Critical race theory is a scholarly discipline formerly confined to the halls of law schools. Now suddenly, white supremacists and their allies have ginned up fears over its application to grade school children. As a group, the opponents are unable to explain how they made the leap from the rarified air of law school lecture halls to K-12 classrooms, but one thing is sure: Business leaders should take the time to understand what critical race theory really is, and ad agencies provide one good example of why.
Legal scholars coined the term “critical race theory” (CRT) in the late 1970s. It is not a single subject, or even a group of programs. It is a discipline. It refers to the study of laws and other government-sanctioned systems that may not appear race-based in abstract. However, in combination with other elements, these systems can cement and perpetuate the race-based suppression that cascades throughout American history from its earliest beginnings on up to the present day.
For political purposes, Republican office holders and their allies are deploying critical race theory as the new “red scare,” portraying it as a form of racial indoctrination meant to shame and blame white people. Former President Trump himself sparked the movement while campaigning for a second term last fall, when his administration threw critical race theory into a list of forbidden diversity training topics.
However, that is clearly a false representation.
“CRT is not a diversity and inclusion ‘training’ but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship,” the American Bar Association explains, adding that “It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice.”
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In the academic context, critical race theory provides a platform for scholars to critique the outcomes of legal systems and other social constructs objectively, without becoming entangled in the subjective weeds of whether or not individual policy makers are racists.
As a complement to diversity training programs in the corporate world, the discipline of critical race theory could help business leaders analyze their hiring practices objectively and lower the temperature of conversations about race and exclusion. That would be especially helpful in breakout sessions, where close quarters can easily enable emotions to run high.
Ad agencies provide an especially good example of the need for an understanding of critical race theory in business, partly because the field is notoriously behind the curve on diversity hiring. The exercise in disciplined discussion could help business leaders analyze generations of exclusionary practices from a solutions-based perspective.
Ad agencies also reveal that the work of diversity hiring needs to begin far ahead of the first job interview.
The advocacy organization Three’s a Crowd (TAC) made an important step in that direction back in 2018, when it embarked on a mission to help Black creative professionals embrace Blackness in advertising and other fields including marketing, production, fine arts and entrepreneurship:
“We rise on the shoulders of a rich history of Black thinkers and leaders who advocated self-reliance and black agency. From the Harlem Renaissance to BET, from Sojourner Truth to Spike Lee, and from Marcus Garvey to Dr. Dre, we follow the example of those who never asked for a seat at the table, all the better to build their own.”
As part of that endeavor, last summer Three’s A Crowd asked ad agencies to commit to hiring more Black leaders. The organization marked 13 percent by 2023 as the hiring goal, to match the percentage of the Black population in America. As of last summer, Blacks only accounted for 8 percent of employees at ad agencies, and Three’s a Crowd estimated that Blacks hold only 2 percent of leadership positions in ad agencies.
The campaign launched in the midst of the reenergized Black Lives Matter movement, and the response was encouraging. Three’s a Crowd received 172 pledges from 71 ad agencies for its “In for 13” campaign.
The campaign involved far more activity than simply signing a pledge. Three’s a Crowd developed a full program in consultation with diversity experts. It was designed to complement additional work that would need to be undertaken by those signing the pledge.
Unfortunately, it appears that “additional work” was far too big of an ask for some firms.
Last week, AdWeek reporter Larissa Faw noted that 49 agencies have dropped their diversity commitment to Three’s a Crowd. Currently, the roster of those remaining includes just 20 agencies, two production houses and two holding companies.
So, what went wrong?
In part, the problem is a familiar one that cuts across all sorts of businesses: the pledge signers promised more than they delivered.
Over-promising on corporate pledges is not unusual in any business sector, but it can be especially acute in the ad agency field, where the practice of self-examination, accountability and transparency has not yet taken hold.
“TAC from the beginning made it clear that joining the pledge would include markers of accountability and transparency that the industry doesn’t usually demand,” Faw explained.
In addition, many of those signing the Three’s a Crowd Pledge were mid-level executives. When it came time to implement the program, upper management balked.
Three’s A Crowd core member Tahirah Edwards-Byfield noted that “promising to increase Black leadership by 2023 is one thing. Committing to doing it — and the structure changes it will take for many companies to do so effectively — is another thing entirely.”
“Creating action around anti-racist practices felt like a lot of work that many agencies either weren’t equipped for or interested in,” Three’s a Crowd co-founder Reonna Johnson added.
On a more optimistic note, Faw observes that some of those dropping out have incorporated some elements of the program. She also indicates that Three’s a Crowd accomplished the important work of exposing a key missing link in diversity hiring: namely, the need for an overhaul of internal corporate culture, not simply the application of new training programs.
The notion of overhauling corporate culture from the inside out can easily be fraught with emotion. In that regard, the discipline of critical race theory can help business leaders promote constructive self-examination without falling into the blame-and-shame trap.
The especially compelling need of an overhaul in the ad industry was laid out last year in an op-ed published by NBC News. It was written by Christopher Boulton, associate professor of communication at the University of Tampa, who has studied diversity hiring in the ad industry.
“Advertising’s unique ability to persuade by creating the appearance of change through rhetoric, symbols and events has helped corporations and existing power structures conceal and protect white gains and Black losses behind the scenes for generations,” Boulton wrote, launching into a fiery critique of generations-old exclusionary hiring practices.
“When it comes to feigning change while continuing to marginalize Black lives and maintain white power, advertising has a long record as a repeat offender. And nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the ongoing, striking lack of diversity in the advertising industry itself,” he added.
According to Boulton, the root of the problem is an over-reliance on must-hire lists that foster nepotism and friend referrals, amplified and supported by a lack of objective hiring standards. As the Three’s a Crowd experience demonstrates, the practice is supported by a lack of transparency and clear hiring standards.
Nepotism and friend referrals are not uncommon in any entity that hires, whether they are in business, government or nonprofit. However, Boulton excoriates the ad industry in particular for fostering an environment that pushes Black employees out of the mentoring network and leaves them vulnerable to “white backlash.”
Specifically, Boulton interviewed interns and found that “over half of the white ‘must-hires’ in my study opposed affirmative action, even though they got their own spots through just such a program; these white hires nevertheless complained that Black interns got in ‘only because’ of their race.”
That attitude can permeate corporate culture and lead to significant brand reputation damage, as coincidentally illustrated by ESPN earlier this week.
Clearly, it would help ad agencies and other businesses if interns and employees were aware that their must-hire status is nothing more or less than a generations-old form of affirmative action. Getting a good job through family, friends or school connections is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens all the time. The real shame lies in denying the structures that create that opportunity and denying the structures that keep others out of the loop.
Business leaders who are serious about diversity hiring could make some real progress by exposing employees to the discipline of critical race theory in workshops and professional development programs. They could also help cut off racism at the source by advocating for critical race theory as a standard practice in college-level courses and business schools.
For that matter, educators are beginning to fight back against new laws prohibiting the use of critical race theory in public schools. Last month the National Education Association passed a resolution calling for “racial honesty in education including but not limited to critical race theory.”
Considering that an organized effort is well under way to pass laws seeking to restrict critical race theory, the NEA has its work cut out for it. Support from corporate leaders would go a long way towards ensuring that the next generation of interns is well-informed and well-equipped to foster economic growth and opportunity in a more dynamic, diverse, and equitable society.
Image credit: Bruce Mars/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.