DEI is under attack — but are enough people listening?

Recent town hall by N.J. Chamber/African American Chamber spoke truth to problems — and solutions

The town hall discussion held last week on the state of diversity, equity & inclusion in New Jersey had everything you would expect: Discussion on the merits of DEI (which is under attack), best practices for actually instituting policies that help people of color (spoiler alert: statements alone aren’t enough), thoughtful panels and passionate comments that spoke the truth from two of the better orators in the state: the Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

There was really only one thing that was missing: Enough white people to hear the messages.

That opinion (undoubtedly shared by many) was voiced by one of the leaders of the two groups that put on the event: Tom Bracken of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Bracken told the crowd he was disappointed in the turnout of top white executives compared to previous events. He said he felt it meant the state was not living up to its calling of not only being diverse — but also actually helping those who have been left behind.

Remember, we all pledged to have difficult conversations about race following the murder of George Floyd. And to take drastic actions. But are we?

Three years later — at a time when DEI seemingly is under attack from the U.S. Supreme Court and others — the overflow crowd for the event at the APA Hotel in Iselin was predominately people of color.

The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries

John Harmon, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and the other co-sponsor of the event, has been around long enough to know he can only control what he can control. He was intentional with his purpose and his ask. But he did it in a way that made it clear he feels the state is not living up to its end of the bargain.

“New Jersey is known as the most diverse state in this country,” he said. “And, if you don’t leverage your strengths, you don’t get that return.”

Harmon, who wanted the event to serve as a family reunion — one at which you could be open and honest — said he had four takeaways in mind:

  • More Blacks on corporate boards (and in the C-suite);
  • More public contract opportunities (the numbers are stunningly low);
  • More career opportunities (work to connect needed jobs to untapped communities);
  • More corporate citizenship (the AACCNJ has lots of workforce development programs; do you know about them?).

Harmon made a particular point to the crowd: “None of this is about charity,” he said. “We want you to allow these men and women a level playing field to compete. Because it’s well documented that, if you embrace diversity, equity & inclusion, you get a better outcome.”

Those in the audience offered their suggestions during an insightful public forum.

The two best:

  • A greater understanding of the financial challenges of small business: If you offer a big contract to a small, diverse business — but expect it to pay for huge insurance riders up front and/or expect it to be able to wait until the end to get money — it’s not a help.
  • Make hiring (and procurement) goals mandatory: The saying, ‘What gets measured gets managed,’ applies here. Only when there is a measure or metric will policies truly move the needle.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

Baraka, powerful as always, said the impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action needs to be fully grasped.

“When the highest court of the land attacks affirmative action, what it is in essence saying is that it is not necessary for us to apply any policy, any law, any set-aside, any activity for African Americans in this country,” he said. “What it does say is that inequality does not exist.”

It does, Baraka promised, even in New Jersey — a supposed bastion of liberalism.

There is a wealth disparity in New Jersey that is too big to continue to be ignored. White families, on average, have a net worth of nearly $300,000 more than Black and brown families. Much of that is tied to homeownership.

Baraka said that’s why the city of Newark is trying everything possible to turn that around. It has to. Talking the talk — but not seeing results — has only led to a misguided view of the situation, he said.

“We think we are on the roof, because we were in the basement so long,” he said. “So, when we get to the first floor, we think we’ve arrived.”

Solid thoughts — and better sound bites — went on all day. 

And, before you think that was just the same old talk from the same old people, realize this: The mic-drop moment of the event came from a young professional in the engineering field. He spoke the truth as well as anyone.

“After this event, we need to make sure that we’re having those uncomfortable conversations with the people in our industry and those in our circles that aren’t willing to,” he said. “Every day, I pride myself in, ‘How can I make my coworkers uncomfortable today?’

“It sounds crazy, but when these conversations and these actions go from a point of being part of the business that we do to where it is the business that we do, then we’ll have something.

“Because with discomfort, there comes growth.”

It was a great thought. And a great day. Too bad there weren’t more people there to hear it.