Where is the Grass Greener for Afro-descendants?

By David A. Grant

Videos of Afro-descendants receiving inappropriate treatment from the police or from non-black citizens are rampant on social media. The inappropriate treatment typically includes insensitive language, false accusations, and physical assault.  These videos routinely show privileged individuals taking the liberty to harass Afro-descendants while they participate in basic everyday life activities, such as barbecuing, studying in the library, jogging, entering an apartment building, and going to the community swimming pool.  Educational and professional background does not matter, all Afro-descendants are at risk of receiving this type of treatment.  

As I think about the rich history of Afro-descendants and our bright future, I ask myself, is it possible for a group of people to escape racism entirely?  Do marginalized groups need to move abroad or relocate to an enclave on the outskirts of society in order to consistently experience fair treatment and opportunities?

Giving back to the community is important. One way I contribute is by playing my saxophone with a local community volunteer band. The power of music inspires the young and old to do their best, so they can achieve their dreams.

A Historic Look at Inequity

Since the end of slavery in 1865, African Americans have made significant economic and professional advancement in the United States. Government leaders have enacted numerous laws aimed at assisting the economic and social advancement of black Americans. One would think that with the effort that government and social leaders placed into addressing inequities throughout the years, African Americans would feel fully accepted in society and achieve relatively high levels of social and professional success. On the contrary, blacks in the United States often feel estranged in their own country and fall short of the same professional opportunities and success as their non-black counterparts. 

For example, an informal review of 342 executive leadership photos and biographies on the websites of some of the largest organizations including Coco Cola, MERK, General Electronic, Disney, Marriott, the US Department of Justice, and the US Department of Defense, indicates the presence of only 21 executives of Afro-descent. Once again, out of 342 senior executive positions at the highest and most significant levels of the most well-known and influential organizations in the United States and the world, only 21 Afro-descendants are present. Despite how much progress black individuals have made in recent decades, much work remains to be done and many challenges must be overcome. Thinking the contrary would assume that Afro-descendants are not capable or talented enough to serve in important positions, which is not true.

Enjoyable night at my first basketball game in years. Go Washington Wizards! The diversity on the basketball court may cause fans to overlook the lack of African American representation in executive positions throughout the organization.  

From time to time, I hear the argument that professional sports such as football, basketball, and baseball lack diversity because teams consist mostly of athletes of colour.  Despite the large ethnic-minority composition of professional teams, Afro-descendants and other minorities are under-represented in the executive positions, especially when one considers the overall number of minority players. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s 2019 Racial and Gender Report Card, in the National Basketball Association (NBA), African Americans and people of colour constitute 75% and 81% of the players, respectively.  However, African Americans and people of colour only hold 27% and 33% of head coaching jobs, respectively.  For executive positions within the NBA, the percentage is even smaller. 

Based on a review of the Toronto Raptors website, an individual of Afro-descent is the President of the Toronto Raptors.  However, the overall leadership and board of directors consists of only three executives who are Afro-Descendants (constituting 13%).  It’s peculiar and a shame that African American leadership is lacking in a sport where they overwhelmingly make up the majority of players. Executives in the United States must do a better job in the areas of recruiting, retaining, promoting, and managing diversity.

Based on current statistics, African Americans lag behind other groups in the areas of holding leadership positions in the corporate environment.  According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, African Americans are grossly underrepresented in white collar roles.  These percentages are significantly less than the percentage of African Americans that comprise the workforce at 12.3%. Sadly, the few fields where the proportion of African Americans significantly exceeds the overall proportion of the workforce are all blue collar roles.

African Americans clearly hold a disproportionate percentage of blue-collar and non-supervisory positions.  It is frustrating to always see African Americans at the bottom of the career-advancement ladder, especially after years of government involvement.

In 2019, The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s (NAACP) “Opportunity and Diversity Report Card” provided diversity and inclusion grades for corporations within the hotel and lodging Industry.  While focusing on four major corporations (Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and Wyndham), the study provided feedback on the following categories: (1) Workforce and Board, (2) Transitions, (3) Procurement, (4) Corporate Management and Ownership, (5) Diversity and Inclusion Programs.  This report provides useful feedback to the companies involved and the public.  Marriott received the highest overall score of “B” while other companies each received a grade of “C”.

