Diversity: The Biggest Excuse for Mediocrity

Editor's note: For the purposes of this opinion, the terms "diversity" and "minorities" are used exclusively for Hispanics and African Americans.

(Wordcount: 803) I've been picking lots of fights lately over the real significance of diversity because I've just had it up to here with its double standard perspective. It wasn't too long ago that being "color-blind" was cool; accepting people for who they are, not their skin color. But somewhere in the last 20 years, that meritocracy was abandoned by minorities who lacked legitimate qualifications and skills and had to bank on their primary (only?) defining criteria for opportunity: their skin color. Want proof? The obvious lack of diversity at the top of major organizations is not due to their failure in promoting diversity, but - as we all suspect, but dare not speak aloud - in diversity's failure in being able to handle a leadership role (and yes, there are always exceptions). I've personally experienced this challenge in my own efforts to promote internally (and we don't have a bureaucracy) and what I've learned is that it's not about color, it's about competence.

I've learned... that it's not about color, it's about competence.

Why have minorities failed at leadership? A huge component of leadership is mentorship. Time and again, I've witnessed the role of mentor more readily played by majorities than I do minorities. Be it their unfamiliarity with this obligation (as a leader) or their inability to assume the role properly, minorities - with present-day exceptions such as Bill Cosby, Alberto Gonzalez, Stan O'Neal, Condi, and others - just haven't demonstrated their potential to mentor each other, let alone lead anyone. (And note that being a mentor doesn't just mean mentoring other minorities. A great leader leads everyone.)

Another component of leadership is knowledge. In a powerful Od-Ed article in Friday's (October 14, 2005) Wall Street Journal, a gifted African American professor, Charles Johnson, used a quote that satisfied my gnawing hunger for like-minded discussion on this topic. He referred to education and love of learning (to acquire and bank on real qualifications to succeed) as the abandonment of the "soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, diversity might just be the biggest excuse ever to not be as good as non-minority peers. Affirmative action was well-intentioned, but due to our own low expectations, we have forfeited our right to claim that anything other than our own selves prevented us from achieving.

The regrettable aspect of diversity is in how it points out differences that the next generation won't even notice. My own generation grew up surrounded by enough diversity to interact with everyone equally; engage with everyone on a level playing field; and love friends and family who do not share the same background. It's only when I'm immersed in the insipid spectacle of diversity that I'm reminded that I'm too "different" to succeed in "their" world without extra attention. My perspective has always been that if someone's biases will result in a difficult relationship, it's not worth having that relationship (and if I didn't have a choice, that's because I'm too ignorant to explore alternatives to working for racists).

According to the diversity perspective, big companies run by "majorities" need diversity - or else. But in my travels through "Minority Corporate America", I've yet to see similar programs in place to encourage non-minorities to join those organizations. The diversity lip-service is about leveraging backgrounds and experiences not contained in the majority. But when the majority is composed of individuals from minority groups, do they similarly leverage the backgrounds and experiences contained in the majority? As far as I can tell, diversity insinuates itself, combatively fighting individual biases believed to be organizationally spread, in a "Trojan horse" scenario that concentrates minorities in common functional and departmental areas instead of high-skill or leadership roles across the organization; before long, you have "talent flight" from those areas overwhelmed by minorities who keep hiring other minorities with the bare-minimum requirements to be productive at a common job, crippling that area from lack of "diversity". Traditional unions follow a similar pattern before an organization is inevitably faced with the death knell.

Frankly, diversity initiatives subsidize mediocrity and squash ambition to maintain their own status quo. If an organization wants to achieve diversity, it must be built into a meritocratic model, not a stand-alone function that has to be accounted into the bottom line. How do you build it into the organization? If executives are sent all over the world to learn and appreciate other cultures, they can surely be sent to the "'hood", where an overwhelming percentage of minorities exist. When minorities recognize that organizations genuinely care about them enough to be in their communities (not just through advertising), they'll take advantage of their free public educations and increase their value to those organizations. As it is, since few organizations care like this, minorities don't either, and ultimately, we never achieve our potential as leaders.

Write to Al Berrios at editor@alberrios.com

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