Blaming Diversity to Excuse Mediocrity
Banks and other financial institutions have failed before, and they will fail again. Washington Mutual had $307 billion in assets when it failed in September 2008. Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust: $40 billion in assets on its failure date in May 1984. Lehman Brothers had $639 billion in assets when it filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. Much has been, and will continue to be, said about the cause of the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) failure. Many people (more knowledgeable than I) have opined as to the reasons: risky investments; failure to diversify its asset base; not enough oversight; regulations that were lifted that should have remained intact. Most shockingly, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler posited: “Was there regulatory failure? Perhaps. SVB was regulated like a bank but looked more like a money-market fund. Then there’s this: in its proxy statement, SVB notes that besides 91% of their board being independent and 45% women, they also have “1 Black,” “1 LGBTQ+” and “2 Veterans.” I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands.”
As the young people say, Kessler’s “math ain’t mathing.” By every single metric, SVB was still a majority company: its senior leadership was 62% male and 62% white; its board was 58% male and 92% white; and its total workforce - 54% men and 52% white. Nor does Kessler’s point hold water historically. The Lehman Brother’s board: majority white and male. The WaMu board: majority white and male. Signature Bank’s executive management team, including its founders and executive vice presidents, and its president and CEO – were all white and male. White males have been at the helm of every single major financial institutional failure in this country.
If its board being white and male was protection against failure, SVB should have been fine. But as we know, it wasn’t. Terrifyingly, for Kessler, being majority white and majority male is not enough when others are present. It is as if any diversity (here, 1 Black person, 1 LGBTQ+ person, and 2 veterans) torpedoes the greatness of its majority members. For Kessler, one cannot only NOT be qualified AND a minority, but being a minority (or having one on your board) is a major handicap (pun intended) from which a majority white and majority male board may never be able to recover.
For decades, little black boys and black girls like myself have been told we have to work three times as hard, facing ignorance, hatred, and prejudice all along the way, to achieve the same successes as our white counterparts. LGBTQ+ individuals have had to hide their truest selves. Women have had to combat harmful stereotypes, harassment, and unequal pay to force their way into a seat at the table. Yet the very presence of a few others (several women, 1 black person, and 1 LGBTQ+ person) screams incompetence to and has so unnerved the likes of Kessler and his likeminded brethren that all he can see is the demographic makeup of the few and not the failures of the (white and male-led) whole.
Over the last few years, this has been a trend. The very laws put into place to protect underrepresented groups are now being used to slow down or halt the diversity efforts of businesses and educational institutions altogether. Feeling more and more threatened by the presence of non-majority individuals, some are advancing arguments in newspapers and at dinner tables. In courtrooms across this country, that diversity breeds mediocrity – despite the very well-documented evidence to the contrary… that the very fact that someone is a person of color, woman, LGBTQ+, or any other type of “other,” they are inherently unqualified and incompetent. For a person who believes this – that the presence of diversity is a sign of incompetence, there is nothing that can be said in this 800-word essay that will change that person’s mind. But, let this be a warning: we are at a crossroads … an inflection point in society where opinions are at extremes and intolerance will only lead to catastrophic collapse. For not only is this logic obviously flawed, but it is also extremely dangerous. With every passing day, this nation becomes more diverse. With every passing effort to protect positions of power for the majority, the sacrifices and progress (of those who came before us and attempted to hold this nation to its eternal yet so far unattainable promise to be a land of equality and opportunity for all) are eroded, and divisions are deepened. This did not work in the antebellum south or during reconstruction or Jim Crow, or during the 1960s and 70s, and it will not work now. For “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”