I was traveling in the deep South last weekend. I’ve never been to Alabama and I only spent a couple of days in Georgia in my life. I was down there visiting my son at Fort Benning which is on the Alabama line not too far from Montgomery and Auburn University.
We have a lot of preconceptions up here in the North about what the South is like. I have often heard that the South is more racist than the North. That it is still segregated and that attitudes about diversity and inclusion are still stuck back in the pre-Civil Rights 60s.
And I’ll grant you that I only got a snapshot of life in the South last weekend. But that snapshot revealed an interesting picture to me. I found life in the South to be far more integrated among Black folks and white folks than I find in the North.
Let me tell you what I witnessed. First off, the small cities where we spent our time, Columbus and Auburn and their suburbs were filled with Black folks and white folks going about their business among each other. Breakfast and lunch spots were filled with Black and white families sharing dining rooms. Restaurants frequented by white folks could just as easily be owned and operated by Black folks and vice versa.
Jobs of importance were filled by as many Black people as white people. Managers, owners, and front-facing personnel jobs were integrated, just as the lower-skilled jobs were.
This was eye-opening to me because although we bill ourselves as progressives and blue-state Democrats in this part of the world, ask yourself the last time you entered a restaurant dining room that was fifty percent Black and fifty percent white. And I could be wrong but it seems to me that front-facing jobs are overwhelmingly filled by white folks in this neck of the woods.
“Diversity and Inclusion” is a buzzy phrase in the corporate world these days. There are seminars, webinars, and whole courses of study on diversity and inclusion in our workplaces and communities. Big companies promote their efforts at diversity and inclusion. If your company is not making an effort on this front, it is considered to be far behind the curve.
But it seemed effortless to me in the South.
This is not to excuse the historical record of the South, nor to try to reframe history. The Civil War was fought over slavery, never mind what some historical revisionists would try to have you believe.
But in the present day, it appeared to me that there was depth to the inclusion efforts of businesses and workers in the South. That depth seems to be missing where I live. Diversity and Inclusion initiatives sound good and look good. But is it all window-dressing?
These efforts to hire a diverse workforce are shallow without systemic modifications in housing and banking policy, not to mention educational and criminal justice policy. When our neighborhoods are devoid of diversity because of an absence of affordability or capital access, what good are phony attempts at workplace diversity.
The idea of diversity and inclusion is an honorable one. But actions speak louder than catchphrases. Maybe our Southern neighbors are on to something when it comes to broadening communities. In the meantime, workplace initiatives are not enough absent policy changes. They are the beginning, not the end.
Eric Brown is an attorney with offices in Connecticut. He can be reached at 888-579-4222 or online at www.thelaborlawyer.com.