The Obama Era Continues: Reflections on the Diversity Implications of Barack Obama’s Re-Election

by Andrés T. Tapia – Mixed group of nations behind the American flag.

Regardless of one’s political preferences, from a historical perspective, the first time Barack Obama was elected president was momentous. The second time marks actual culture change. If in 2008 the point was tipping, in 2012 the point has tipped.

A few years ago, as the U.S.’s first Black president began his maiden term, I published my book, The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity. As a student and practitioner of culture change, the work was inspired by a sense that we were at a tipping point of massive culture change. The election of Barack Obama was a defining moment that captured the zeitgeist of the times. The moment came to be known as the Obama Era, a period in history that was as much about the demographic changes in society that made possible the election of the country’s first Black president as it was about the man and leader himself, whose own diverse biography would come to further define the early 21st Century.

That first election was certainly historic. It was a massive break through the color line. But it was too soon to tell if it would be anything beyond a flash-in-the-pan stroke of luck due to an imploding economy so out of control that many millions were willing to take the riskier, what-the-hell bet of voting for a non-White person. While the insurgency of the 2008 Obama election brought us to the cusp of the tipping point of a new way of understanding a contemporary and diverse society, as the governing road got tougher and steeper, plenty of evidence mounted that Obama’s historic election could end up being an outlier episode rather than a transformative era.

As there always is when societies are at a tipping point, powerful countervailing forces emerged to keep the tip from happening. True to form, we saw this societal dynamic emerge through the fierce Tea Party phenomenon, which led to major setbacks to the president’s agenda in the midterm elections. Confidence abounded among opposition leaders. And pundits confirmed that the countervailing forces would make even further gains by denying the president a second term and leading the Senate majority to change from blue to red.

As changing demographics and new biographies of those leading and influencing policy brought different perspectives and solutions to major issues such as healthcare coverage, immigration status, gay rights, diversity efforts within the federal government, the 2012 election truly became a high-stakes contest about which way the point was going to tip.

This is why Obama’s second election—and the various state referendums on gay marriage and the legalization of pot, as well as the election of the first out lesbian senator, and the sending of the greatest number ever of women to Congress—ended up being a thunder clap announcing true culture change.

While many will disagree, even vehemently, with the merits or values behind these culture changes, for better or for worse, the point has fully tipped. It’s an announcement that the diverse demographic tsunami and all its implications to the economy, education, energy, immigration, relationships, individual freedoms, and collective responsibilities are irreversible.

This, of course, does not mean that the actual solutions to the various challenges within each of these major arenas are obvious or that they won’t require debate about how best to address. But when Blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBT, youth, and single women decide the election for president for a second time, the agenda has been set for what needs to be addressed for the United States to remain economically competitive in a world where change is happening at warp speed.

Here’s how one of the poster children of the new economy, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, sees it as narrated on his show “GPS”:

“Growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, I always thought of America as the future. It was the place where the newest technology, the best gadgets, and the latest fads seemed to originate. Seemingly exotic political causes—women’s liberation, gay rights, the fight against ageism—always seemed to get their start on the streets or in the legislatures and courts of the United States. Indians couldn’t imagine embracing all American trends—in fact, some were rejected outright—because they were too edgy for a country like India. But we had a sneaking suspicion that today’s weird California fad would become tomorrow’s conventional practice. For me, Tuesday’s elections brought back that sense of America as the land of the future.

The Obama Era carries with it profound cultural implications, both in the United States and globally, that will affect not only personal, group, and institutional relationships, but also how we go about doing our work strategically and day-to-day. Among the populations most significantly impacted will be the emerging workforce that is becoming the New Mainstream. An increasingly multicultural workforce requires a deeper cultural understanding from many different angles—not only of what cultures are in the mix, but what individuals believe, how they act, and why.

