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DEI and the 4 Questions Skeptics Ask

By Affirmative Action, DE&I, Diversity, Education, Racism
Students in the Affirmative Action Coalition march from Harvard through Cambridge, chant in support of diversity and affirmative action on college campuses. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Students in the Affirmative Action Coalition march from Harvard through Cambridge, chant in support of diversity and affirmative action on college campuses. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)


Did you know that 25 years ago, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that the issue of racial discrimination would be something our society would not have to confront today? 


In 2003, Justice O’Connor summarized her opinions in a Court case on affirmative action at the time: “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [of increasing diversity in colleges and universities] approved today.” Can we agree that optimistic prediction has not come true? From attempts to intimidate and threaten Black and Brown voters in the recent U.S. election to confronting anti- Semitic sentiments and hate speech from public figures, we are still dealing with racism daily in U.S. society. 

The cases before the Court now were brought by the organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who are seeking the elimination of all “race-conscious” admissions practices in universities and colleges. The Supreme Court has rejected the organization’s arguments twice already, and ruled that universities can consider race in admissions to promote diversity on campus and enrich students’ learning experience.

What’s going on? Why can’t we do as Justice O’Connor predicted and overcome and evolve past the stain of racism, racial bias, and discrimination?   

I don’t have an answer to that question, but here is an observation about the patterns of misunderstanding that seem stall true progress. 

In our work with clients around the world, some of my colleagues and I have noticed there are four questions that are repeatedly asked in arguments like this that take us down the problem- solving rabbit hole. 

It seems to me that these questions are motivated by a desire to intentionally stall progress. In other instances, the questions stem from a constructive intention, but the people asking these questions lack the ability to actually hear the words or see the lived experience of our colleagues, friends, and neighbors who have to deal with racial discrimination on a daily basis. 

The four questions are:

  1. The “What about…?” equivocation question: People ask this question based on the assumption that all forms of discrimination are solved with the same solution. Ask anyone who deals with the intersectional issues of, say, accessibility along with racism, and they’ll tell you the remedy for one is very different than the remedy for the other. The issue before the Supreme Court has to do with banning preference based on race. Though the cases being argued today are about diversity and recruitment/acceptance policies in universities, the point being argued has its origins in the 14th Amendment.  The language of the amendment was intended to address the racial backlash in the South following the end of the Civil War to provide formerly enslaved citizens with the same protections as all U.S. citizens, making their lynching, murder and assault unlawful (ACLU).
  2. The “Where’s the data” question: My colleagues who are men and women of color say this is the most frustrating question of all. For them, the “data” happens every day in the regular course of living their lives. It includes the ways they are looked at or treated in public spaces or asked to speak for their whole group, as in, “You’re Black; what do your people think about this?” They live and have to confront the data in ways that people like me have never experienced. Justice Sotomayor courageously offered up her own educational experience as data that affirmative action worked. Her grades, she said, would not have normally allowed her to get into Yale Law School, even though she excelled as a student once she was admitted. Her life story – like millions of other U.S. citizens – is the data.
  3. The definition question: It’s hard for me to believe that this question, when asked,  is genuine. It sounds like a passive-aggressive way to stall looking at root causes or finding solutions. For example, Justice Thomas, in the oral arguments, asked, “What is the definition of diversity?” and then answered his own question by saying it seems to mean “giving everything to everyone.” It would have been more direct to say, “I don’t subscribe to diversity as a valid concept for the Court to consider.”  Taking the bait and providing definitions of terms like “diversity” or “equity” or” inclusion” divert the conversation from actual problem-solving to an exercise in semantics. 
  4. The “When will we be done?” question: “When will we know anti-discrimination practices have gone far enough?” Does it strike you as odd that we are asking when we will be done working on eliminating discrimination when we have yet to be successful holding people accountable for doing it? It’s like saying “When are we going to stop funding cancer research?” knowing that there are still so many incurable or hard-to-treat forms of cancer. How about we solve more of the problem and THEN talk about when enough is enough?

A mentor once told me that, “Affirmative action is a clunky, inelegant, but necessary engineered solution to a human dynamic, and a problem that defies simple solutions. You can’t engineer mindsets.” They warned me, and that’s what was most disturbing when I listened to the Court proceedings. Some justices just sound like their minds are made up, and they are unable or unwilling to look past the literal interpretation of the 14th Amendment to consider the context of our society, then and now. 

It is astonishing to hear some of the justices ask the same basic questions our clients who have never had the opportunity to delve deeply into diversity and inclusion ask. The difference is that the Justices are supposed to be among the most learned and informed among us. It was heartbreaking to listen to some of the Justices go down the rabbit hole of these four questions. Is that they don’t understand the real issue or do they not believe it’s really worth considering? 

