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.

Flickr photo: OregonDOT


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