In my book, I explored the impact of the Obama phenomenon from a cultural, rather than political, perspective. Sure, there were myriad political observations to be made—from an analysis of blue state/red state shifts to legitimate policy debates—but regardless of how such matters were hashed out politically, there was an undeniable, transformative story that seemed to be unfolding that included all of us globally. Regardless of one’s political preferences or passions, we all were willing or unwitting players in this culture-change drama.

This meant that for the past four years, as the Obama drama of his first term unfolded, I had the chance to test out some theories and observations from the position of Chief Diversity Officer at Hewitt Associates and then as the president of Diversity Best Practices. In both positions, I have had the opportunity to also serve as an executive diversity and inclusion consultant to the C-suite of dozens of Fortune 500 companies.

It’s through experiences with companies such as John Deere, Marriott, McKesson, Baxter, United Airlines, Discover Financial, and many other corporations as well as law enforcement agencies, not-for-profits, government institutions, and schools that I was able to test the eight cultural implications that I believed would be hallmarks of the Obama Era. In light of Obama’s re-election I believe these are still true:

  • Inclusion is a transformative force.
  • Whatever we do has global impact.
  • Diversity and inclusion require intentionality.
  • We’ll experience a renaissance of values-driven decision making.
  • We must have a heightened focus on results.
  • The bottom up is as important as the top down.
  • Both/and trumps either/or.
  • True diversity and inclusion require calling out our differences, not minimizing them.

Read more about each of these points.

Zakaria summarizes the change this way: “What the world saw this week was a picture of America at its best: edgy, experimental, open-minded—and brilliantly diverse.” And here’s how the architect of the Obama Era sees it as stated in his re-election acceptance speech in Chicago on election night:

“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black or White or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

My diversity leader colleagues, our work has never been more important or relevant. Many see it, but many still don’t. And like the U.S. president is doing, we must continue to be agents and leaders of change with confidence, facts, and compassion.

Seven Inclusion Leadership Lessons in Historic Healthcare Reform

by Andres T. Tapia —

This of course is a tricky blog post to write given the contentious and polarized debate that has ensued in the past year around healthcare reform. It’s tricky because while the politics and policy debates at the heart of what has transpired have dominated the airwaves and blogosphere, as a corporate and modern society anthropologist (which is a large part of what Chief Diversity Officers really are), what interests me is the cultural impact that greater diversity is having on the outcomes that emerge from the current mix of players. And this mix is particularly interesting because in its unprecedented diversity it’s changing the culture in profound ways, hence the subtitle of my book, The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.leadershipin the 21st Century we can draw from President Barack Obama’s historic achievement after 100 fruitless years of leaders attempting health care reform of this magnitude. And while there are many definitions of leadership, here I am using C. Maxwell’s definition of leadership. Maxwell, a business leader is the author of various books on leadership including The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership where he sums up his definition of leadership as “leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” And for the sake of what? I would add: “to get things done.”

So here I want to explore the lessons for

Make no mistake, regardless of whether one enthusiastically agrees or vehemently disagrees with the healthcare bill and whether it will achieve it’s stated objectives, as much as this is about healthcare, this also about leadership. What follows is an analysis of effective leadership, the ability to influence in order to get things done even in the midst of much division–but  it is not intended to be about debating the particulars of the healthcare vote.  Another caveat is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also played a vital role in winning the vote, but it is more difficult to draw broadbased leadership principles from her role to share here given the significantly more partisan role she plays.

What does it require to succeed at leading? Here are seven lessons I glean from President Obama’s approach. To make my points, I sometimes use excerpts from his words the night before the vote to those in the House of Representatives who are members of the party he leads:

  1. Be values driven.Candidate and President Obama consistently operated from the following values:- a nation like the US needs to ensure it’s most vulnerable — in this case the sick — are protected not only healthwise but from economic ruin. (And the sick are not  only those with  ailments today, but it could be any one of us at any moment.)- out-of-control rising healthcare costs have to be managed to a sustainable level. And in his final push, President Obama kept coming back to these values as to the why of the effort. 