Ways to Deal with the Four Questions:

Do your best not to take the bait. No answer you can provide and no dialogue about them will actually move the needle toward a more equitable society. Instead, start with listening to their story—all of it. 

Say something like, “What really bothers you about working towards a society with no racial discrimination? Or “What are you afraid of if the Court upholds affirmative action—as imperfect as it is—to help rebalance the scales of justice?” Asking a question like this creates connection with the person asking the question, rather than taking a stance of debate. It also gets more to the heart of the issue, which is their resistance – not the legitimacy of DE&I work or, in this case, affirmative action.

A decision to completely overturn the Grutter v. Bollinger case, which was basically a blueprint for race-conscious college admissions, could have devastating outcomes when it comes to college admissions. According to a brief filed by Harvard, more than 40 percent of universities in the U.S. consider race during the admissions process. Let’s hope the Supreme Court will not vote to end the use of racial classifications in college admissions. 

Whatever the outcome, we can assume the next few years are going to be trying when it comes to the Court and their current stance on Affirmative Action.  Here’s to working together to protect it.

Lowering the Walls that Divide Us

By Leadership, Men's work, Racism, Uncategorized

Courtesy, Central Oregon Daily News

Two weeks ago,  I talked about my hometown of Bend, Oregon and the silent move over 1,000 families have taken to pull their kids out of schools and opt instead for homeschooling, as many of them don’t like what the schools are teaching when it comes to critical race theory, racism, or the unpleasant elements of U.S. history.

My plan to follow up that post with a how-to post changed when, last Sunday night, a young man from a nearby neighborhood walked into a Safeway with a shotgun and an assault-style rifle, shot a few rounds into the air, and then walked into the store and killed two people before taking his own life.  

Our town was rocked, as was I. At the time of the attack, a buddy was across the parking lot in a Whole Foods grocery store. His recounting of being on lockdown in the store for 90 minutes made the experience even more visceral, more real. 

The murderer’s online manifesto revealed a rageful, isolated, hopeless young man who consciously used the event to take his own life. He was in his early 20’s, and he was white. It’s not a coincidence that so, so many of the people committing mass murders in the U.S. are white men; over 80% of them are. 

It’s not like the struggle with identity or the depression and anger white men feel is new. It began during the financial crisis in 2007-08 when so many people suffered catastrophic financial losses in their savings. White men in particular felt like their shot at the American dream was lost, along with their savings. 

The crisis made the income gap between the richest and the poorest among us more real. For many, the crisis provoked a loss of confidence in our financial system, economy, and even the government. Social psychologists suggest that some white people weathered the blow worse than other groups because they sensed that their race gave them an advantage in our society. Their loss, some suggest, was harder due to a sense of entitlement. Whatever the reason, individually and as a group, we white men have been in trouble ever since.  

I won’t recite all the statistics, but on a per capita basis, we’re more likely to commit suicide or acts of violence—especially with assault-style rifles—than any other group in the U.S. We use more prescription drugs, and we are less likely to ask for help or seek therapy. 

We don’t know what the Bend murderer’s life was like, but it’s a good bet he didn’t have the level of mentoring or support he needed to cope with the stresses he felt. He may have had underlying mental health issues that weren’t treated or addressed, which also could have contributed to his death. 

In the hundreds of sessions I have conducted with the thousands of participants over the past 20+ years, I have noticed that many of the angriest white men I’ve worked with feel they’ve been labeled as “white” and that, to them, being white hasn’t felt like an advantage whatsoever. 

They hate the term “white men” because it represents a stereotype of a middle-class and up, suburban-raised, liberal arts-educated person who only had a job in high school so they could buy gas for the cars their parents lent or gave them. Meanwhile, the other group of white men—the ones who were not born into as much money or convenience as others—often worked to contribute to their families from an early age, or they wore hand-me-downs to save money, or their after-school social lives were limited because they worked five days a week after school.

And now, here I am, lecturing them on who does and does not have privilege, as if I know anything about what their lives were like. 

Often they don’t see or believe that racism, sexism, or homophobia is as real as people like me think it is, but they sit through the session, afraid to voice their skepticism or reveal their truth, as they risk being labeled, or worse, being told they discriminated against someone at work. 

So here we are: on opposite sides of a deep canyon created by economic hardship and disparity, and a different view of if it is caused by individual random acts or some larger system. Our ideological differences also keep us apart, even though many of those differences stem from a belief system we inherited because of where we were born and who we were born to.


Here’s one first step we can take to lower the walls of the canyon, whatever our position on these topics: we can work to suspend our moral outrage, the feelings that convey an “I’m right and you are wrong” message, even if we don’t say it. Our beliefs—whatever they are—don’t make us better than anyone else, so let’s stop acting like they do.  

