May 16, 2014 — This Saturday will mark the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that officially desegregated American public schools. The women and men who toiled for years to win that lawsuit hoped it would have implications far beyond its immediate impact. They wished not just for an official end to segregation, but for total societal transformation.
It's hard to overstate Brown's momentousness. But it's equally difficult to pretend that, 60 years later, we've achieved the “post-racial” United States those of us who grew up revering civil rights leaders still aspire to.
As much as many of us wish it didn’t, race still matters: witness LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s discomfort with his biracial girlfriend’s habit of socializing with black people. According to an ongoing Reuters/Ipsos poll begun last year, Sterling isn’t alone—around 40% of white Americans and 25% of non-white Americans say they only have friends of their own race. And 30% of all Americans have no friends, relatives, or even coworkers with racial backgrounds different from their own.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who lacks different-race friends is a racist. Given the persistence of residential segregation in the United States, it’s easy to become enmeshed in a racially homogenous bubble. Interracial marriage is on the rise, but many Americans do not interact with members of other races on a regular basis. And the consequences of this lack of contact aren’t just social, but economic.
Catalyst research reveals that high-potential women who identify as racially or ethnically different from the majority of their coworkers are less likely to have high-level mentors—and less likely to advance to a company’s C-suite or senior executive levels.
Even in today’s workplace, women and minorities often experience feelings of isolation and exclusion. And not fitting in at work doesn’t just make you feel bad; it makes it less likely that you’ll be “in the loop” when it comes to opportunities for advancement.
According to a recent report, women of color will make up 53% of the female population of the United States by 2050. Yet our research shows they held only 3.2% of board seats at F500 companies in 2013—virtually the same as in 2012.
Sending children of all races to school together is unquestionably important to those of us who believe in Dr. King’s dream of an integrated America. But even truly integrated classrooms—which are still elusive 60 years after Brown—are not enough to ensure that people of color will have as many opportunities to succeed as their white peers.
The news isn’t all bad: Catalyst research points to several bright spots, including key behaviors smart leaders can exhibit to help create inclusive workplaces.
The days of de jure segregation are over. But prejudice still impedes the advancement of people of color—especially women of color—and its effects won’t be mitigated until we address the behaviors that spring from it. The Court’s decision in Brown was a crucial step forward on the road to racial equality. But it was among the first steps on a very long journey. And we have miles yet to go.