    “Maybe you’re thinking, Why did I ever get involved in politics in the first place? And maybe things can’t change after all. And when you do something courageous, it turns out sometimes you may be attacked. And sometimes the very people you thought you were trying to help may be angry at you and shout at you. And you say to yourself, maybe that thing that I started with has been lost. But you know what? Every once in a while, every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had …And this is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, doggone it, this is exactly why I came here. This is why I got into politics. This is why I got into public service. This is why I’ve made those sacrifices…. and [why] I’m willing to stand up even when it’s hard, even when it’s tough.”

    Application for us: As a leader, what are those moments for you? In the diversity and inclusion work in your organization, when the slog makes it feel all but impossible, what are the values you can go back to in order to remind you why you got into this work in the first place that can then give you the fortitude to stay the course?

  2. Be in a long-term, sustainable mindset. Thinkers across the political spectrum agree that this was a politically high-risk goal to try to achieve. In the end President Obama explained why he did by quoting Lincoln: “I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.” Then more specifically,

    “Without serious reform efforts like this one people’s premiums are going to double over the next five or 10 years…folks are going to keep on getting letters from their insurance companies saying that their premium just went up 40 or 50 percent.”

    Other long-term consequences that have been well documented: in the next 10-15 years another 15-20 million Americans could lose their health insurance because they won’t be able to afford it.

    While some advisors and, of course, opponents were advising that he drop the effort or make the changes incrementally, leader Obama was driven by his belief that the current system was not sustainable and, while the short-term risks were very high politically, the long-term risks for the American economy and Americans were way too high. Politically, if he is right, then the long-term impact will also be beneficial to those with his point of view and beliefs.

    Application for us: As diversity and inclusion leaders we know that the results we want to see are not within reach overnight. And it’s tempting to get the quick win with some visible hire at a senior level. And in the many times it works out, great. But how well are we managing the pipeline of talent, the entry and mid-level positions where it’s going to take 3 to 7 years to see the results of, but if done right, will create the most sustainable strategy for diversity in leadership rather than the current senior talent roulette we all play where we compete for the same talent as we rob Peter to pay Paul.      

  3. Have a heightened focus on results.This requires a great deal of pragmatism and ability to operationalize. Many a leader can extol great sounding strategies, but are they able to give up certain elements for the sake of influencing others to come along. President Obama has taken quite a bit of criticism from members of his own party for perhaps not being true to the totality of his convictions or not being a strong enough leader when he didn’t fall on the sword for certain cherished policy preferences by core members in his own party. His actions reveal a deep seated pragmatic approach of being willing to give up certain aspects of the plan (such as the public option) in order to gain support from enough and for enough to still have a piece of legislation that would bring about change. In this excerpt he implies, that often perfect adherence to theory, ideology, or philosophical stance can undermine any change from taking place.

    “Now, is this bill perfect? Of course not. Will this solve every single problem in our healthcare system right away? No. There are all kinds of ideas that many of you have that aren’t included in this legislation. I know that there has been discussion, for example, of how we’re going to deal with regional disparities and I know that there was a meeting with Secretary Sebelius to assure that we can continue to try to make sure that we’ve got a system that gives people the best bang for their buck. So this is not — there are all kinds of things that many of you would like to see that isn’t in this legislation. There are some things I’d like to see that’s not in this legislation. But is this the single most important step that we have taken on health care since Medicare? Absolutely. Is this the most important piece of domestic legislation in terms of giving a break to hardworking middle class families out there since Medicare? Absolutely. Is this a vast improvement over the status quo? Absolutely.”

    Application for us: In the diversity and inclusion space, where does our idealism get in the way of good enough? Where is it that we can — given budget constraints, leaders that still don’t get it, middle managers that are hard to move on this issue — create pragmatic and tangible enough results that when all added up begin to turn the tide? What are the list of things we are are already doing, that are the successes we are already achieving, that despite how far we may feel we may be from the desired state,  still add up to a significantly better environment and set of opportunities than if nothing had been done at all?
  4. Tap into the transformative force of inclusion. After today 32 million who have not had coverage will be included in the giant pool of the insured and they too can benefit from the entire system pooling the risk so the healthy and the sick can help protect one another. And among the un-insured who will now be covered we have had a crosssection of the US  — white and people of color, low income and middle class. It also includes young people, a generation that has been the most affected by job losses, with their unemployement  rate at over double the national average who now through age 26 will be covered by their parents’ insurance. This is a major inclusion play.