We don’t need to get better at debating the issues. Debating more often than not turns into an argument about who is right and who is wrong, and right or wrong in this context doesn’t help.  Moral certainty in any of us —the belief that we are in the right and others are not—just deepens the canyon and makes bridging it almost impossible. 

The tragedy of the shooting in Bend isn’t just about guns or mental health or class; it is also about the ways we marginalize, demonize, and vilify people not just after they have committed a heinous act, but when they simply tell us they disagree or they don’t see it our way.

I LOVE being right. It makes me feel better to know I KNOW something. It alleviates some of my chronic self-doubt. But if I bring that righteousness to my relationships, it will lessen my connection with others instead of enriching it. 

We know the positive behaviors to embrace that can help whomever we are “in the canyon” with climb out; empathy, compassion, care, and the gift of listening. 

We will never know what would have happened if someone could have touched the heart of the man responsible for the murders in Bend with care, listening, and compassion. I hope people tried. I hope he wasn’t made to feel small or less-than because someone was more interested in telling him he was wrong than telling him they cared.

Caring about the outcome and deepening our connection with others instead of making someone feel less than—that will make it easier for both of us to climb out of the canyon, won’t it?


(This is part two of a three part series by Jim.)

IS THE GRASS REALLY BLUE? Why Challenging the Anti-CRT Lobby Is Worth It

By CRT, History, Racism

If the assertions of the anti-Critical Race Theory lobby are largely baseless distortions of reality, then doesn’t defending critical race theory and addressing baseless claims just bring legitimacy to an otherwise illegitimate argument?

I had to  consider this question before deciding to publish Gaslights and Dog Whistles.  One colleague – someone I very much admire whose opinion means a lot to me – read the entire manuscript and suggested that I not publish it at all, or if I must, to take out references to critical race theory, white supremacy, and patriarchy. His sentiments were similar to some but not all of my colleagues  – mostly male and all white – who also felt that arguing the case might bring more attention to a baseless argument. 

Then, a friend sent me a story I had long ago forgotten: the parable of the donkey, the tiger and the lion. In it, the donkey claims that grass is blue and tries to convince the tiger to see it the same way.  The tiger – in spite of the pressure the donkey puts on him to agree –  just can’t bring himself to do it. A heated debate ensues. Frustrated, they decide to bring the matter before their supreme ruler, the lion.

They approach the lion.  Overwrought with his desire to win the argument, the donkey scrambles to approach the lion, whining ′′Your Highness, isn’t it true that the grass is blue?” 

The lion replied: “If you believe it is true, the grass is blue.”

The donkey adds: ′′The tiger disagrees with me, he contradicts and annoys me. Please punish him.”

The lion then declared: ′′The tiger will be punished with 3 days of silence.”

The donkey jumped with joy and went on his way, content and repeating ′′The grass is blue, the grass is blue…”

The tiger asked the lion, “Your Majesty, why have you punished me? After all, the grass is green!”

The lion replied, ′′You’ve known and seen the grass is green.”

The tiger asked, ′′So why do you punish me?”

The lion replied, “The punishment has nothing to do with whether the grass is blue or green. The punishment is because it is degrading for a brave, intelligent creature like you to waste time arguing with an ass, and on top of that, you came and bothered me with that question just to validate something you already knew was true!”

The point the parable makes is that intelligent people shouldn’t argue over a point that is nonsense because it lowers them. Also, why bother arguing with somebody who has no interest in the truth or the facts?

I understood the parable’s parallels to my quandary. The grass IS green; racism and discrimination in the U.S. is a real and important chapter in U.S. history, and the chapter is still being written. Why continue to discuss or argue about the obvious?

For me, it is a matter of magnitude and impact.  The “grass is blue” strategy – as baseless as it is – has activated fear and avoidance in executives in the private and government sectors to the degree that some suspended or camouflaged their organization’s work towards inclusion to avoid scrutiny or the risk of being defunded.  35 states are considering banning the teaching or reading of the history of slavery and the struggle for civil rights in the US and around the world. These actions make the assertions of DE&I detractors seem reasonable, lending credibility to the” grass is blue” strategy.

If the only voices being heard are theirs, then how does what has and is happening in history survive?

Mei Ratz, a colleague and brilliant coach and interventionist, poignantly said “Bending history is dangerous because it contorts the lessons we are meant to take from it. If we bend history to protect the abuser, we erase who they abused entirely.” 

It should come as no surprise that almost 100% of the ban proponents are white.  What does that tell us? What color is the real “grass” in this debate?

Go ahead. Tell me I am the tiger. I agree.

