Yesterday, I had seen some headlines at first about Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments discussing race, but had simply glossed over them. After all, it was a busy workday and well, was there going to be anything new?
But by late in the day, I received an e-mail from a former law professor of mine. Listen to it, she implored, because it is a "fantastic" speech.
Having listened to it, I have to agree; it’s great and the headlines about his "nation of cowards" remark do a disservice to the entire substance of his speech. He may not have the same oratorical style as our new President, but the content of speech and the issues he discusses (and the manner in which he does so) are compelling. If you don’t have 10-15 minutes, you can read the transcript but if you have a little time, you can watch the video below.
The speech is directly relevant to today’s workplaces. Indeed, Holder (whose background you can find here) is quick to point out that workplaces are doing better than most on addressing the issues of race. Even still, there are limitations to that progress:
As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by "American instinct" and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.
But Holder is not doom and gloom in his speech; rather, he suggests that discussing and learning about "Black History" and treating it simply the history of America, can help bridge the divide:
There is clearly a need at present for a device that focuses the attention of the country on the study of the history of its black citizens. But we must endeavor to integrate black history into our culture and into our curriculums in ways in which it has never occurred before so that the study of black history, and a recognition of the contributions of black Americans, become commonplace. Until that time, Black History Month must remain an important, vital concept. But we have to recognize that until black history is included in the standard curriculum in our schools and becomes a regular part of all our lives, it will be viewed as a novelty, relatively unimportant and not as weighty as so called "real" American history.
Several workplaces around the state take time to recognize Black History Month. Holder’s comments would suggest that is a worthwhile endeavor, but ultimately, employers can play an important role in educating the workforce on the importance of diversity as well. (Of course, treating employees fairly and with respect will continue to help build the bonds in the workplace.) If those actions are not taken, mistrust and bad feelings are left to fester and, in this economy, those feelings can gain traction fairly quickly.
As Holder warns, " An unstudied, not discussed and ultimately misunderstood diversity can become a divisive force."
Employers would do well to consider Holder’s comments and determine if they should do more to emphasize the importance of broad diversity in the workplace and the role that everyone can play in doing so. Holder’s comments do not serve to blame anyone for how we got to this point in history, but they do serve to provide a guide to where we from here.