Flip the System

In order to really address racial disparities in our communities, Linda Ketcham explains why it’s crucial to change the systems that enforce monochrome workplaces.

In their “Race to Equity Report,” the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) examines the outrageous state of racial disparities in education, employment, poverty, and our neighborhoods in Dane County. We need Dane County to respond to the disparities in ways that are more effective and inclusive—and that hold us accountable for the growing disparities and inequities (and when I say “us” I am primarily talking about those of us who identify as “white”).

According to the Report and 2010 Census data, African Americans comprised 6.5 percent of the population in Dane County. The 2007 Dane County unemployment rate for non-Hispanic whites was percent and for blacks it was 20 percent. By 2011, the unemployment rate for non-Hispanic whites had increased to 4.8 percent and for blacks to 25.2 percent. In 2011, the Census’s American Community Survey reported that over 54 percent of African Americans living in Dane County lived below the federal poverty line compared to 8.7 percent of whites. Nationally, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to live in poverty as whites; in Dane County African Americans are 6 times as likely to live in poverty as whites. Looking only at children, the numbers are even worse: 75 percent of African American children in Dane County live in poverty compared to 5 percent of white children. These numbers only scratch the surface of the disparities. In education and graduation rates, in the number of children who take the ACT exam, in juvenile arrest and adult arrest and convictions, the disparities persist.

Each year United Way of Dane County partner agencies complete a year-end report that includes demographics for the agencies’ board members, staff, volunteers, and program participants. In 2013, the United Way found that, of 884 board members in their 70 Partner agencies, 89 (10.1 percent) of those board members were African Americans and that 37 Partner agencies had no African American members on their boards. Of 4,774 staff members in the 70 agencies, there were 449 (9.4 percent) African American staff in 41 of the 70 agencies, meaning 29 agencies have no African American staff. Of the 84,532 program participants, 22,428 (26.5 percent) were African American. What these numbers don’t tell us is how many of the African American staff in those agencies are full or part-time, how many of them are in management or supervisory positions vs. entry level, etc.

In the Race to Equity Report, the WCCF suggests that “among the first changes we need to pursue is to increase the diversity of the professionals and staff who work in our schools and our major counseling, recreational, job training, and social service institutions. African Americans are almost 8 percent of the county’s total population and almost 20 percent of Madison’s public school enrollment.” But how do we do that? That’s the question I’ve heard many colleagues ask. Given the disparities in academic achievement, graduation rates, and college attendance rates, how do we, as employers, hire the most qualified, best educated candidates and create a more representative work force? What I sometimes wonder is whether asking these questions is a rationalization for the personnel and human resources systems that we have put in place as employers.

In his article “Decoding Modern Racial Discourse: A System Justification Theory Approach,” educator Robin Parker posits that system justification theory holds answers to why white people  often don’t want to “see color.” He explains that “people are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be perceived as fair and legitimate” even if they are not (reminding me of the old argument against “special rights” for the LGBT community). According to Parker, system justification theory explains that the preservation of the status quo “may be a more salient motive for action than self-interest, domination or out-group prejudice…white people may say, ‘Racism isn’t a problem in our society,’ not because they have a conscious, personal dislike for black people or are unable to understand the contemporary struggles with racism black people endure. Instead…the dismissive remark arises from a strong psychological need to maintain the current social order even when doing so is contrary to cogent evidence or espoused values of fairness.”

The WCCF is correct; we need to increase diversity in our social services agencies. To do this we also must acknowledge that the status quo of focusing on degrees and formal educational credentials may be nothing more than a system justification approach. What if we started by looking at the skill set needed for each position within our organizations and then determined whether a degree or professional certification was necessary? What if we developed personnel policies that were flexible, giving current employees flex schedules to pursue classes? And what if we counted some of those classes as work time? What if we focused on professional development plans for employees in entry level positions, investing in them the same way we might invest in a management trainee? It would challenge the status quo, it would open more career pathways, and it would result in a workforce that is more representative of both our community and the individuals with whom we work.


Linda Ketchum is the Executive Director of Madison-Area Urban Ministry (emum.org), an interfaith social justice organization that has spurred social change in and around Dane County.