How a Million Pound Racial Discrimination case created a Diversity and Inclusion Industry built on Sand.
The writer Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is the co-founder of Representology -an academic / journalism journal between Cardiff University and Birmingham City University’s Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity
“It is a milestone for us”, said the surprised appointee, “and I certainly believe we should be proud of it whether it’s me or someone else. Black people making their mark in the industry has to be celebrated”.
These were the words of a happy Herman Ouseley on hearing he was to become the Chief Executive of the UK’s Commission for Race Equality (CRE). It is a remarkable appointment and one of his first interviews with us on BBC London, discovered from newly found digitised archive.
Firstly, Ouseley (Today Lord Ouseley) will be the first black Chief Executive of the CRE. Secondly, he can afford to be surprised. He had reservations going for the job which was given the nod by a Conservative Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke. Thirdly it’s 1992 when race relations in Britain are more than prickly.
The CRE created in 1981 was the response to riots and improving the lot of disadvantaged people, in particular black and brown in employment, and levelling racial inequalities. Three years earlier, the UK’s PM Margaret Thatcher had uttered this indefatigable statement:
People are really afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with different culture.
The race body’s score sheet had shown it below par. Ouseley, a former Lambeth Chief Executive known for getting the job done, had the bit between his teeth saying to us.
I have a clear idea about what I want to do, but I don’t want to be prescriptive about what will work and what won’t.
The buzzword at the time to improve the representation of minorities in the work place was “equal opportunities”, but the execution of said opportunities left a lot to be desired.
My co-presenter Sheryl and I, as presenters and producers of issues affecting black people, were also acutely aware of our own predicaments trying to make a career in mainstream media. I’d made an acquaintance, a senior exec in the BBC called Christopher, and would regularly ring him enquiring about openings. It’s who you know right? Nothing ever came of it , much like the many job adverts.
Unlike the US, in Britain there was no legal framework to actively transfer equal opportunities into jobs for minorities. There was no affirmative action, which the US under the Reagan administration was being rolled back.
Short of sustained work presenting Black London after two years I moved to South Africa during the dying days of Apartheid. There, at least, a new friend told me you knew were you stood. Though it wasn’t uncommon, as we discovered amongst Brits living in places like Hermanus — a posh strip along the coast — to proclaim Britain was being destroyed by multiculturalism.
Alongside acronyms like BME and equal opportunity which made relatively little dent to black and brown people’s job opportunities, the 90s limped towards a new millennium when the damning message was delivered by Lord Macpherson.
Macpherson condemned the Metropolitan police, in the wake of the unforgivable investigation of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, as institutionally racists.
There was little comparative navel-gazing in the media and creative industries. Hence four creatives and journalists seized an opportunity to get together to hold the media accountable.
Under the name, the Creative Collective and backed by the Freedom Forum, a US think tank in the UK, and broadcaster Jon Snow, we staged an independent event “All Change — Increasing Diversity in the Newsrooms”.
It delivered testimonials, Jon Snow holding execs feet to the candle, and stories like a young ITN intern expressing his frustration to broadcaster Henry Bonsu after winning an award, only to realise he was being let go after his stint.
Years later ITN’s reject Krish Majumdar would work with Ricky Gervais, become the first person of colour to become Chair of BAFTA and be hailed in 2006 as “the brightest new hopes of the British film industry” by Screen International.
The New Approach
“All Change — Increasing Diversity in the Newsrooms” was handsomely attended by a sizeable spectrum of media execs from Channel 4, ITN, the BBC, Guardian etc., though noting a couple of execs fidgeting and swinging their feet of under their chairs, you’d be forgiven for thinking some possibly resented the memo from their bosses to attend and couldn’t wait for the day to end.
Whilst the figures for Black and Brown people in the media and TV were poor, in commissioning positions they were as rare as an eclipse, but that’s where the power to change TV really lay. Channel 4 announced a TV-Commissioner scheme; a one off? At the time I was a regular freelance producer at Channel 4 News and remember being happy for my Channel 4 News’ colleague Safraz Mansoor when he won one of the positions.
But something else was emerging which would constitute an important sea change in the employment of Black and brown people, or as they we were collectively called BME. One can only think how some Whitehall technocrat had be awarded a raise for lumping all black people together — then Asians, as BAME.
That sea change was in the label “diversity”, as used in our title. It had been used albeit sparingly in the media, but beyond 2000 its coupling with “inclusion” would create a new meme.
A google N-Gram gives an indication of how around 2000 the label “Diversity and Inclusion” took off, becoming more visible in place of “opportunities”. So what’s going on? To understand this we need to look to the US and consider one of the largest payouts in racial discrimination in corporate America.
But first, efforts back in 1987 that saw Black and brown people lobby alongside women for more jobs in broadcasting could no longer be ignored. In the late 80s, the Polytechnic of Central London with BBC funding created a one-year post grad for ethnic journalists.
At the same time several women in the media came together to form the Women’s Development Initiative to improve their representation in executive positions. Since then whilst there has been a marked improvement in women helming national titles and broadcast executive position (though they have not attained parity with men) the same could not be said of minorities.
In 2000 a Radio Scotland presenter Anvar Khan on the programme The Mix asked a newly appointed BBC Director General Greg Dyke whether he thought the BBC wasn’t hideously white. He agreed which caused the equivalent back then of a twitter storm and troll from the press.
Diversity was one of Dyke’s key milestones as he writes in his autobiography Greg Dyke Inside Story. Attending the CRE’s Race in the Media Awards, he said:
I announced that we were to have targets so that by the end of 2003 people from ethnic minorities will make up 10% of the staff 8% figure in 1999 and that in management that figure would increase from the pathetically small 2% to 4%. I also said we wanted to radically change on-screen representation of effort minorities.
