Editor’s Note: Dr. Andre Perry is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. His research focuses on race and structural inequality, education and economic inclusion. Follow him on Twitter @andreperryedu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
“Diversity isn’t important.” Sources have told CNN that those words (and others like them) were uttered by Ryan Zinke, the secretary of one of the departments in the federal government, a bureau comprised of approximately 70,000 employees throughout the country.
These statements would be appalling coming from anyone working in the federal government (or anyone else, for that matter), but it’s particularly harmful to consider them coming from the person charged with protecting the federal land and parks that all Americans are supposed to enjoy. CNN quoted three high-ranking officials who claim Zinke also said, “I don’t care about diversity,” and “I don’t really think that’s important anymore.” A spokesperson from the Department of the Interior has denied Zinke made the statements, the reports of which come at a time when the Inspector General and Office of Special Counsel are investigating his reassignment of department executives – many of whom happen to be people of color..
These comments, if true, may disappoint, but they shouldn’t surprise. The Trump administration is scrubbing diversity in word and in deed, and all the attacks on diversity throughout the federal government threaten the security of the country. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received in December of last year from the administration a list of “words to avoid” to improve chances of getting funding, including “diversity,” “evidence-based” and “transgender.” Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has recently proposed to amend the department’s mission statement, removing references to “sustainable, inclusive communities.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos scaled back civil rights investigations. And while the Cabinet continues to be a revolving door, it isn’t becoming any more diverse. The numbers of black, Hispanic and female White House staffers have dropped significantly since Trump took office.
The quality of our social, economic and political futures is inextricably linked to how inclusive our neighborhoods, local economies and schools are and will become. The country can easily slip back into a recession if we’re not careful to maximize the talents of all Americans, especially millennials (those currently aged 18-34) who represent a quarter of the total population and are 44% minority. As my Brookings colleague Bill Frey points out in his research on millennials, “Despite today’s divisive generational politics, millennials are poised to become a demographic bridge between the largely white older generations (pre-millennials) and much more racially diverse younger generations (post-millennials).”
Given these changing demographics, the federal government should intentionally pursue diversity, not dismiss it. More than 2 million people work for the federal government nationwide. Approximately 37% of that workforce is comprised of people of color. Federal officials are role models for small and large business leaders on how to respond to the country’s needs. Not only do Zinke’s alleged comments and the actions of his colleagues defy inclusive growth – making sure everyone benefits from economic prosperity – they go against basic pillars of growth itself.
Workforce participation is the primary driver of local and national economies. Without diversity, participation wanes, as workers of color become marginalized. Without participation from range of workers in a place, you can’t maximize economic growth. Without growth, you lack resources to develop current and future members of the workforce. The country becomes less innovative and economically competitive.
Sources also told CNN that Zinke has said he cares about excellence, and what’s important is having the right person for the right job. Statements like this reinforce the dated and bigoted thinking that diversity threatens quality. The truth is, you can’t have quality without diversity.
Sadly, the status quo of our system imposes a certain amount of exclusion for a white majority to prosper. But it’s people of color who largely pay the social costs stemming from a lack of representation in the workforce.
Claims that diversity doesn’t matter ignore the lived reality for many people and our regional and national economies. At 4.1% unemployment, America has crossed a threshold of what economists deem as full employment, meaning we have more jobs in the United States than we have people prepared to fill them. However, these numbers mask the reality that many people in cities and in rural areas are chronically out of work. For instance, nearly half of blacks in Chicago are among the long-term unemployed. This is true in many cities. It is simply unacceptable for such high levels of black unemployment to be part of the criteria for “full employment.” African-Americans can’t be the sacrificial lambs of the labor force.
As we approach the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., we should remember his words. “We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifices,” King said in a speech at the National Conference of New Politics in 1967. “Capitalism was built on the exploitation of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.”
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The economic solvency of the country is becoming increasingly dependent upon our willingness, especially among those in federal government, to move beyond that myth. We literally cannot afford to ignore diversity, as it seems that Zinke would prefer to do. Diversity and inclusion are matters of national necessity. To suggest otherwise is to put the country in peril.