Racism, Business Diversity and the Ballot Box

In Saturday’s NYTImes, Charles Blow provided his readers with an exceptionally articulate statement on Disrespect, Race and Obama. Blow’s insights are accompanied by fascinating data from the 2012 election revealed by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard PhD student in behavioral economics. Reflecting on Blows insight and using the data from Stephens-Davidowitz, it strikes me that there is a more significant than usual interpretation of the current political scene—and business diversity.

In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, Virginia Satir was one of the most respected and revered psychotherapist in the country, and for good reason. Widely known as “The Mother of Family Therapy,” Satir took a family systems approach to counseling, an approach that was just gaining credibility. Indeed, her change processes are still applied successfully to organizations. But one of Satir’s most novel ideas at the time, was that the “presenting issue” or “surface problem” itself was seldom the real problem; rather, how people coped with the issue created the problem. This approach is supportive of systems problem solving in business. Thank you, Peter Senge, et al.

And it’s an insight that applies most directly to overt and covert racism, especially in today’s political arena. Thus, I’m suggesting that whatever form racism takes today is fundamentally a “symptom” or “presenting issue” and not actually the problem. The problem is a deeply, unstated white fear about loss of status and privilege, driven by profound uncertainty as non-whites gain power. Thus, racism and the Tea Party are fundamentally coping mechanisms for dealing with white fears of status loss.

Why has so little talk about loss of power and status surfaced? A major corollary of white privilege is that it is invisible to white individuals. I’d suggest that there’s an itch about status and color, but that like many significant problems, the issue lacks clear definition both by commentators as well as the privileged themselves. In short, the language of loss of power and status isn’t there. It may also be that the subject is too embarrassing, or discomforting to talk about. However, a number of focus groups (inside the Tea Party, but run by Democrats), have brought out the rhetoric of status and power. Once the issue is in the open, then it’s “politically correct” to talk about. What’s striking about the uncertainty and the fears about loss of power and status is that they are not merely the fears of old white guys. They regularly surface in college students all across the country.

If you’ve not been immersed in a culture like the South, you may not recognize my interpretation. That’s not to say that fears of status loss are present only in the South. It’s just more obvious and less covert in the South than here. But I run into it in our rather white Upper Midwest, too. Indeed, I’ve been intrigued and even amused by attempts to discuss issues of covert racism here, meeting with a great deal of unsophisticated denial, indifference, and sometimes an edge of hostility. (We have the largest Somali population in the nation. And Minneapolis just elected its first Somali, Hispanic and Hmong to city hall. So we already have a younger, browner–and queerer electorate.)

Google “racist” data
Despite a terrific amount of research on whether or not prejudice against blacks is a significant factor in American politics, thus far, the studies have been inconclusive. Yet there has always been a lot of interest in figuring out why people vote the way they do. Surveys are largely untrustworthy; people often put their best foot forward in responding, but may vote differently in the ballot box. In effect, the surveys suffer from censoring. Using Google, however, is a very private matter. The large number of searches for pornography and sensitive health information is evidence that Google searchers will express interests that cannot be elicited by other means. Google also provides search information from very narrow geographic levels, state by state, city by city, etc.

What Seth Stephens-Davidowitz did was to choose the most relevant words for data mining: “nigger” or “niggers.” During the period of his study, 2004 – 2007, there were roughly the same number searches that included the word “nigger” as searches that included words and phrases such as “migraine,” “economist,” “Daily Show,” and “Lakers.”

Here’s the summary info from the NYTimes chart, Bias and the Ballot Box: In 2008, Barack Obama performed much worse than expected in areas with the greatest frequency of racially charged Google searches. The analysis looked at Web searches in 200 United States media markets.

Obama Slightly outperformed in the 10 percent of markets where there were the fewest racially charged Google searches.

In the other 90 percent of markets, Obama did worse than expected.

Generally, the greater the frequency of racially charged Google searches in an area, the fewer votes the president received compared with what was predicted.

Obama received about 7 percent fewer votes than expected in the 10 percent of markets with the most racially charged searches.

Stephens-Davidowitz’ research reveals a “large and robust negative predictor of Obama’s vote share.” Researchers understand that the research model makes two very important contributions: It is probably the first trustworthy means for understanding the contemporary extent of prejudice, and it also provides another significant tool for understanding voter determinations.

At the least, this research should indicate to business managers and HR folk that what people say about their prejudices may have little relation to reality. That’s especially important to firms needing diversity in their employee base for strategic business reasons. Given that diversity training in normal terms has outlived much of its usefulness, it’s time for these businesses to figure out and institute some more subversive means of diversity training. You won’t need to go the CIA for that training, but you’d best think about some top insights from leading students of persuasion.

