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Structural Racism and Leadership

The election of our first African American president has sparked debate over how far we have come as a nation on issues of race. Some suggest that we are in a post-racial society, but this assumption has not been supported by recent census statistics. While one in seven people in the U.S. are now living in poverty,[1] statistics show that African Americans and Latinos have fared worse during the recession.

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink points out, if you look deeper at the data, the story of who has actually been “hit hardest” is clear:

  • More than one in four Blacks and Hispanics live below the poverty line.
  • Hispanics saw the biggest jump in poverty (2.1 percent).
  • Biggest drop in real income was among Blacks and non-citizens (4.4 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively).[2]

This discussion naturally raises questions about the role of leadership development programs to address the racial divide in this country. Many such programs in the nonprofit sector have extended their reach and recruited more people of color, but more could be done. A deliberate approach to diversifying leadership programs would do much to mitigate the history of exclusion that has kept people of color underrepresented in leadership positions in the public and private sectors and also help level the playing field by providing them with new skills and resources and access to influential networks.

Using Diversity to Defy Stereotypes
A recent report by the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) and other thought leaders in the leadership development and racial equity fields, “How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice,”3 acknowledges the importance of diversity and inclusion in the field of leadership and suggests that leadership programs could play a bigger role in helping to address racial divides in education, health, and individual well-being. In fact, the authors suggest that without a comprehensive rethinking of the way leadership programs recruit, support, and educate people of color and help them understand the systems that perpetuate racial disparities, the programs can actually reinforce patterns of racial inequality.
To understand how that can happen, it is important to first examine an underlying assumption many of us hold about leadership and its origin. Most people, asked to give a positive example of leadership, will describe a person. It is because we think of leadership as the behavior and/or skills of an individual exerting influence over others. This way of thinking is strongly influenced by a belief that every individual is responsible for his or her individual circumstance and that opportunities and recognition are conferred based on individual merit. These ideas have been embedded in our thinking by the dominant culture in the U.S.—a culture that does not acknowledge the experiences of vast numbers of people who have been systematically denied access to opportunities by virtue of their race.

Common Pitfalls of Leadership Programs
The report points out a number of ways in which the culture of individualism influences leadership development trainings, leading to a perpetuation of racial disparities.

The popular misconception that leadership is conferred upon individuals based on merit overlooks the well-documented fact that life opportunities in the U.S.—such as, attending high-performing schools, having access to well-paying jobs, and living in safe areas—are affected by race. Such beliefs implicitly or explicitly attribute the underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions to a lack of ability rather than of opportunity. Leadership programs pride themselves on finding “rising stars” but fail to recognize that those stars often rise owing to many privileges that are not equally distributed in our society. Recruiting those who have not had access to status-conferring institutions or are not connected to established networks requires more deliberate strategies on the part of the programs.

A commonly held belief that given the same support and resources, all participants in a leadership program will have the same opportunity to advance themselves and their work fails to understand that some people come into the program with a definite leg up. They have attended better schools, are tied into influential networks, are less saddled with student loans, have health benefits, and have easy access to transportation. Few programs recognize that some participants may need different levels of support—such as, financial resources, links to new networks, and health care—to mitigate the lack of access to life opportunities that they experienced prior to entering the program.

The “individual as leader” is only one leadership model and is based on values closely associated with the dominant culture in the U.S. A number of people exercise more collaborative and collective models of leadership that are not valued or rewarded, which sometimes renders the leadership of women and people of color invisible. Often, the leadership values of love, equity, justice, and community, which are critical to leadership success for people of color, are not supported within the dominant leadership models.

A focus on individuals fails to understand the strength of racial and social identity in contributing positively to leadership. Racial identity creates a shared experience that opens up dialogue about common frustrations and aspirations from which, collective leadership action often emerges.
Emphasis on changing individual behaviors is important but will not eliminate racism. The Applied Research Center reports that while incidents of individual racism have declined, structural racism is on the rise.4 In other words, the dominant policies, culture, and institutions in this country produce disparities that increase differences in life opportunities based on race and we need to address them first in order to eliminate the underlying causes that perpetuate racial inequalities. Individuals working in isolation cannot realize this scale of change.

Guidelines to Overcoming Common Pitfalls
The report also has recommendations on leadership development approaches that could help overcome some of the common pitfalls and improve racial equity:

1. Make racial justice an integral part of the program. In a survey of 122 leadership programs, less than half incorporated an understanding of structural racism into their program.5 In order to address the growing economic gap and disparities, leadership programs and participants must understand how the system produces and perpetuates differences in opportunities along racial lines. To begin with, programs must commit to: (a) talking openly about race and power; (b) bringing a systems approach to change; (c) being responsible for racial justice outcomes, i.e. closing achievement gaps, not just improving performance; and (d) providing tools and resources for understanding the racial impact of their leadership work.
2. Promote inclusive models of collective leadership. Connecting those in leadership in a collective process is consistent with the history and values of many people of color. It is also critically important when working at many levels to challenge the complex system of policies, cultural attitudes, and institutional practices that produce and perpetuate racial inequality.

This report is just a beginning. A small number of leadership programs, especially those run by people of color, have been an inspiration for much of the learning in this report. Some of the programs currently taking a more inclusive approach include:

Racial Justice Leadership Initiative (RJLI)
    Launched by the Applied Research Center in 2002, RJLI provides participants with practical tools and tips to sharpen their analysis, skills, and strategies for addressing structural racism. Unlike “diversity trainings,” which primarily focus on interpersonal relations and cultural awareness, the racial justice trainings focus on systemic racial inequality. The trainings not only equip leaders with the consciousness to recognize and challenge racism, but also with the skills to develop proactive proposals, messages, alliances, and strategies to advance racial equity.
Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations (LDIR)
    The LDIR program makes racial justice an explicit and active commitment. The program trains participants in leadership skills that support structural equality and community-building. LDIR creates an environment that promotes open conversations about race and helps participants understand their own racial identity. This affects how they conduct community work and gives them more confidence to address issues of race.
The recent census report should serve as a wakeup call for those in the leadership field. As more leadership programs move towards inclusive and collective leadership models, programs and participants will be able to play a greater role in helping to overcome racial inequalities.

Deborah Meehan is the founder and executive director of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). She serves as a board member of the International Leadership Association and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota. She has conducted field research, evaluated leadership programs, and developed leadership network strategies.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits