Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Call for Diversity

Recent tragic events across the country have raised awareness of the use of violence in the police force. Most recently in Baltimore - and from Ferguson to Madison - local police forces have been debated and defended, accused and inspected - locally, in national news outlets, and around the world.

All the while American demographics are changing, and the population is more diverse than ever. In the aftermath of police shootings of African Americans in particular, many have turned to the demographics of the police force itself as a potential source of explanation, and even though it is a somewhat simplistic cause, the results are worth contemplating: minorities make up a quarter of police forces, whites are overrepresented by more than 30 percentage points, and in many metropolitan areas this imbalance is even higher.  

There is no doubt that racial disparity is a multifaceted issue that needs to be addressed from various angles, and changing the misrepresentation in the police force is by no means an easy fix. None the less, I believe that meaningful and significant progress can be made, be being attentive to diversity management.

But before we can apply insights from diversity management, the police force itself needs to be more diverse. Several studies have showed how some methods of testing cause African Americans and/or women to underperform due to various societal pressures. As such the first step is to be attentive to the admission process: are some applicants systematically failing to get into police academy? Are minorities being reminded of stereotypical notions of their ability? As Jeanne McNett argues diversity is about “valuing, respecting, and appreciating the differences” (McNett, 2004), and as such, before we can even begin to value them, the first step is recognition of differences.

For a more diverse police force to have an impact, the next step is to ensure equal opportunity for advancement and leadership positions. If not managed properly, diversity does not necessarily lead to better utilization of talent and savings, but can result in increased costs (Gall & Dechant, 2004).  The argument for diversity’s impact on the bottom line is often made with regard to businesses, but really it can be applied to government and nonprofits as well. And if the business rhetoric doesn’t resonate, there is the social justice aspect: Leadership opportunities should be equally available to all.

A counter argument is often made, that the race of the police officer is not an issue and as such a diverse police force shouldn’t be a goal in itself. Why is this so important? Diversity matters, because the reality is, that American communities are still very much segregated. Statistician Nate Silver has noted that in the 75 largest U.S. cities only 35 % of the white police officers live in the cities they serve. IT matters, because as long as we don’t live together stereotypical notions and biases will rule judgment, as professor Laurence Brown argues.

Even though attentiveness to diversity and fruitful management thereof has a possibility of contributing to progress, there is still a long way ahead. As a foreigner currently living in the U.S. I was astonished when I learned the number of homicides occurring at the hands of the police every year. Clearly this has to be tackled with policy initiatives as well. This is in line with the argument presented by McNett, stating that value shifts follow from power shifts (McNett, 2004). In New York for instance a court-order against civil service exams has led to a more diverse police force (Ashkanas & Park, 2015). Local leaders can only do so much – this is a challenge that requires action all the way up the political system. Yesterday Hillary Clinton spoke at Columbia University, and she concluded: "[This is] A time for honesty about race and justice in America.   
And, yes, a time for reform."


Ashkenas, Jeremy & Park, Haeyoun. 2015. The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments, The New York Times.

McNett, Jeanne. 2004. Diversity in the Workplace: Ethics, Pragmatism, or some of Both? Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 241-253.

Robinson, Gail and Kathleen Dechant. 2004. Building a Business Case for Diversity. Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 241-253.

Thomas, David A. & Ely, Robin J. 2004. “Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity.” Understanding and Managing Diversity: Readings, Cases, and Exercises 3rd ed. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 211-227.