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Diversity vs. Inclusion; Racist vs. Racism: Finding a Path Forward

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
June 18, 2020

Across the nation, we are experiencing tense times, and many of the contributing factors to the civil unrest are associated with a continuing lack of inclusion in our communities, as well as with institutionalized racism. Public administrators play a critical role in community life through the provision of much needed services—it is critical they understand the differences between the concepts of diversity and inclusion and between the concepts of racist and racism, if they are to play their part in providing the type of public services our communities have the right to expect.

Diversity is often identified as a goal for public sector organizations, however, the meaning may be vague. Diversity may technically be viewed simply as having a person from a different background than that of other employees. While this might meet the technical definition of diversity, it may only be a poor shadow of the expectations of the community. Instead of diversity, perhaps the stated goal should be inclusion.

Inclusion would suggest the organization is reflective of a representative bureaucracy. Employees from diverse backgrounds are not just seen in the workforce, but they are also represented in all organizational areas and levels. Instead of being seen as exceptions, they are woven into the fabric of the organization. With diversity, you achieve a numerical goal. With inclusion, you are more likely to be able to accurately appreciate the needs and expectations of the communities we serve, supporting more effective and efficient service delivery. With inclusion, public sector leadership may be more likely to understand the needs and expectations of their own employees, supporting higher morale and motivation and greater productivity.

Among the barriers to achieving inclusion are the concepts of racist and racism, which should be viewed as distinctly different if they are to be addressed effectively. When we speak of racist, we are speaking of individuals who predicate their interactions with others on pre-existing stereotypes and prejudices. As a rule, public sector organizations have developed policies which address such dysfunctional behaviors in individuals, taking appropriate action to erase them from the workplace. I say “as a rule” deliberately, as we must admit there are those within the public sector whose aberrant beliefs and behaviors are left unchecked, contaminating the workplace with their toxic views. However, it is often easier to deal with racist behavior than it is to address racism, which often goes unseen.

When we speak of racism, more accurately institutionalized racism, we are speaking of the political, economic, legal and cultural aspects of our communities which contribute to disparate treatment of those not in the majority. Institutionalized racism is often far more difficult to address because it is often not the result of a deliberate action on the part of those who benefit. Instead, it is part of our society, part of our organizational culture, and many may not accept it exists.

We see institutionalized racism in various ways, including the disproportionate numbers of minorities in our correctional systems, in low test scores in our educational systems, in diminished patient outcomes in the health care system, in income levels below that of non-minorities and in organizational charts which remain predominantly filled with whites. And, though the focus of institutionalized racism is often viewed exclusively in terms of race or ethnicity, the same arguments apply to institutionalized discrimination based on sex, gender, religion, national origin and health status. The public sector workforce is expected to reflect the communities we serve, and to serve those communities in a professional, unbiased manner. Where institutional racism exists, there may be a powerful argument we are under-performing, if not outright failing. We must do better.

Public administrators must actively engage to create inclusive environments. Public administrators must actively engage to address the contributing factors to institutionalized racism, preventing the sub-optimal, if not negative, impacts on minorities. These environments did not emerge overnight, nor will they disappear quickly. It will take awareness and persistence. To paraphrase British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Let us not pretend awareness is the beginning of the end of institutionalized racism in our nation, but let us do what we may to ensure it is the end of the beginning.”


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, is a member of Capella University’s public administration core faculty. Prior to this, he served in local government for over 30 years. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA; he may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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