How the Racial Inferiority Myth Is Still Holding Back Black Employees

Unconscious biases are impeding true progress

illustration of black hand and white hand on red background
Ingrained racist expectations are alive and operating today, undermining Black employees’ opportunities and success. Getty Images

Corporate America’s decades of diversity and inclusion efforts, despite its stellar business case showing greater revenue, profitability and innovation, have failed rather spectacularly. When has a business practice, sponsored by powerful CEOs that results in more revenue, ever failed so colossally? And why is it happening?

Let’s acknowledge the stubborn role of racism and how the false racial inferiority narrative factors into employment decisions, or we have little hope of disrupting it and achieving our nation’s promise of equal employment and a just society. 

Science-based theories of racial inferiority, created to justify slavery and oppression that was then codified into law and public policy, have long been scientifically discredited and, by most people’s beliefs, safely in the past. However, the racial inferiority narrative—the belief that Black people are not as intelligent or competent because of their race—lives on. 

This reality is in stark display in the Nextions study, where law partners found more errors and rated Black associates more poorly than white associates when evaluating identical work. The study shows that ingrained racist expectations are alive and operating today, undermining Black employees’ opportunities and success. 

The goal is equity and an inclusive cultural environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.  

This false racial inferiority narrative plays out at work in the following ways: 

White employees are assumed to be competent and are trusted to do their jobs effectively, whereas Black employees are unfairly deemed inept and often micromanaged.  

For white workers, failure is also often considered a way to grow, and they are allowed to use their mistakes as learning opportunities and teachable moments. When Black workers make an error, it reinforces the misconception that they were a risky hire, and often, a performance correction plan is not far behind. This only makes it harder for the next Black applicant since Black employees aren’t seen as individuals but as representatives of their race. 

The racial inferiority narrative additionally shows up when a company asserts that it is going to hire more Black employees, usually to be more in line with their representation in the population. When this occurs, companies frequently declare that they will hire qualified Black candidates. If the company fails to use this qualifier, you can count on someone asking if the standards will be lowered. It is often said with no apparent awareness of the speaker’s deep feelings of racial superiority.

Development and mentoring are often lacking for Black employees across the industry. When provided, it is informed by an unconscious superiority/inferiority framework, which is often invisible to the white manager. 

While corporations can help dismantle structural bias in their management and HR processes, white individuals can stoke their curiosity and step into the discomfort of recognizing their power and prejudice, interrogate it and use their privilege to disrupt bias. 

It starts with asking self-reflecting questions such as: 

  • Who do you turn to when assigning interesting projects?
  • Who can persuade you to change your mind? 
  • Who do you make eye contact with in meetings?
  • How many promotions have you given to white employees in comparison to Black employees? 
  • Do you mentor or sponsor your Black employees in a comparable manner to your white employees? 
  • Do you provide constructive, timely feedback to your Black employees? If not, why not? 
  • How would you feel if a Black employee were hired or promoted over you? Why?
  • How many Black employees have you personally hired over your career? 
  • Have you ever stepped in and helped when you saw discrimination occur at work?
  • Is it possible that, like in the Nextions study, you are evaluating your Black employees or colleagues more harshly and negatively than your white employees and colleagues? 

These simple yet uncomfortable questions are necessary to address racism at work. While they can raise feelings of blame and defensiveness, that is not the goal and is ultimately unproductive. What is productive is the learning that comes from the inquiry and the change in behavior that can come once patterns are revealed. The goal is equity and an inclusive cultural environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.  

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@cindyafriends Cindy Augustine is the global chief talent officer at FCB.