Last week, Inc. interviewed the billionaire, entrepreneur owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban. In light of Donald Sterling, racism was one of the topics covered. Cuban’s candid and honest response has sparked a wave of controversy:
If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street.
While we all have our prejudices and bigotries, we have to learn that it’s an issue that we have to control, that it’s part of my responsibility as an entrepreneur to try to solve it, not just to kick the problem down the road.…
Cuban has been wrongly crucified for his candor. Prejudice is human nature; it’s not bigotry or racism. We all hold prejudices. Bigotry and racism, however, imply intentional hatred. Crossing the street late at night because you see someone in a hoodie coming towards you does not mean you hate that person because you assume he’s black. Instead, it means you’ve been influenced by what you’ve seen, heard, or experienced, and that influence is causing a reaction.
Here’s the difference, from a Title VII perspective. If you learn of race-based comments or action in the workplace, you have an obligation to investigate and take appropriate corrective action reasonably to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. If you are dealing with racism, no corrective action will halt the behavior, and the only likely response is termination. If, however, you are dealing with unconscious prejudices, you can use the incident as a learning tool to open a dialogue with your employees about race.
In managing employees, it is unrealistic to expect them to hold no prejudices. Recognizing this fact is the first step to managing race in our workplaces.