Diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives are ubiquitous, yet black people remain acutely underrepresented at senior levels. In 2018, only three Fortune 500 firms were led by black chief executives. In three major banks — Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citi — only 2.6 percent of top executives were black — a decline from five years prior. Corporations have had more success seeing black people enter the professional, even managerial ranks, but these workers often feel underutilized and speak of a racial glass ceiling, preventing their career progression. As a result, employee engagement weakens and work performance suffers.

An Inherently Ambiguous Task

There is a solution: designing programs and practices that promote black inclusion. That means reducing bias, establishing relationships across race and promoting the integration of black employees’ ideas to help solve problems. But that’s a tall task, how can it be done?

Essential in creating an environment of black inclusion is eradication of the perception that race will be a barrier to advancement. The impact of D&I efforts, however well-meaning, depends on how they’re viewed. One black leader may see a firm’s diversity efforts as stereotyping blackness, while another may be impassioned by the company’s commitment to inclusion. So it is key for organizations to shape how black professionals come to perceive and experience inclusion programs — and it can be done.  

Why do people interpret inclusion experiences differently? People’s interpretations of whether an organization is inclusive is a product of their backgrounds and the implicit signals the inclusion programs convey. Because creating an inclusion climate is an inherently ambiguous task, how organizations undertake inclusion matters. For example, a cryptic email inviting black leaders to leadership training with no explanation of the objectives may generate skepticism and a sense of threat. The employee may wonder “why am I being singled out?” In contrast, an in-person invitation with an explanation that the training is both developmental and selective can make the same program feel affirming.

Race-Intelligent Inclusion

Decades of research in social psychology and organizational behavior show that when individuals question the value of group identity, they can experience social identity threats.

One study found the more a sample of law firms emphasized “value in equality” (affirming differences are not an obstacle to career advancement) rather than “value in difference” (suggesting awareness of bias), the lower the turnover rates among racial minorities. This “value in equality” made the employees feel less distinct from others and confirmed fair access to opportunities.

This is an example of race-intelligent inclusion: programs and policies that work to eliminate racial inequality by reducing psychological reactivity that arises in response to racial friction. Race-intelligent programs equip black employees with tools that help them flourish, supporting them to engage with the company, their colleagues and careers in generative ways.

Eradicating the Idea Race Is a Barrier

Facilitate Communication

Companies must facilitate explicit communication about race. The unwillingness to talk openly about race hinders the professional development of blacks. For example, it reinforces the habit of withholding tough performance feedback to black employees, depriving them of the chance to learn and develop in their jobs. Moreover, the silence hampers black employees’ capacity to interact authentically with colleagues across race. This can be combatted by creating contexts in which senior leaders — nonblack and black — can develop skill and comfort in talking about race publicly.

Build Knowledge

Companies must also build knowledge about race throughout the organization without requiring black employees to participate in every aspect of the learning; asking them to constantly engage in conversations about race can lead to “diversity fatigue.” While cross-racial dialogue is central to building a racially inclusive environment, nonblack employees can take action to learn — perhaps starting a book club studying black writers or visiting museums dedicated to the black experience.

Develop a Learning Culture

Companies must encourage all employees to adopt a learning orientation toward race. That means fostering a culture in which learning about race is not a discrete act — a project with a conclusion — but rather an ongoing activity. Who could ever realistically claim to be experts on everything about race within their communities, their nations, in the world? The black diaspora is evolving.  Demographic shifts create more diversity as black people emigrate from Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, adding to diversity in black communities and complexity to understandings of black experience. Integral to that experience is navigating the shock of racially significant events that highlight the ways black people frequently experience injustice.

To design for black inclusion, we need a greater understanding of the needs of black people throughout the stages of their professional and personal lives, and that means the continuation of inquiry, development and education.

Understanding the underlying psychology of the black experience helps to construct cultures that create great black leaders. Success will come when inclusion and black inclusion have become one and the same.

Darden Professor Martin N. Davidson co-authored with Valerie Purdie-Greenaway the chapter “Is D&I About Us? How Inclusion Practices Undermine Black Advancement and How to Design for Real Inclusion” in Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, edited by Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo and David A. Thomas.


Learn More in the Book
Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience
About the Expert

Martin N. Davidson

Senior Associate Dean and Global Chief Diversity Officer; Johnson & Higgins Professor Business Administration

Davidson is an expert on global leadership with an emphasis on how to manage diversity to generate superior performance — an approach he pioneered called Leveraging Difference. He wrote the book on diversity in business, The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed. He’s experienced in helping senior leaders develop the skills they need to thrive in global environments.

Davidson consults with a host of Fortune 500 firms, government agencies and social profit organizations. He has served as chief diversity officer for the Darden School, and as the national chair of the Gender and Diversity in Organizations Division of the Academy of Management. Davidson writes a blog called “In My Opinion,” found at www.leveragingdifference.com.

A.B., Harvard College; Ph.D., Stanford University