    “But even before this crisis, each and every one of us knew that there were millions of people across America who were living their own quiet crises. Maybe because they had a child who had a preexisting condition and no matter how desperate they were, no matter what insurance company they called, they couldn’t get coverage for that child. Maybe it was somebody who had been forced into early retirement, in their 50s not yet eligible for Medicare, and they couldn’t find a job and they couldn’t find health insurance, despite the fact that they had some sort of chronic condition that had to be tended because somewhere deep in your heart you said to yourself, I believe in an America in which we don’t just look out for ourselves, that we don’t just tell people you’re on your own, that we are proud of our individualism, we are proud of our liberty, but we also have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community and we are willing to look out for one another and help people who are vulnerable and help people who are down on their luck and give them a pathway to success and give them a ladder into the middle class. That’s why you decided to run.”

    Application for us: the greater the diversity that comes into your organization’s doors, and the more benefits policies or advancement processes continue to exclude them, the more the pressure will build to challenge a system that perpetuates marginalization. The message is simple and compelling. When we don’t include all in the benefits of being part of the overall society or organizations, the cost is not just to the marginalized but the dislocations caused by keeping so many out start to spill out into the entire organization.

  5. The bottom up is as important as the top down. Like he did in his campaign not only did Barack Obama work top down through the House and Senate leadership including attempting to do so with the Republicans, he also directly reached out to normal citizens through dozens of healthcare town halls, several healthcare rallies in the final weeks before the bill’s passage, through Tweets and through email. He led the effort to mobilize hundreds of thousands to express their support. To be sure, so did the opposition– and the grassroots, bottom-up energy on both sides has been a significant part of the debate as difficult and painful as the debate got.  Leadership, both sides of the debate realized, require tending to and giving voice to the bottom up. And it does make a difference on results. Application for us: As a diversity and inclusion leader, how much are you tapping your affinity groups to not just have them be social gatherings but to be forces for change? How are you giving voice to their marginal voices so that their experience in the organization can be heard and their unique insights  into what would create greater inclusion can be translated into policies and culture change? How much does their unique perspective into diverse ways of thinking is being captured in terms of enhancing their company’s products and services in order to grow their markets as they pursue tapping the growing diverse marketplace? 
  6. Be relentless. From his critics on the left to the right there is one thing they agree on and that is that President Obama showed resilience in living up to what he said were his agenda priorities. In a short-term focused society this is quite remarkable.  A year of painful, and protracted debates in congressional chambers and on the streets, even after a big political setback like the result of the Massachusetts election to replace the deceased Senator Edward Kennedy that broke the Democrat’s filibuster proof majority, when most commentators were saying healthcare reform was DOA, the president continued soldiering on. Part of being relentless is not just  to persevere but also to keep adapting one’s approach as one discovers what is not working and trying something new again and again until it works. And given the withering criticism, the sagging poll numbers, President Obama’s relentlessness driven by his convictions (and some say his will to survive politically) kept pressing on and calling those on his political side to stand fast.

    Application for us: As a D&I leader where it that you continue to show relentlessness? where is it that you feel your stamina is flagging? What do you need to not give up on? How do you draw from your values, from the results achieved so far by others before you and due to your own work to persevere? 
  7. Be inspirational. It’s not about being inspirational for inspiration’s sake, but the truer, more profound way to inspire is to effectively perform the other six principles here. Nothing is more inspiring that hearing a leader have a vision and then be successful at bringing about change. It’s easy to pinpoint what is wrong, ten thousand times more difficult to implement a solution. But to be able to bring about change where in 100 years other presidents have not able to, is in the end, what counts when it comes to leadership.

