The Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a badly needed police reform movement, and now attention has broadened to the behavior of private citizens as well. In the latest demonstration of how corporations are reacting to such incidents, the firm Raymond James quickly took action after an employee and his wife confronted and insulted James Juanillo, a gay Filipino homeowner, who was stenciling “Black Lives Matter” onto a wall that is part of his own property.
The incident could have gone much worse for the property owner. When private citizens take it upon themselves to police Black people, the consequences can be lethal.
The Black Lives Matter movement was initially sparked in 2012 when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a private citizen while walking in his own neighborhood. The more widespread and sustained wave of Black Lives Matter protests has brought renewed attention to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery earlier this spring, and then George Floyd late last month.
The consequences can also be deadly when private citizens call the police to allege criminal behavior by Black citizens. That seems to have happened in the stenciling case, as a police car eventually came by during the confrontation. Fortunately, the officers recognized the homeowner and left the scene without getting out of their car.
Even though the incident occurred outside of the workplace, Raymond James took decisive action immediately. After firing the associate, the firm posted the following message on Twitter (emphasis added):
“An inclusive workplace is fundamental to our culture, one in which people are free to bring their whole selves to their careers,” the statement read in part, “And we expect our associates to conduct themselves appropriately inside and outside of the workplace.”
The firm could have fallen back on a more conventional, less final response, including a public apology, a donation to the Black Lives Matter movement, and a pledge to do better in the future.
However, Raymond James may be particularly sensitive to brand reputation and recruitment issues following a series of much-publicized sexual bias allegations within the company back in 2007.
Among other actions since then, the firm established formal Advisor Networks focusing on women, Black employees and those in the LGBTQ community.
“The Black Financial Advisors Network supports the recruitment and retention of the best and brightest black professionals in the financial services industry,” Raymond James explains in a recruiting pitch. “Our mission doesn’t end there; we also are dedicated to helping you develop your career and grow your business with the support of accomplished advisors just like you,” the company adds.
As one of the many firms invested in unconscious bias training for its employees, Raymond James may also be more sensitive to out-of-work incidents in which an employee has clearly not assimilated the training.
That may not necessarily be the fault of an employee. It could also indicate a serious shortcoming in the conventional approach to unconscious bias training.
Also called implicit bias training, the field has become quite popular among leading firms seeking to improve their diversity profiles. However, diversity professionals have begun to take note of a fatal flaw.
Writing for Forbes in December 2019, the diversity strategist Janice Gassam observed that unconscious bias training can be successful in helping employees learn how their individual behavior is influenced by their own “blind spots and stereotypes.” On the other hand, she argued that these training programs fail to address the "systemic and structural issues that allow biases to be perpetuated in the workplace.”
Among the issues Gassam listed is structural racism, defined as “the complex system by which racism is developed, maintained and protected.”
“As much as you try to create an equitable workplace, if employees do not understand white privilege and the many ways it manifests in the workplace, systemic oppression will continue,” Gassam wrote.
Gassam makes the case for addressing white privilege as a system, not simply as a matter of personal bias.
“With an understanding of white privilege, organizational leaders should assess policies and procedures to evaluate whether any of them perpetuate racial inequities,” she wrote, citing the example of grooming and physical appearance policies that disproportionately impact Black hairstyles.
“Understanding how practices and policies that were once deemed as acceptable may be causing and continuing inequities can help spark the necessary shift to deconstruct these oppressive systems,” she wrote.
In addition to breaking down structural racism within corporate operations, training on white privilege may help employees recognize biased systems in society at large. Equipped with that knowledge, they may be more capable of policing their own behavior outside of the workplace.
In the meantime, the Raymond James firing may help put more people on notice that they need to think before they act, if only to preserve their income.
As for the employee’s wife, as of press time she has still retained her position as CEO of the San Francisco-based skin care firm LAFACE (not to be confused with the entirely different Los Angeles company LA Face).
She has issued a statement of apology, but in light of the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country, the words ring hollow.
As of this writing LAFACE has taken no other action, but its social media accounts and website are down.
Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.