Race Equity Ed Blog

Workforce Diversity in Ferguson, in America

By Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D.
Posted September 2, 2014

The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, has sparked much unrest over the past few weeks about race and policing. Televised coverage of protests and other scenes from Ferguson have been racially striking. With the exception of attorneys for the Brown family and Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, most African Americans appearing on camera were outraged residents demanding justice and the arrest of the officer who gunned down the teen. The majority of Whites interviewed were persons in positions of authority, including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

Despite comprising more than two-thirds of its population, only three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers and one of its city council members are African American. The mayor is White, so too is 86% of the school board membership. Some may find this racial imbalance surprising, but I’ve seen it over and over again. African Americans are continually underrepresented in most sectors of the U.S. workforce; we most often occupy positions at the lowest occupational levels, not influential leadership roles. Take my industry, for example. On many university campuses, people of color are severely absent in top positions of authority (presidents, vice presidents, deans, and tenured full professors), but disproportionately comprise employees in custodial work, groundskeeping, food service, and secretarial roles. The same trend exists in corporations: board members and handsomely compensated executives are almost always White, positions in which workers are paid considerably less and possess the least amount of power tend to be more diverse.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Chief Jackson and others in leadership ever noticed that the racial makeup of Ferguson’s police department doesn’t match the demographics of the community it serves. Did they realize this was problematic? Beyond sensitivity and anti-bias training, did they ever engage in serious conversations about strategies to diversify their workplace, or did they convince themselves that a nearly all-White police force was capable of being colorblind, fair, and perceivably trustworthy? When corporate executives participate in meetings that are primarily or exclusively White, do they even notice? Do they believe it is okay that the company’s leadership doesn’t reflect the diversity of its customers, America, and the world?

Ferguson is not unique. Many cities with large African American populations have overwhelmingly White police forces. I study the consequences of racial problems such as this in educational and occupational settings. The racial mismatch between Ferguson’s residents and its police force didn’t shock me. I’ve repeatedly seen in other industries what happens when persons in positions of power are almost all White and the constituents they serve are mostly powerless people of color. Eventually, there is an eruption, a breaking point, as is the case in Ferguson. At the very least, certain racial trends repetitively contradict messages from White leaders regarding their commitments to diversity (for example, high levels of turnover in roles people of color disproportionately occupy). Among other reasons, many leave because they find the racial climate toxic and their White colleagues uncommitted to diversity. And then there are situations like the one in Ferguson in which African American residents, at least those I’ve seen on television the past few weeks, have made clear that they didn’t trust their police force before the Michael Brown shooting and definitely do not now. Similarly, people of color in workplaces where we are severely underrepresented and power is unevenly distributed often find it difficult to trust that we’ll be treated fairly and the leadership will appropriately respond to our interests.

An additional aspect of the Ferguson tragedy I find unsurprising is Gov. Nixon’s appointment of Cpt. Johnson, an African American man, to lead law enforcement efforts in response to citizen unrest. It isn’t until there is an eruption – for example, a CEO gets publicly scorned for saying something racist or there’s a hate crime on campus that attracts national media attention – that efforts are swiftly made to diversify the leadership. In higher education, the result is usually the hiring of a chief diversity officer, a nice peacemaking role like Johnson is playing in Ferguson. Racial problems with policing existed there long before Darren Wilson, a White police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown. I suspect African American citizens, perhaps even the three employed by the Ferguson police department, called for greater racial diversity long before Cpt. Johnson was handpicked to assume leadership of a crisis. Why weren’t they heard? Why do White leaders so routinely keep themselves in top positions of authority and people of color at the bottom in most American workplaces?

Dr. Shaun Harper is former Executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.