When conducting a study, it is important for researchers to use a method which is practical, appropriate, and feasible.  The NAACP study on the hotel and lodging industry used a mixed-methods research style.  While qualitative studies are a good way to obtain rich descriptions about a situation, they are not always accurate, since interpreting participant statements is somewhat subjective.  Quantitative research is an excellent way to arrive at factual conclusions.  Ideally, a mixed-methods study allows the researcher to reach a more informed finding about a problem. 

Diversity Alone is Not Enough

The presence of diversity alone is not enough for success. Managers must understand how to recruit, mentor, motivate, and professionally develop an ethnically diverse workforce, so these employees have the potential to advance through the highest levels of the organization. It is important that executives manage diversity at all levels of their organization and in all types of employment positions. An effective diversity management program should lead to increased diversity at the executive level of the organization. 

Lowe’s is a good example of a well managed diverse organization. The company’s CEO is African American.  Also, three African Americans serve on the corporate leadership team, making it 14.8% African American.  Like other corporations, Lowe’s has a program which focuses on professionally developing African Americans for leadership positions within the organization.

My previous research on career diversity, Perceptions of Career Advancement in the Hotel Industry for African and Hispanic Americans, focused on the hotel industry primarily because of its size, scope, and my personal interest in the sector.  Furthermore, large hotels are reflective of self-contained cities, requiring a large range of occupations and skills in order to remain self-sufficient. Finally, my perception that ethnic minorities compose a large portion of the industry inspired me to analyze how they have done in the area of career advancement.

Not surprisingly, my study found the need for improvement in the area of African American career advancement.  The most significant findings from the study are (1) African American performance in the workplace is at least equal to their non-minority peers; (2) African Americans experience career barriers; (3) African Americans are dedicated workers and (4) Diversity inspires all employees.

The first finding, “African American performance in the workplace is at least equal to those of non-minority peers,” is especially important because it highlights the fact that performance is not a perceived roadblock for African Americans.  One participant expressed that minorities are the best employees because they are more dedicated and work harder than other employees. Therefore, if their own performance is not a negative factor, other factors in the system are serving as career advancement obstacles.

Each research participant provided powerful statements about diversity and career advancement. One participant made this enlightened comment, describing the lack of diversity in the hotel industry in America, supporting my finding that diversity inspires employees:

“Seventy per cent of the service staff are minorities. When they see other minorities in leadership positions, it gives them a great sense of pride. Employees feel better about the company, because they see people that look like them. I feel that it is especially important that we see minorities and women in leadership positions, because there are so many of them at the lowest levels of the organization.”

Another participant shared personal thoughts about the hotel industry, which supports my research finding that it is challenging for African Americans to achieve career advancement and promotion opportunities:

“From my experience, the general manager, the controller, and directors were all white men. Also, while I worked at the front desk, I remember primarily attractive girls, like with blonde hair and blue eyes, worked there, too. There just wasn’t any diversity or a fresh approach. The environment reminded me of the television show ‘Mad Men.'”

Both quotes depict the participants’ perceptions that African Americans do not have a realistic opportunity to excel in the hotel industry.  Furthermore, they emphasize the need for proactive leadership in order to address this problem. 

Based on the participants’ inputs, I recommended that hotels executives address the problem as follows: (1) openly share hiring and promotion guidelines with personnel; (2) take action to close the communication gap with employees, so they are aware of career advancement opportunities within their organizations and how to best prepare for them; (3) focus on introducing ethnic minorities to the opportunities in the hotel industry at a much earlier stage in the academic careers.

Hopefully, hotel executives and leaders in other industries will address their concerns assertively.  After all, Afro-descendants and people of all ethnicities deserve a fair chance at career advancement.

Will Afro-descendants be Better-off Moving Abroad?

During a business trip to Beijing, I had a free moment to visit The Forbidden City. While I was a bit nervous about my first visit to this country, I sensed calmness and ease when talking with local people. Despite our significant differences, we still found similarities.

Leaving the United States and traveling south of the border is not the panacea. Black citizens also face challenges in Latin America. A World Bank report from 2018, Afro-descendants in Latin America – Toward a Framework of Inclusion documents the challenges that blacks experience even in Latin American countries. Although progress is being made, blacks typically lag behind the general population in every measure of success. The report expressed that Afro-descendants in Latin America face unequal opportunities and a lack of respect.

