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OPINION

The truth about workplace ‘diversity’

Turmoil at ESPN is a reminder that there’s a chasm between what some white people say and how they really feel about equity and inclusion.

ESPN sports broadcaster Rachel Nichols at American Airlines Center on February 6 in Dallas, Texas.
ESPN sports broadcaster Rachel Nichols at American Airlines Center on February 6 in Dallas, Texas.Ronald Martinez/Getty

On Monday, Rachel Nichols, a longtime ESPN reporter, offered a tortured bit of crisis management one day after The New York Times published a lengthy report about her role in fomenting racial acrimony at the TV sports giant.

Nichols, who is white, was caught on tape last summer complaining that management was “feeling pressure” to give Maria Taylor, a Black reporter, a high-profile hosting job because of the network’s “crappy longtime record on diversity.”

Many of us with careers in predominantly white spaces could smell the sourness of that comment. No matter our abilities, some white colleagues reduce our presence to nothing more than a cynical numbers game played by employers to make it look like they care about equity.

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This isn’t just a story about one company’s well-documented workplace troubles. It’s a snapshot of corporate America’s racial toxicity, and the chasm between what some white employers and employees say — and how they really feel — about diversity and inclusion.

What the Nichols tape reveals is the dissonance of private comments from those who claim to be allies in the fight for racial justice. While speaking to Adam Mendelsohn, LeBron James’s longtime adviser, Nichols lamented that Taylor was chosen for a job Nichols believed she deserved — hosting popular shows during the 2020 NBA playoffs and finals.

At one point in their conversation, Mendelsohn said, “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.” Nichols laughed.

He’s exhausted.

It’s more than Mendelsohn’s snarky remark or that Nichols, a woman who covers a league that’s 75 percent Black, thought it was funny. It’s bigger than those with privilege being attuned only to what inconveniences them, and dismissive of what endangers the livelihoods and lives of others.

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It’s that regardless of what Black people achieve, no matter how many slings and arrows of outrageous racism that we endure, we’re still viewed as diversity window dressing. Instead of valued staff members, we’re regarded like those black boxes companies used on social media after the murder of George Floyd to show a commitment to racial equity — empty symbols quickly forgotten or removed.

For me, Nichols’s laughter echoed the chuckles shock jock Don Imus got when he disparaged Gwen Ifill, then a White House correspondent for The New York Times, in 1993. Imus, the Baby Boomer generation’s Joe Rogan, said, “Isn’t the Times wonderful. It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

His inference was obvious. Ifill, one of the most distinguished journalists of her generation, was unworthy of a job that’s still filled mostly by white men.

In every stage of my career, I have been subtly (and not so subtly) reminded that I’m considered a diversity hire. No, that’s not the case with every white colleague. And one benefit of age is recognizing my talents and value and learning the difference between being supported and being tolerated. Yet I reacted to Nichols’s comments about Taylor with a weary sigh, then a swell of anger. Only white men’s success is never questioned. Their ascension is accepted as rote, while the accomplishments of those long marginalized are viewed as suspect.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the acclaimed New York Times Magazine writer, announced Tuesday that she had declined tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was initially denied tenure at her alma mater because some thin-skinned donors frightened by history whined about her Pulitzer Prize-winning opus, The 1619 Project.

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In a statement, Hannah-Jones said, “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.”

I stand with Taylor because I have stood where Taylor finds herself now. She’s been pulled into a storm of white grievance, her talents unfairly scrutinized. ESPN announced Tuesday that Malika Andrews will replace Nichols as the sideline reporter during the NBA Finals “to keep the focus on” the games between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns. It still can’t erase how Taylor has been sullied only because she got a job a white woman wanted.

A recent Future Forum survey found that, more than other racial or ethnic groups, Black people would rather continue working from home than return full-time to the office. What’s happening at ESPN, and companies that aren’t in the headlines, is a bleak reminder of why that’s the case.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.