Thursday, January 16, 2014

Is Mayor Naheed Nenshi a Racist?

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. - George Bernard Shaw

We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding. - Rudyard Kipling

Mayor Nenshi of Calgary, Alberta found himself in hot water this week when he said the following during a presentation about diversity:

We are lousy at promoting a diverse workforce. When you look at our management levels within the city, my top six managers, there are no women right now. The one woman retired. There are no people of a visible minority. Throughout our 34 next most senior managers at the city, I haven’t actually done the census but off the top of my head I can think of one person from a visible minority. And a handful of women.

We’ve got to do a better job. And we have to look internally at our own organization to determine what are the barriers that are in place towards people getting promoted into these jobs.

A lot of people climbed all over the Mayor with the belief that his comments were promoting racism or gender-bias.

I don’t think he was doing either and from what I know of the Mayor, he is not only NOT a racist but that he probably possesses more empathy and compassion for ALL people than most leaders you will ever meet.

However, I believe he is making a great mistake in the generalization that he made in his presentation.

The error, I believe, is that he may be about to send his people on a wild goose chase based on an assumption.

Let me explain.

Back in the mid 1980’s, the organization that I was a part of received notification that we faced criminal charges based on someone’s assumption that we were intentionally discriminating against women and minorities.

The accusing organization simply knew this because we didn’t have any women or visible minorities working for us.  This was, obviously, an assumption and an incorrect understanding of cause and effect.

Keep in mind that:

- we were a small company of 10 people (albeit a successful company), so there wasn’t a lot of room for demographic variation

- in the mid 1980’s, women and visible minorities in the IT industry were not as common as they are today.

That being said, this group marched in with the intention of proving our evil ignorance of diversity and so they began by examining all the resumes that we had received since our inception.

They went through more than 800 resumes and from what they could see, no women or visible minorities had even applied to our classified ads.

“So”, they concluded, “you must have worded your ad to intentionally discourage them from applying.”

Another assumption.

When they examined the classified ad, they informed us that the ad needed to be changed so that we would give preference to women and visible minorities.

And as anyone who has ever argued with me knows, you better come to the argument armed with data – data that is in alignment with your own raison d'être and your modus operandi.

So when they presented me with a draft of the ad we should run the next time we were hiring, I pointed out that the wording was actually in violation of the rules they were attempting to enforce.

They took it back and reworded it.

After several iterations, they gave up and left us alone and we never heard from them again.

And yes, eventually as the IT marketplace changed, we hired women and visible minorities.  We didn’t care about the demographic the candidate represented – we cared about hiring the best people possible.

Affirmative action

I could go on to describe the effect of affirmative action programs and how improper promotion on Wall St. (my stomping grounds) has created a bloody mess that YOU are paying for and will continue to pay for for many years.

I could talk about how affirmative action and the intentional promotion of certain demographics is now being reviewed as being potentially harmful to the people it is intended to help, as described in this this article from the NY Times where they note (my emphasis added):

The idea that affirmative action might harm its intended beneficiaries was suggested as early as the 1960s, when affirmative action, a phrase introduced by the Kennedy administration, began to take hold as government and corporate policy. One long-simmering objection to affirmative action was articulated publicly by Clarence Thomas years before he joined the Supreme Court in 1991.

Mr. Thomas, who has opposed affirmative action even while conceding that he benefited from it, told a reporter for The New York Times in 1982 that affirmative action placed students in programs above their abilities. Mr. Thomas, who was then the 34-year-old chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, didn’t deny the crisis in minority employment. But he blamed a failed education system rather than discrimination in admissions. “I watched the operation of such affirmative action policies when I was in college,” he said, “and I watched the destruction of many kids as a result.”

And so to generally blame “someone” for lack of fairness in demographic representation sends people down a rabbit hole of whether affirmative action works, it doesn’t, who the experts are and a plethora of other things that leaves the original problem (if there even is one) unsolved.

As I said to the group that attempted to judge us in the mid 1980’s:

If society doesn’t create someone who wants the job I am offering, you can’t blame me for not hiring them.

You also can’t legislate it as Justice Thomas noted since the repercussions on the people you are trying to help are largely unknown (or ignored).

Bottom Line:

We don’t fix problems such as diversity by accidentally or purposefully whipping people into a fervor with an assumption or a generalization as the Mayor may have done so in his presentation. 

After all, it is entirely possible that the people who hold the positions that the Mayor referenced may in fact be the most qualified people for their positions within all of the municipal governments across Canada and if that’s the case, why would you want to assume that the positions need to be assessed or changed?

There is also the reality that one assumption or generalization tends to lead to another …. and another … and another.  And at the end of the day after following a trail of assumptions and generalizations, we probably won’t have made much measurable, effective progress at all.

Mayor Nenshi’s comments are not racist or gender biased.

But I think he (and all of us) should be careful how a simple assumption or generalization, stated with authority, can lead to a whirlwind of activity without a complete understanding of true cause and effect and the real complexity buried within the perceived issues.

For as we all know, the devil is in the details.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood,


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