There is a difference between protecting our pride and defending our dignity and I think standing up for the facts and for real history – however embarrassing and shameful it is – need not reduce anyone’s status or self-respect.  It takes courage to take responsibility, so call us “tigers” all you want.

We need to remember the grass is green, no matter what some say.

Leaders: Don’t Shy Away From Talking About the Buffalo Shooting at Work

By Racism

If you’re a leader or business owner working in the US and you think that coming back to work today was just another normal day, it wasn’tat least for some folks.

On May 14th, a white supremacist committed yet another mass shooting in Buffalo, killing 10 people. Like many other mass shooters with a racist agenda, he was young
—only 18 years old. He traveled several hours to get to the location which was carefully selected for its proximity to communities of color, ensuring there would be plenty of unarmed, unprotected, un-expecting victims. Like many of the shooters before him, this mass shooter referenced the idea of replacement theory, a made-up piece of pure fiction designed to stoke white fear and racism based on the myth that “white genocide” is being used to replace white people in the US with people of color. In spite of the attention replacement theory is getting on one conservative news channel, it carries about the same level of credibility and proof as the flat-earth theory

It’s gaslighting at its most toxic and deadly. 

The message this shooting sends to so many employees is that no place is safe, including the workplace (keeping in mind that the definition of “workplace” has and is shifting).   Some of you may be saying, “Well, that’s not going to happen where I work,” and that might be truefor youin your neighborhood or community. 

Just because you may not feel afraid at work doesn’t
mean everyone shares your sense of safety. 

Now more than ever, every business leader needs to think about the physical and emotional safety of their employees. All of us should pay attention to and work to alleviate the disproportionate impact, stress, and trauma that men and women of color are experiencing because of the devastation and volume of events like the shootings in Buffalo.


At the risk of explaining the obvious but in the spirit that it is better to be empathetic than unaware, here a few suggestions for those of you who are people leaders in businesses today:

  1. Don’t assume that because nobody’s talking about the mass shooting, people aren’t impacted by it or aware of it. More than likely, someone in your group, team, or organization is watching to see if you notice what happened on Saturday and if you’re willing to speak about it. And by “speaking about it,” I mean, are you willing to go first by being vulnerable and sharing how the Buffalo shooting impacted you?  Describe the fears that this kind of event engenders in you and your loved ones. After all, there is enough gun violence in this country to make all of us afraid.


  2. If you are going to talk and share, talk to everyone, not just people of color. People who are on the outside because of their race or ethnicity may feel they are “othered” all the time—singled out as if they are the only ones impacted. Be inclusive.Talk about how you are feeling about what happened and invite others to share, or not share.


  3. Do your best to stay away from cerebral conversations about politics or gun legislation, or survey and polling data that show how violent 2022 is compared to previous years. Folks who are afraid need to hear and feel your empathy, not your mastery of the data or facts. What fears do events like what happened in Buffalo this weekend bring up in you?


  4. While you’re at it, now would be a good time to think about what “being safe” might look and feel like to a member of an underrepresented group working in your organization. Does your workplace have security protocols in place to ensure that whoever comes in your workplace is there to conduct business with you? Is the parking lot well-lit and are there security precautions in place for people who fear for their safety at night or after work hours?  Ask yourself this question: how is your place of business unsafe? Use your answers to help develop a plan for making your workplace safer.


  5. If you don’t actually understand what it might feel like to be a black or brown person  coping with the trauma, grief, and terror associated with a racially-motivated mass shooting, don’t pretend you do understand. It’s okay to say, “I can only imagine what it might feel like to be you given what’s just happened. How can I support you?” Some may look at you quizzically as if they don’t understand what you’re talking about. Others may feel like you’re calling them out just because of their race or ethnicity. These are all valid observations; there is no one way to be inclusive and understanding. Be ready to apologize (especially to yourself) if someone takes offense. But keep in mind that there will always be people who will appreciate your honesty and gesture of support, regardless of whether they need it or not.


  6. Don’t make generalizations about how black people feel based on what you hear from one or even several persons.  I can remember a black colleague of mine who was brave enough to tell me that asking him if “All of you feel the same way…” was not only racist, but downright insulting, as if each person can’t have their own, unique perspective and response.


  7. Connected to the point above, be ready for a variety of reactions when you initiate a conversation with people at work about the shooting. Some may feel indifferent, while others may be relieved you’ve created space to talk about it. Some may feel uncomfortable sharing anything. Suspending judgment about what is being said is also a really important step towards making work safer for everyone. 
I don’t know what we can do to end these sorts of horrific events, or what needs to happen to help us as a society find a way to evolve out of them. I do know that when I authentically engage with people not only about how they feel, but also about how I’m feeling, neither of us feels as alone, and somehow that makes me feel more hopeful and less despondent about the future.