Thursday, April 30, 2015

Diversity: Its Benefits and Challenges




I am writing this blog several days after the death of Freddie Gray, a black male of 24, who was confronted by policemen in Baltimore, Maryland, while riding a bicycle.  During the arrest, his neck was broken, and he died several days later.   Riots in Maryland’s black communities followed, policemen were injured, cars and buildings were set afire and the National Guard was called in.  Now, civic leaders, the media and political analysts are offering their perspectives on what went wrong.  Unabated joblessness, racial bias and police brutality are common themes, but I haven’t heard much about cultural differences, including police culture, or communication.
One might ask, if police forces are and have diversified in terms of gender and race integration since the last quarter of the 20th Century, why are there still problems?  One answer is that contemporary constructs of diversity and integration are understood superficially.  For example, segregated racial and ethnic enclaves can mix with a dominant culture’s civic and work environments, but they may not interpret, perceive or respond to things differently than the prevailing culture’s norms and mores.[1]  

American police agencies exemplify what Thomas and Ely describe as discrimination-fairness and access-legitimacy paradigms, based on gender and racial assimilation to achieve a demographically representative workforce.[2]    The problem with these integration models is that the skills, beliefs and values of different cultures are not legitimated, absorbed or translated into the real work that is done on the front lines.  In other words, there is a learning deficit on the part of the dominant culture.
The consequences of this are well documented in the literature of airplane crashes, which claim that their main causes are errors in teamwork and communication predicated on cultural legacy, i.e., the assumptions and perceptions handed down by the history of the communities people come from.” [3]  Researchers found that in a cockpit, cultural deference norms dominated.  Even when subordinates preemptively identified errors, they remained non-assertive towards those perceived as “in charge.”[4]
The disproportionate killing of black males by policemen attest that learning from those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is missing from police cultures in cities across America.  Even if law enforcement workplaces are representatively diversified, those of different racial backgrounds may feel pressure to fit into the dominant culture, to the extent that they defer to those in higher ranks or to teammates rather than speak out against excessive force used on racially different suspects.
The glaring problem is that of communication awareness within context of cultural differences.  If learning about cultural communication differences occurred in police training curriculums, perhaps Eric Garner would be alive today.  In July 2014, Eric Garner died after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold.  An irritated Mr. Garner told the police who accosted him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes individually to passersby that he was “tired of being harassed”.  A group of officers moved in to arrest him, one of whom took Garner’s wrist behind his back, to which he backed up and swatted the officer’s arms away.  In response, the officer put his arm around Garner's neck and pulled him backwards and down onto the ground. After the officer removed his arm from Garner's neck, he pushed Garner's face into the ground while four more officers moved to restrain Garner, who repeated "I can't breathe" eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk.  After Garner lost consciousness, officers finally turned him onto his side to ease his breathing, but it was too late.
Noticeably absent from this scene were black officers, who might have used their cultural perspectives and communication skills to diffuse Mr. Garner’s defensive animosity.  Perhaps they would have interpreted in a nonthreatening way his angry frustration of being “harassed.”  Perhaps, instead, they would have issued Mr. Garner a warning about NYC sales tax compliance, giving him time to think objectively, without demeaning and further antagonizing him.   
Perhaps, too, the death of Freddie Gray could have been averted if policemen worked in racially-integrated teams, each demonstrating their cultural skills to the other, learning what it means to serve their communities authentically, by reflecting the reality of people’s lives in their reactions and decisions.  In this way they would earn genuine authority. (Wood, M. & Harwood, R., 2005)[5]


[1] Sowell, Thomas. "A world view of cultural diversity." Society 29.1 (1991): 37-44. 
[2] Thomas, David A., and Robin J. Ely. "Making differences matter: A new paradigm for managing diversity." Harvard business review 74.5 (1996): 79.
[3] Gladwell, Malcolm.  Outliers: The Story of Success, Ch. 7, “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,”2008. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Wood, M. R. "Standards of Excellence in Civic Engagement: How Public Agencies Can Learn from the Community, Use What They Learn, and Demonstrate that Public Knowledge Matters." The Harwood Institute (2005).

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