We’ve watched as the nascent Black Lives Matter protests in cities around the nation have spread over the last couple of years to the nation’s campuses. There, they matched up neatly in many cases with already aggrieved college students who didn’t care to be exposed to any speech they disagree with and who sought to reform the educational system to match their own idea of Nirvana. Despite the fact that this does little or nothing to prepare them for the real world, this has been not only tolerated at many universities, but encouraged. But where does this new breed of questionable activism and suppression of free thinking go from here?
At Fortune Magazine, one educator foresees the Black Lives Matter movement cropping up in workplaces across the nation. Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at St. Louis’ Washington University, specializing in “research that examines how race, gender, and class affect social processes at work.” She begins her piece with a defense of BLM tactics, casting aside any accusations regarding the suppression of free speech and defending the idea of disrupting institutional racism while defending an unwillingness to engage in dialogue with those who offend them.
I’ll leave you to read that first section for yourself as it’s readily dismissed material we’ve covered here too many times in the past. But then we get to the real meat of the article where Wingfield describes how and why such disruptive activity should be transferable to the workplace.
The next context within which these students will confront racism is apt to be the professional workplace. Some of the critiques students raise about their environments at predominantly white colleges and universities will likely reverberate in corporate, almost always predominantly white companies. There, they may well experience much of the same racial stereotyping, isolation and lack of regard for racial issues…
Researching black professionals and emotional performance at work, I found that many African American workers were so aware of their heightened visibility that they stringently monitored their emotions and reactions. They said they were held to different standards than their white peers and often were careful never to express anger or irritability, lest they evoke ugly racial stereotypes.
But the younger generation may be less likely to follow this script — and more likely to challenge it. These future graduates have already shown a willingness to take on institutions to make them more hospitable and sensitive to racial issues. If employers welcome them, these young workers could prove to be valuable partners in the effort to establish the racial diversity and tolerance that still elude America’s largest companies.
If you begin seeing such disruptive activity inside the workplace (as opposed to protests taking place externally) the immediate results should be instructive. What we’re seeing here is an evolution of protests traveling from one environment to the next and the next, but the conditions for such engagement change significantly with each hop across the playing board. The key to understanding this is recognizing the relationship between a business and a social gathering. Out in the streets on public property, protests and demonstrations are not only allowed, but something of a tradition in free society. You may or may not agree with the message, but we all owe it to the health of the nation to ensure that such peaceful demonstrations (a key factor) are never squelched by the government. But it’s equally important to realize that there is no business of any volume taking place out in the public square. There is no product being offered and there is no customer to receive it.
When you move this passion play to the nation’s college campuses, the picture changes somewhat, but not entirely. In theory, all schools operate as a business to a certain degree. They all charge a fee and presumably deliver a service in return. That service is the education which the “customers” receive, and in this case the customers are the students. (And to a lesser degree these days, the parents of the students if they are footing the bill for the tuition.) The point here is that the customer is internal to the institution. But it’s also something of a tradition that this process can be at least temporarily disrupted out on the quad when students band together to protest this or that social condition or government policy. It’s been that way since well before the Vietnam war. The “product” quality deteriorates during such protests, but the “customers” generally seem willing to incur the loss as part of the overall college experience. In short, the customer is accepting the loss by participating in the cause of it.
The workplace in the private sector is something else entirely. The employees are not the customers as they are in the university analogy. They are part of the service or product provider. The employer and the management team are only vaguely similar to college administrators because the actual product is what goes out the door and they are completely accountable for any degradation in quality and corresponding decay in profits. When the cause of such losses are identified they are corrected and eliminated. If it is the employees who are causing the productivity to suffer, they are removed from the equation, assuming their complaint is not one of illegal actions being taken against them.
I believe the reason for the failure of some activists to grasp this situation is found in a failure to assign blame for perceived “systemic racism” to the correct party. The fundamental question here is one of what you expect from your government (or, in this case, either your campus administration or your employer) as opposed to what you expect from your fellow human beings. There is a key difference between people engaging in actual criminal activity (violating the rights of others… particularly minorities) and those who are merely boorish, offensive, or not quite politically correct enough for your tastes. Whether you are in the public square, the campus lounge or the cubicle in your office, the government is responsible for handling the former. Those who break the law must be held accountable immediately. At a university, the administration must make sure that law enforcement is summoned promptly to investigate crimes and reiterate to those under their supervision that criminality will not be tolerated. The same applies to the workplace.
When you get into the realm of the latter category of legal, but perhaps offensive activity, however, things are far less clear than the author seems to imply. None of us have any God given right to never hear speech in the public square which we may disagree with or find offensive. Then there’s a key difference between a campus and a workplace to be considered. Free speech, as difficult as it may be to learn, is a much larger issue on the campus square than in the office. The “customers” in a university may be far less tolerant of offensive speech and far more willing to withstand a disruption to see it eradicated. That is not the case in a place of business. The owners will establish what employee behavior is permissible within the limits of the law. And when either the allegedly offensive speech or the protests in response to it rise to the level of impacting productivity, either party engaged in the disruption (or both) will likely be removed from the equation promptly.
To make a far too long story short, if you want to try to import disruptive Black Lives Matter tactics into a private sector workplace, you will soon find yourself protesting outside and without a paycheck. And it’s highly unlikely that you will find a court in the land to back you up once you are terminated from your employment. If what you are seeking is to modify the offensive but otherwise legal behavior of your fellow human beings, the government is rarely the proper tool for the job. And attempting to “instruct” people about their behavior and convince them to modify it is rarely going to be successful if your tactics are best described as “disruption.”