Instead of spending billions on policing minority communities, we should invest in smart diversity infrastructure on a massive scale.
The high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and, most recently, Eric Harris and Freddie Gray have drawn national attention to killings of unarmed black men by white police officers. These deaths have also raised broader questions about the relationship between police and minority communities in America, and whether we as a country are using our resources in the most effective way possible.
Nationwide, we appear to spend more money on policing minority neighborhoods than on programs that economically empower them. For example, even though crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in over 30 years, the U.S. still spends more than $100 billion on police every year. The Department of Labor — charged with training and investing in a competitive workforce, protecting workers, and assuring income and retirement security — has a total budget that is about half that.
These disparate investments make a big difference for communities. I’ve spent the last five years working with the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. Their goal is to increase participation of black workers on public construction projects, particularly the Crenshaw/LAX project which will extend L.A.’s metro system — it exists! — from the east side to the beach. The project runs through Crenshaw, a historically black neighborhood, and the LABWC has mobilized the local community to demand that black workers have fair access to these jobs. Through intensive advocacy efforts the LABWC has been successful in raising black participation from below 5% to over 20% on the Crenshaw/LAX project. But black workers on other public construction projects aren’t so fortunate.
While outright discrimination is undoubtedly at play sometimes, I’ve spoken to contractors and foremen that want nothing more than to increase diversity and fairness on their projects. I believe unconscious bias in hiring and retention are major factors hampering their success. The public construction industry is just one example, but it’s an important one because when bias does occur, consciously or unconsciously, taxpayers are essentially subsidizing it.
The bottom line is that we’re collectively failing to do enough to address bias across a wide spectrum of industries in the private and public sectors. We know that the tech industry has a major diversity problem (LinkedIn, for example, reports that just 1–3% of its workers are black). So does the Ferguson police department, which has 3 black police officers in a majority black city.
What if we reinvested resources away from excessive policing and toward developing smart diversity solutions? What if we could spot bias and make changes to eliminate it quickly and efficiently?
Technology offers exciting opportunities to do just that. While no panacea, technology can be leveraged to spot unconscious bias in a systematic and scalable way. As recently pointed out on MultiForum, technology is especially well suited to diversity solutions:
“A computer program cannot differentiate (and discriminate) between a resume of someone in a wheelchair versus someone who is not. A computer program isn’t afraid of offending someone by pointing out that they tend to only hire people of a certain race.”
Once developed, a software solution is scalable in a way that individual investigations are not. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, for example, has 709 staff members responsible for monitoring approximately 7.3 million firms for labor standards violations. That’s simply an impossible task, especially when staff must rely on worker-initiated complaints and in-person investigations.
Of course, diversity is not simply a design problem with a technical solution. Lack of diversity is a social problem, with complex causes that will require complex, and sometimes uncomfortable, solutions. But if there was ever a problem in need of disruption, this is it.
We need companies to do what they do best — develop innovative, problem-solving products. And we need collective investment through federal, state, and local government funding to encourage growth and long-term success in this area. There’s a strong business case to be made for tackling unconscious bias and increasing workforce diversity. But it’s also a matter of justice.
Let’s stop outfitting local police with tanks. Let’s build a diversity superhighway instead.