FYI: I found the commentary by Charles Blow especially fascinating, not least because Charles Blow ain’t Al Sharpton.

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7 Responses to Racism, Business Diversity and the Ballot Box

  1. Greg Mitchell November 26, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    This entire notion that white Americans don’t know they are racist, so they are racist is absolutely, without doubt, the dumbest political conclusion to a thesis I have ever read or heard.

    Please provide me with one second of video from a Tea Party rally where a keynote speaker said something racist. You can probably send me hundreds of hours of video from the fascist (white neo-Nazis, or KKK) and I can send you hundreds of hours of black fascists (Nation of Islam, New Black Panther Party). So, when black people vote for Obama, because he is black, does this make them racists too? Following the Authors logic Obama garnered 98% of the black vote, first time in history, so it must be because he is black and this makes those black people that voted for him racists.

    None of the findings were predicated on fact. What is failed to me mentioned is that Democrats (historically racist)play the race card every chance they get (this article is no exception). Could the conflict between two political parties be based on the fact that they are opposed to each other? Could it be that discourse on both sides of the isle has occurred since our founding? Even when our political system was 100% white. There is also the fact that this administration seeks to remove individual liberty and replace it with “spreading the wealth” or “redistribution” is not race issues but economic and political issues and would be fought just as hard if the President were white.

    To simply state that white people who claim not to be racist, are racists is backwards thinking. I resent someone calling me a racist because I am white. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth; I did grow up a very similar environment to our President. Does this make me a racist?

    Playing the race card, in my honest opinion, is lower than snake poop and has no place in American politics or America in general. And those that play it are no better than someone in the KKK.

  2. C (anonymous) November 26, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    I unsubscribed from this newsletter after seeing this article. The article has nothing to do with HR (which is what the newsletter is supposed to be for) other than a loose tie-in at the end. Moreover, using the “R” word for anyone who disagrees with Obama’s bad policies (and they are in my opinion bad) is offensive.

    We have had 43 white Presidents, each of whom had significant masses of the population criticize their policies. Electing the first African American as President does not mean that we loose the right to hold our elected officials accounatible for fear of being labeled with the “R” word. To the contrary, those Americans who are brave enough to risk being falsely labeled the “R” word so that they can hold our elected officials accountible are truely patriotic.

  3. Mike Mosher November 26, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    Dan, this is the best piece I’ve read in this newsletter, and addresses the most significant issue in Human Resources in our nation’s organizations. Thanks for opening up the conversation. American business and academia’s richest resource, America’s diversity, has only entered and enriched it in a trickle as a result of racism and other prejudices. When it’s finally overcome, the US will achieve its full potential…and the world knows this.

  4. Michael November 26, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    When the premise is flawed the outcome is flawed. The connection to voters based on searches for the “n” word is weak at best.

    The premise assumes that race is and was a major factor on the negative side which may or may not be true. To believe that the data collected has any relevance is at best a stretch.

    Talk to people not stats. People identify the real reasons for many things. Asking the right questions gets the right answers.

    The real reason for this article seems to stir up and continue the wide gap between democrats and republicans and to identify republicans as white racists.

    Given this clear hatred of the right it is difficult to give credence to anything stated. With these type of views it is clear why our congress is unable to work together.

  5. J November 26, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    I couldn’t get past paragraph three without concluding that this is another attempt by a liberal democrat to cast anyone who disagrees with this administration about anything as a racist. Hogwash!

    Pulling the race card in times of disagreement with any administration or in the workplace is counter-productive particularly when there are no facts to back it up. If you truly want equality for all, then the playing field should be level for all without special considerations for anyone. Otherwise we’ll always be dealing with the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation, as illustrated in skewed college admissions and the breakdown of families that we see today.

    Personally I had great hopes for President Obama despite the fact that I didn’t vote for him. I think he has missed a unique opportunity to address some deep seated problems that exist in the black community, all of which are well known… an opportunity to instead raise the standards, rather than continuing to dumb them down. Instead he has squandered that opportunity and simply created a great divide among blacks, whites, rich, poor, men and women with his tiresome rhetoric and infringement of our individual rights and liberties.

  6. Rudy Villatoro November 26, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    I think that people think in Racism are people with a little intelligence or with strong inferiority a hang up, we need see the correct perspectives of things,no of expectations. There are white people but whit black hearts.

  7. Amber T December 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    Thanks for this…it’s obvious that those in HR that commented still don’t’ get it and that is sad that they are the ones hiring, and enforcing policies. You can never get diversity until you get more diversity in power seats that can hire. Until then you will have the closet racist running businesses.