Diversity is good business

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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In the summer of 1967, I had my first paper route. Making morning deliveries for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I’d pick up my papers before sunrise from a bundle drop in front of the Westover Theater and deliver the daily news to about 50 customers along West 47th, 48th and 49th streets and Westover Hills Boulevard.

When there was enough daylight to read, I’d take a break, parking my gold Schwinn Stingray bike with its newspaper bundle-sized handlebar basket, bought with savings from my newspaper collections at Agee’s Bicycle Shop.  Sitting on a low cinder block wall at the corner of West 49th Street and Bassett Avenue, I’d read the morning paper while the news was still fresh.  This is when I first began to get hooked on the news of the day.

For most of a week in the middle of that summer, my interest was glued to the story of the Detroit riots.  For those too young to remember, Detroit suffered a massive race riot sparked by a police raid on an after-hours club.  Over five days, there were 43 deaths, 473 injuries, over 7,000 arrests, 2,500 stores looted or burned, and nearly 400 families left homeless.  City police, state police, National Guardsmen and U.S. Army troops were all called out to quell the violence. 

Simultaneous riots spread like wildfire through an additional two-dozen cities in Michigan, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and nearby in Maryland.

In evenings after dinner, I’d collect the money due for my newspaper deliveries.  Going door to door with my collection book in hand, I knocked politely, cheerily announcing, “Times-Dispatch.” 

One night that week, a grizzled-looking older man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt slowly opened his door. I saw a shotgun leaning against the foyer wall beside a full case of shells.  My eyes widened as he explained, “I hear that busloads of [blacks] are on their way down from Baltimore and D.C., just making sure I’m ready.”  That was Richmond in 1967.

Not just Richmond, but also our nation.  Detroit came just two years after Bloody Sunday in Selma and just a year before the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  Hindsight being 20-20, we should all hope to have since moved on.  But have we?

In 2014 and 2015 racially charged protests, in some cases outright riots, have occurred in Ferguson, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif; New York City; Cleveland; and now, Baltimore — all because of allegations of police brutality.  Has much really changed during the last 50 years?

Recently, several states attempted to pass so-called “free exercise of religion” bills permitting discrimination against same-sex couples.

The reaction from large businesses was swift.  Accenture, Apple, Eli Lilly, Salesforce, Twitter, Yelp, even the NBA and NCAA all issued statements or took other actions in protest, potentially cancelling events and looking at other states for business expansion.  Chief among their concerns were fair treatment of their employees and the ability to attract a high-quality workforce.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on same-sex marriage.  Part of the argument against legalizing same-sex unions nationwide is based on states’ rights — let the individual states decide.  This is reminiscent of a history lesson that claimed states’ rights, not slavery, caused the Civil War.  Really?

Many significant milestones in the struggle against racial discrimination have been achieved through action by the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government: the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act (1964) the Voting Rights Act (1965), and Loving v. Virginia (1967). Resistance to nearly all of these decisions was based, at least in part, on states’ rights.

If all this had been left up to the states, what kind of country would this be?

The struggle for women’s rights also runs the gamut of civil rights.  An Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress in 1972, but later died in 1982 when it failed to achieve ratification by the minimum of 38 states.

Rights for same sex couples are now following this same trajectory, including significant court decisions being made in Virginia.  Later this month, the Supreme Court of the U.S. is expected to decide on same-sex marriage.

States’ rights seem to have come into conflict with civil rights so reliably that it is worth considering whether so-called states’ rights are being used as a thinly disguised excuse for prejudice.  Should states be permitted to allow discrimination?  I think not — and more often than not the courts have agreed. 

The U.S. Constitution clearly gives civil rights a higher standing than states’ rights.

Still it’s 2015, not the 1800s.  In Baltimore about 200 businesses closed and more than 200 people were arrested.  That is not nearly the same scale of destruction as Detroit in 1967, but it is hard to imagine why such events are still happening at all. 

Diversity is good for business.  It brings new customers and new ideas, fostering innovation and economic development.  Equal opportunity creates a more open workplace.  This makes both social and economic sense.

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