “Build cultural competency into job descriptions and performance reviews,” he said.

“If you’re not getting it done in-house, you need to bring in an outside expert,” Nwonwu said. “Outside forces can infuse new ideas into the conversation but change has to come from inside.”

When progress fails to happen, Nwonwu said, people have to decide to either confront it, or look for better opportunities elsewhere. Simon said that applies not just to those who experience workplace racism, but also those who witness it. People of color cannot bear the burden alone,

“The white power structure that built the structure of systemic racism has to be a part of tearing it down,” he said. ”It takes leadership, and a sincere, heartfelt belief that it’s part of who we are and what we believe in. And to have the courage to look at ourselves and say, here is where we are not doing a good job.”

Tomlin said companies need deeds to match their words.

“A lot of these companies issued statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but then I look at their all-white executive board. You have to practice what you preach.”

McQueen urged people to do the research they need to use their power of the purse effectively, doing business with organizations that have demonstrated a genuine commitment to addressing systemic racism. That applies to both personal consumption and business relationships within their organizations.

“Use your voice, use your vote and use your purchasing power,” he said.

Published: Jul 9, 2020