Structural changes in the U.S. economy highlight anew the gray areas of continued racial bias and discrimination in American workplaces


Four years after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by three city police officers and the Black Lives Matter movement led large-scale protests across the country, workplaces across the U.S. economy are dropping their efforts to promote racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, spurred in part by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. This trend is dispiriting for a variety of reasons, not least because it threatens the future competitive strength of our nation’s manufacturing and services industries as they rapidly embrace AI and slowly but steadily adopt solutions to deal with climate change.

This retreat is especially concerning given that failing to recognize the full promise of equal opportunity in U.S. workplaces and society costs our economy dearly. In 2019, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that “labor market disparities by gender and race cost the U.S. $2.6 trillion in foregone [Gross Domestic Product] in 2019, and we estimate that these annual costs will continue to grow, reaching $3.1 trillion in 2029.” And a Citigroup report in 2020 finds that “if four key racial gaps for Blacks—wages, education, housing, and investment—were closed 20 years ago, $16 trillion could have been added to the U.S. economy. And if the gaps are closed today, $5 trillion can be added to U.S. GDP over the next five years.”

The persistent racial bias and discrimination Black workers encounter up and down job ladders and across career choices should not come as a surprise in the wake of a powerful social movement such as Black Lives Matter. After all, the brief attempt at racial equity during Reconstruction after the Civil War was followed by nearly 80 years of Jim Crow legal discrimination against African Americans. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was followed by the mass incarceration of Black men and women and continued discrimination in housing and workplaces over the next 60 years. And now the brief shining light on the baleful consequences of conscious and unconscious racial bias in workplaces in this decade is being dimmed by new legal restrictions on DEI programs and the loud backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.

This latest convergence of historic economic and social discrimination with new technology and innovation means that new “gray areas”—the social, cultural, and relational patterns that allow racial bias and discrimination to persist in U.S. workplaces—could well hold back the full economic benefits of AI and solutions to climate change.

In my latest book, Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism & What We Can Do About It, I examine how our economy and our society are once again at a racial crossroads. Take Constance, one of seven workers of color whose career barriers I detail in my book. She’s a chemical engineer, on one of those high-growth, high-tech career paths of the 21st century.

Constance also works in an organizational culture that talks about diversity but does so in a very “race-blind” fashion, leaving her colleagues oblivious to the overtly and implicitly racial challenges that she encounters. And without a culture that acknowledges racial inequality, there’s no language or mechanisms to deal with this conscious and unconscious bias.

Constance relates the challenges associated with trying to find someone to serve, as she puts it, as an advocate who can just help her navigate promotion, advancement, and leadership amid this race-blind discrimination. All of those career paths are really blocked to her, despite purportedly being in a very merit-based scientific field.

Yet pathways for solutions are there. Companies do not have to accept racial disparities that compromise productivity and employee well-being. But this fundamental DEI work has to be adapted and structured by organizations, and it has to be buttressed and supported by government policy.

Indeed, the opportunity to infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and policies into the use of AI and technology by businesses and policymakers alike could not be more timely. The consequences of climate change are equally important to workers of color, especially those laboring in industries where climate change is a workday hazard. I really believe a bigger shift toward a national policy agenda where workers of all ideologies and backgrounds—and in all sectors of the economy—receive more support, rather than the direction we’re going in now, is achievable.

Interested in hearing more? Register to attend our upcoming event, “Research on Tap: Three Forces Shaping the 2024 Economy,” where panelists will discuss how powerful forces, such as climate change, generative AI, and economic inequality, are shaping the U.S. economy in this critical election year.  


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