Improving Race Relations in a Public Service Agency: A Model Workshop Series

Article excerpt

With a generation or two, the steady natural increase of the African American population, Asian American immigration, and the dramatic increase of the Hispanic population through both births and immigration will change the racial/ethnic "landscape" of the United States (Bureau of the Census, 1991). However, while the United States has always been diverse with respect to race, racial diversity has never meant racial equality - and, as American society becomes increasingly diverse, the persistence of racial equality max undermine both the economic and the political viability of the nation itself.(1)

Although a generation has passed since the end of the "Civil Rights Revolution," individual acts of racial discrimination and structural racism remain barriers to racial equality and racial justice in contemporary America. The American workplace, profit and non-profit, is a primary institutional setting in which problems related to race can and must be identified and addressed.

Review of the Research Literature

Organizations committed to combatting racism and racial discrimination in the workplace must determine the most effective and cost-effective means of addressing these problems. In this context, how race and race relations are conceptualized, the extent to which race relations are considered problematic, and the existence of programs/strategies that can be used effectively to improve race relations - and the degree to which organizational leaders are aware of such programs - are key determinants of how this commitment can be operationalized.

Ironically, a general review of the academic literature on race and ethnicity in modern organizations reveals that little research has been done on these issues.(2) This comparative "lack of interest" has been attributed to the belief on the part of many academicians that race relations were a subject of interest only to African Americans and other people of color, not a societal evil.(3)

Such avoidance of discussion is counterproductive and even dangerous for a variety of reasons. For example, racism in the workplace seems related directly to increasing incidents of violence. However, scapegoating and other manifestations of hostility between racial/ethnic groups can be countered - proactively, if possible - through programs that address and, ideally, improve "intercultural" or "multicultural" awareness, race relations and racial attitudes. Franklin (1991) suggests that such programs must be designed to "...reconstruct the sinews that bind people together...by cultivating an ethos of social regard." Solomon(4) adds that, unless such steps are taken, "...attitudes harden, problems escalate, and resolutions become more difficult."

Rather than deny racial/cultural differences, some organizations have anticipated the consequences of this demographic shift and have chosen to recognize diversity as a source of strength than as a source of weakness. Such organizations have initiated programs designed to challenge stereotypes; to identify and explore group similarities and differences; to reduce competitive tensions by facilitating intergroup communication; to impart a sense of value and empowerment in the pursuit of shared organizational goals; and to improve productivity by ridding the workplace of prejudicial and discriminatory behavior.(5) Through such programs, stereotypes deriving from ignorance can be uncovered, confronted and eliminated. Exchanges of information and perceptions between co-workers (including formal and informal opinion or attitudinal surveys) make the various groups more knowledgeable of one another - as individuals and as groups.

Finally, the shift from the homogenous workforce of the past to the heterogeneous workforce of the future poses major challenges for both workers and managers. To meet those challenges most effectively, diversity programs must begin with senior managers.(6) Once such programs become established on and impact the policy-making and administrative levels, the effective management of diversity can produce measurable benefits for the committed organization or agency. …