    Application for us: What is the historical organizational moment you are in terms of diversity? What will you do to seize that moment to bring about change.  


Ten Ways the World Has Been Turned Upside Down: Part 1

by Andrés T. Tapia —

Though the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that the world is flat, I say the world is not flat–it’s upside down.  Daily, even hourly, we feel the aftershocks at work.  Changes of historic proportions are transforming the economic, political and social landscapes in which we do business. Here are five of the Top Ten transformations:
#1 In many parts of the US, to be a minority is to be a majority. Texas, California, New Mexico, Hawaii and the District of Columbia are all now what census experts call  “minority-majority,” a term used to describe an area whose  composition is less than 50% Caucasian. In addition, the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents has fallen below 60% in Maryland, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, New York and Mississippi.

#2 To be an economic superpower is to be a declining power. The US is still the world’s only economic superpower–but it is a superpower in decline. In World War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity, Gabor Steingart discusses how the rise of developing countries, especially in Asia, has led to a decline of the US national economy that many blue- and white-collar workers experience as absolute. They possess less money, they are shown less respect in society and their chances for climbing up the social ladder have deteriorated dramatically.

#3 To be a developing country is to be an ascending country. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, the fastest growing economies in the world are located in developing countries–mainly  in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

#4 To be young is to be experienced. As I discuss in The Inclusion Paradox, for Millennials the upside-down world is right-side-up because it’s what they grew up with. Experience and knowledge are no longer correlated with age; they show up to work  iPoded, cell-phoned, globally traveled, socially networked and ready to multi-task–often more technically equipped for today’s workplace than people twice their age.

#5 The US has an African American president. The election of Barack Obama was a defining moment that captured both metaphorically and literally the zeitgeist of the times. That’s why my book, subtitled The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity, uses Obama’s statements and election as a canvas for exploring our current cultural change.

Later this week I’ll be offering five more ways businesses are finding that the world is upside down. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter, where this countdown first appeared in abbreviated form.

Diversity Justice: Hope for When Despair Is Deep

This Monday, January 18th, 2009, in commemoration of his birthday and holiday, millions will hear excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” — the most well-known of his many memorable and civilization changing utterances. In the spirit of broadening our exposure to his other messages, I have chosen to highlight a different speech, one that is less about an inspiring vision of the future, which is what his Dream Speech is about, with one about perseverance and hope when that vision feels so far out of reach. Timely in 1964, timely in 2010.

This extended excerpt is from Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech , awarded in 1964.  (Full speech at the link.)

Early in his speech, he states, very much like President Barack Obama would state a generation later about the same prize he received in 2009, “I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.” See here for his answer to his own question and his message for us today.

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award in behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.

I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeing to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.

Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama, to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are traveling to find a new sense of dignity.

This same road has opened for all Americans a new ear of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a superhighway of justice as Negro and white men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems therefore I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsom in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today’s motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

“And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”

I still believe that we shall overcome.

In honor of Dr. King’s message and work, form whihc we have all benefited frm, may we, commit to still beleive that we shall overcome.

And don’t wait for the govnerment, or the not-for-profit, or religious institations to make the change. What can you do, right now, to make this a better world?

Is a Post-racial Society Possible? Lessons from South Africa

by Andrés T. Tapia –

As Invinctus, the inspiring movie about racial reconciliation in South Africa draws in millions of viewers, fifteen years after that country elected Nelson Mandela as its first Black president in a transcendental election with a historical backdrop primarily shaped by racial conflict, what has changed? what hasn’t? What lessons may this hold for the US which had its own transcendental racial moment with the election of Barack Obama in 2008?

Let’s look at some South African poll results first:

Note the bifurcated response.  The 50% is exceptionally good news. Given the horror of apartheid and that most adults today lived through its polarizing effects – either as those dehumanized or as those who benefited from the system – it is remarkable that half the respondents feel race relations have improved.

However, there is still the other half who either does not believe they have improved or in fact believe they have gotten worse.