Dyke adds that by the time he was about to leave the BBC in 2004, another 4 year target was being implemented to reflect 12.5 percent of staff and 7 percent from management for minorities.
Even then industry stats never quite told the whole story, and were at times skewed in their accounting. Adding non-broadcast personnel, such as canteen staff, and BBC World Service personnel painted a different picture to the reality.
In their penetrating book Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond, authors Sir Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder uncover Fake Diversity.
Taking issue with the way the industry watchdog OFCOM set about recording diversity figures for the BBC, the authors discover OFCOM would only take into account minority figures front of camera, but not behind. They find example after example of sharp practices, much to dispute, and solutions to correct them. They write.
People from underrepresented groups are sometimes literally running after painting company brochures, they wrote, to give the appearance of diversity when nothing is really changing in the corridors of power.
In 2019, a Google employee even accused the company of wanting to give the impression it cares about diversity by tricking minority workers into accepting positions at the company by pretending jobs were more senior and interesting than they actually were.
The House of D&I
Fake and misleading, yet something else was happening in the industry, sophisticated in its presentation. Its effect would be to assuage the impression executives weren’t doing enough to improve diversity.
To understand this you need to look back to 1996 and a $155 million payout by Texaco Inc and at least a 10% pay rise for 1400 employees who sued the oil giant for racial discrimination. Four years later one of the world’s top brands, Coca-Cola, would pay out a record $190 million to settle a law suit brought by its black employees.
The effect of this the the lawyer Cyrus Mehri who led the cases notes has slowly and inexorably led to self-appointed race policy guardians in corporatedom, the Diversity and Inclusion Officer (D&I).
As detailed in Diversity Inc by Pamela Newkirk it’s difficult today to find a corporation in the US ( and UK) which doesn’t have a D&I exec. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry of training, monitoring, and “symbolic gestures” to show diversity in action, but no real change to representation figures.
Mehri detects a catch. This new layer of diversity makes it increasingly difficult for employees to prove a race discrimination case against a company. Citing changes to a 1971 Supreme court ruling in Griggs v Duke power Company, coupled with a narrowly defined interpretation of the law, means a higher bar for proving discrimination or intent is difficult to prove.
The D&I position has become a sounding board for minority employers to address their feelings. That’s not not say there aren’t benefits driven by companies committed to addressing representation. But the boardrooms and management positions are not reflecting the composition of societies. Look at academia and its professorial positions, the media, of the business fraternity e.g. Fortune 500 companies.
However, one main facet of the D&I role is to provide training to all staff. This invariably comes in the shape of a multiple choice questionnaires towards various biases. There’s research that multiple question bias training over 2-hours doesn’t work, but gets companies of the hook in proclaiming awareness.
This from Behavioural Scientists writing in the Harvard Business Review:
In nearly a thousand studies. It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two.
The Super star psychologist John Amaechi tackles head on unconscious bias.
When I took one of the tests, I baulked at some of the answers noting missed nuances and areas such as micro-aggression that develop over time causing pain and suffering for minorities.
There’s also, noted in Diversity Inc, resentment amongst some staff when they’re forced to take the test. Pamela Newkirk writes.
Quick fixes like unconscious bias training or climate surveys no matter how expertly administered cannot begin to address, let alone repair the damage of centuries of demeaning images of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities still perpetuated in film, on television, in advertising, news outlets, on museum walls, public iconography, and indeed at every level of our education system.
All of this occurs at the expense of the true aim in the workplace that advocates are seeking — more jobs. Meanwhile the visible signs around promotions or improved parity for Black and brown people sees no marked improvements.
Only this week, research by Nina Robinson with the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity reveals that just “6% of senior leader roles in BBC Radio News and Current Affairs — which includes Assistant Editors and above on programmes ranging from BBC local radio news to Radio 4’s Today programme — are people from Black, Asian and Mixed ethnicity heritage backgrounds”.
The issue is no longer around lack of talent in the pipeline, but about hanging onto power and the idea that diversity of thought as the index for change ignores how diversity of thought within an homogenous group is not the same as a heterogenous one.
That much is slowly gaining ground in Hollywood rebounding from its #Oscarsowhite fiasco some years back as US studios invest in more black and brown productions breaking ground, from the Marvel franchise to talent such as Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY production.
The problem relayed in Diversity Inc is that well-meaning groups and diversity champions provide a legitimacy for the current model, and its growth appears to have no end in abating. It’s become an adjunct to human resources, with comparatively little resources, whilst assigned to take care of all things diverse. For some D&I officers it’s become a poison chalice — a position without power to make executive decisions.
To improve the opportunities of black and brown employees and figures, the process has to be honest and that means not ignoring the over-sized elephant in the room. After thirty years plus in the industry, it’s a tough call watching what’s unfolding and how like the word “race” that proved so malleable in the 17th century it created a hierarchy, a modern term is being turned inside out by technocrats.
This week several organisations agreed to retire the work BAME. Should the same be said for Diversity and Inclusion? Or should there be a new impetus for job prospects for Black and brown people.
Last November in a joint collaboration between Cardiff University and the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, we launched a new journal Representology designed to give a voice to young and experienced black and brown academics and professionals — something still lacking in a widespread number of industry publications.
It’s a small step but if it’s true change and representation the industry and academia is after, then it’s the figures and levelling the positions of power, rather than the creation of new exec layers which have no teeth. That’s the operative word. If people can’t make wholesale changes to the company’s structure and approach what’s the point of being at the table. It’s about trust in fixing the future.
I was honoured this week to accept being a juror for the Royal Television Society and see the announcement by the British Library for their exhibition documenting five centuries of News, in which I was one of eight academics to be part of its advisory board. Diversity shouldn’t be that difficult.
More on Dr David Dunkley Gyimah here