Surely, other countries must provide better opportunities for black individuals? I assumed the United States’ neighbour to the north, Canada, would be light years ahead in the areas of diversity management and simply just making Afro-descendants feel like they are welcome throughout the country and in its social-economic structure.

A 2017 research project by the Environics Institute, the Black Experience Project described and documented black disenfranchisement in the Greater Toronto Area. To my surprise, Canada is not a haven for people with black skin. The social and economic structure in Canada apparently treats blacks just as poorly as they are treated in the United States and Latin America. According to the report:

Direct experience with racism is a common experience among research participants. Two thirds indicated they frequently or occasionally experience racism and discrimination because they are Black. Eight in ten report experiencing one of several forms of day to day micro-aggressions, such as having others expect their work to be inferior or being treated in a condescending or superficial way.

The following statement from the Black Experience Project report further solidifies the negative perception of the black experience in Canada:

In fact, when asked what they believe are the most common beliefs that non-Black people hold about Black people, all the examples mentioned are negative ones, such as beliefs relating to criminal behaviour, violence, gangs or drugs, as well as the belief that blacks are uneducated, lazy and lack ambition.

An obvious culture of disrespect towards black people exists in parts of Canada, highlighted by the fact that the nation’s very own Prime Minister recently apologized for wearing “black-face” on occasions in his life.

The grass is clearly not greener in Canada.

Being On-Edge and an Outsider

The negative atmosphere in the United States, Latin America, and Canada towards black people, highlights the need for continued research in order to identify the most welcoming locations for Afro-descendants. A 2019 qualitative study by the organization called The Black Experience Japan identified Asia as a region that openly welcomes and treats us with dignity and respect. Black participants discussed how “on edge” they felt when they lived in other parts of the world. In Asia, these individuals seemed to feel at ease.

Unfortunately, I know exactly what the participants meant by feeling “on edge.” I have felt on edge on several occasions, surely not enough to influence me to leave the United States.  As a result of this feeling, I have often changed my behaviour. Out of concern for being accused of shoplifting, I’ll routinely keep my hands out of my pockets, so it’s obvious that I have not attempted to steal anything.  Keeping one’s hands out of our pockets is especially important when leaving the store.  Requesting service from high-end stores has also caused me to feel on edge. 

Not long ago, I held a celebration at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. 

After verbally confirming the date with the hotel’s representative, I had to make several phone calls back to the hotel just to receive the contract in order officially reserve the reception room.  I felt as if the Ritz-Carlton really did not want me to host my party on their premises.  On edge – it’s not asking a flight attendant a second time for your coffee, when she has already provided all the other passengers their drinks.  Thankfully, the kind caucasian women who sat next to me reminded the flight attendant about my missing drink.  On edge – it’s the feeling that society is watching an individual’s every move, waiting for a reason to approach/assault.  I know exactly what The Black Experience in Asia participants mean by on edge.  Regardless of how far I advance in my education or career, the feelings of uneasiness frequently appear.

Perhaps moving to Asia is highly extreme for most Afro-descendants. A more realistic solution for creating a better life for us may lie in identifying specific communities within our current countries that already welcome and hold opportunities for black people, along with encouraging Afro-descendants to pursue educational and professional careers that best position us for success and career advancement.  The focus on pursuing education and professional goals should begin at an early age.  At a young age, parents and educators must lay the foundation and path for their children, so they are aware and prepared for education and career opportunities.

True Home

Like my parents, when she was alive, my grandmother, Ella Maxwell, inspired me to focus on my education. She always reminded me that I would need to be twice as good just to be equal.

Despite how estranged some Afro-descendants feel while living in North or South America, there is no place like home.  For centuries, black individuals and families have written their history and grown roots in their current countries.  They have contributed to life throughout the North and South Americas and the world.  Afro-descendants should focus on improving life where they reside, instead of departing.  Invest heavily in children and the community in order to make improvements.  After all, the grass is always greener where you water it. 

Thankfully, when I was a child, my parents kept inspiring me to pursue my education and career.  They constantly reminded me about the criticality of working hard and being able to provide for oneself and family – education was key.  I am ready to give back to my community.  For me, moving abroad is not a consideration; I’m not going anywhere.

There’s no place like home.

You are invited to connect with David A Grant on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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