“Income inequality remains among the worst in the world,” reports the New York Times. 29% of black are unemployed, compared with 5% of whites.

Another marker to add to the case by the half who believe race relations have not improved or have gotten worse, is that a divisive commemoration remains alive and well. It is the Day of the Vow on December 16th, when the Afrikaners, the descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa who instituted apartheid, marked a covenant said to be made between their ancestors in God in 1838  that led to the slaughter of 3,000 Zulus.  It is the same day that Blacks had used to commemorate the start of the armed struggle against the apartheid regime.

Given this history, when Mandela was president his government proclaimed December 16th as the Day of Reconciliation, a time for all races to come in together. Despite this,  the Day of the Vow still is celebrated by thousands.

Nevertheless, as a counterpoint, millions now celebrate the Day of Reconciliation throughout South Africa.

Lessons applicable to the US in the Obama Era?

Social change moves like a bell curve along a spectrum of attitudes. The  transformation of racial attitudes does not happen all at once and even as it moves along toward more positive attitudes over time, not all attitudes change. In fact some will harden, But, and this is key, the middle of the bell curve – the mainstream – does move toward greater acceptance and reconciliation. Still, a significant percentage remains entrenched in the legacy racial paradigm.

In addition, turns out that the work of reconciliation is so hard, particularly in the midst of economic challenges, that the transcendental ballot box moment that seemed to hold so much promise for change cannot address structural issues quickly.  As society experiences the differences between transcendence and magic, the disillusionment likely sets in.

It’s what’s happened in South Africa.

The end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela did spur a wave of optimism in the country among a majority of South Africans but over the past 15 years the trend lines of optimism about the future of the country across all racial groups has trended downward as economy growth stagnates and intractable issues of poverty remain. A vast majority, when looking back, still prefer the new new democracy over a nation governed by racial oppression. And a significant percentage of Blacks now are in power positions in government and business they never would have been in under apartheid. But despite the progress and the dismantling of an unsustainable and immoral governing model, the frustration exists that the new has not been more transformative in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Be on the lookout for South Africa and its racial history to be in the news quite a bit as the soccer 2010 World Cup takes place for the first time ever in an African country. It promises to be a boost to South African optimism, but a rolling ball a nation does not transform.

What other lessons do you think South Africa’s racial history has for diversity and inclusion management? How can we embed these concepts into diversity training and strategy?

Political Correctness Not What It Used to Be: In Twist, Tribe Fights to Keep College’s Fighting Sioux Sports Team Nickname

Political correctness is just not what it used to be.

It used to be that in diversity situations the lines could easily be drawn between those who got it and didn’t. For example, those who stood by minorities in what they believed was their cause would clearly know who they were standing for and why.  But today’s rapidly changing cultural diversity arena is challenging old assumptions about what the diversity battle lines are and aren’t.

Case in point is this article in the New York TimesIn Twist, Tribe Fights for College Nickname. The debate at about 30 college campuses over the past several years has had Native American groups confronting universities about  their use of sports nicknames such as the Fighting Illini, the Redmen, and Chieftains. While the debates on campus were heated, the arguments for and against dropping the Native American names were predictable. To be for diversity was to be unequivocally supportive of doing away with the names. And to stand fast in resistance to the change was interpreted as not being supportive of diversity in principle.

But at the University of North Dakota it’s a group of Native Americans who are fighting in court to preserve the Fighting Sioux sport team name and logo, an image of a Native American in profile and feathered headdress. 

The arguments to keep it center on the distinction between nicknames such as Redmen and Savages and logos that  are clearly demeaning, even racist, on the one hand and on the other hand actual names of tribes that for many is a source of pride such as Sioux and Navajo. But the story also reveals the complexity of various issues in diverse communities themselves. In this case the debate also is between different Native American groups that is more about intragroup politics than about diversity.

The fact that diversity issues may be getting more difficult to sort out in simplistic ways is indicative that diversity and inclusion issues are moving from being peripheral to being more core about who we are. In the Obama Era we are seeing this play out in various ways such as the increasingly complex dynamics between the first black president and the African American community. Or in the dynamics of second and third generation Latinos who are English dominant yet are embracing their cultural roots even more tightly than their parents had encouraged them to do. Or between Boomer and Millennial women in their sometimes clashing views of what it means to be a female leader. Or between openly gay people who choose to make an issue of their sexual orientation identity or not.

Bottom line: these more complex diversity times require even deeper self examination of our own points of views on various inclusion issues because the politically correct handbook with the straightforward answers has become outdated.

“Precious” Triggers Heartfelt Debate within Black Community

African American LA Times journalist, Erin Aubrey Kaplan, does her job as a writer in her article Black Viewers Are Divided on Film’s ‘Precious’-ness as she surfaces the contours of the diversity of perspectives among African Americans in their response to the movie “Precious” directed by black director Lee Daniels.

There are those who laud it for what they consider its brave, unvarnished look at difficult and painful issues within the Black community. Others are angry at what they see as reinforcing stereotypes. And there are many others who are truly deeply conflicted. One African American friend wrote to me just yesterday, “Saw Precious this weekend. Amazing. Difficult.”

Whichever way one views “Precious” either as an African American or not, it is clear that the nature of conversation is different in the Obama Era.  For one, the fact that such a wide range of opinion within the black community shows up and can be surfaced publicly, is quite a contrast to a past, even a very recent one, when in the face of being a totally marginalized minority, public disagreements within the community would rarely be made public with the understood coda that “there is no need to air our dirty laundry.”

In a New York Times magazine profile of director Lee Daniels, reporter Lynn Hirschberg in the article titled “The Audacity of ‘Precious’” writes, “the movie is not neutral on the subject of race and the prejudices that swirl around it, even in the supposedly postracial age of Obama.” After the movie received a 15-minute  standing ovation at the Cannes Festival in May, the director himself leans into the complexity of the issue during his interview with the journalist:

“‘Precious’ is so not Obama,” Daniels said. “ ‘Precious’ is so not P.C. What I learned from doing the film is that even though I am black, I’m prejudiced. I’m prejudiced against people who are darker than me. When I was young, I went to a church where the lighter-skinned you were, the closer you sat to the altar. Anybody that’s heavy like Precious — I thought they were dirty and not very smart. Making this movie changed my heart’ …

“‘For some audiences,'” Hirschberg writes, ‘that may not be reason enough to make a movie that risks reinforcing old stereotypes. It’s a criticism Daniels has heard before.’ ‘As African-Americans, we are in an interesting place,’ Daniels said. ‘Obama’s the president, and we want to aspire to that. But part of aspiring is disassociating from the face of Precious. To be honest, I was embarrassed to show this movie at Cannes. I didn’t want to exploit black people. And I wasn’t sure I wanted white French people to see our world.’ He paused. ‘But because of Obama, it’s now O.K. to be black. I can share that voice. I don’t have to lie. I’m proud of where I come from. And I wear it like a shield. ‘Precious’ is part of that.’ “

While the best answers to this controversial movie are not clear cut, what is refreshing is the reality that society, in the Obama Era, can enter – albeit not without difficulty —  into more complex and truthful conversations across racial lines and within the communities of color themselves. And as we have learned, until we can talk about the issues, we cannot hope to find solutions. The only way out is through.

This is Native American Heritage Month: Native Americans Hopeful about Claiming their Place in American Society

 As Native American Heritage Month begins, the New America Media reports on the mood of many of the Native Americans who have gathered for a week-long tribal summit which climaxes with the Tribal Nations Conference at the White House today. In responding to President Obama’s invitation to the more than 500 federally recognized tribes rerpesenting over 4 million people, many tribal leaders are optimistic that a new era is being ushered in where issues important to them will be addressed in more substantive ways than in the past.

While there is a lot of road to travel between what is said and what is done, there is no denying that in the Obama Era the expectations for inclusion are running high.