Understanding Diversity

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What is Diversity? Diversity is the inclusion of a wide variety of people of different races or cultures in a group or organization. It is vital that every employer and employee has an understanding of the concepts diversity.

Related Terms and Concepts

When learning about diversity, it is important to understand its terms and conceptual ideas.

  • Ableism. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors directed against people with disabilities.
  • Affirmative Action. Policies that take race, ethnicity, or gender into consideration in an attempt to promote equal opportunity or increase ethnic or other forms of diversity.
  • Ageism. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors directed against people because of their age.
  • Anti-Semitism. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors directed against Jews.
  • Anti-Arab discrimination. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors directed against Arabs.
  • Classicism. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors based on differences in social class, generally directed against those from poorer and/or working-class backgrounds.
  • Culture. The ever-changing values, traditions, social and political relationships, and worldview shared by a group of people bound together by a combination of factors that can include a common history, geographic location, language, social class, and it were a religion.
  • Discrimination. The same kind of belief systems and behaviors, both personal and institutional, directed against individuals or groups based on their gender, ethnic group, social class, language, or other perceived differences.
  • Ethnocentrisms. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors based on ethnic differences.
  • Heterosexism. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors directed against gay men, lesbians, and trans-genders.
  • Minorities. A part of a population differing from others in some characteristics, and often subjected to differential treatment
  • Multiculturalism. The acceptance of multiple ethnic cultures, for practical reasons and/or for the sake of diversity and applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place
  • Racism. A system of privilege and penalty based on one’s race
  • Sexism. Discriminatory beliefs and behaviors directed against women.

A Brief History

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Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States have been faced with legal and social exclusion for much of the 21st century. Labor shortages during the Second World War created some new work opportunities for African Americans and women. Even with this progress, however, the labor market still provided preferential treatment to men. Women, if provided opportunities, were not taken seriously –and were paid far less for performing the same jobs. African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics continued to have lower social status and work opportunities and status.

The notable Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka United States Supreme Court decision in 1954 declared that state laws that had created separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities. In a unanimous decision, justices stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” As a result, racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In December 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest prompted a group of black citizens to initiate a one-day boycott of the public bus system, leading to picketing and a year-long boycott of the Montgomery public bus system and selected merchants. As a result, the public bus system was desegregated. A Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped to organize the boycott and by 1957, Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference began to work for equal rights across the South.

In September 1957, angry white mobs in Little Rock, Arkansas, opposing the court ordered desegregation of public schools, threaten violence. President Dwight D. Eisenhower orders federal troops to protect nine black students integrating Central High School in Little Rock.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision, these events, and several other landmark cases served as the foundation for integration initiatives and the civil rights movement. But even after passage of civil rights laws beginning in the 1960s, equal opportunity initiatives for minorities and women were not prevalent. Because prejudice can take on many subtle, yet effective forms, private and public institutions remained all-white or all-male long after court decisions or statutes formally ended discrimination.

Both the courts and Republican and Democratic administrations looked to race and gender-conscious remedies to end persistent discrimination.  President John F. Kennedy created a Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961 and designated the term “affirmative action” for measures designed to achieve non-discrimination, Title VII was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending discrimination by large private employers — whether or not they had government contracts. . In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to take affirmative action to ensure equality of employment opportunity without regard to race, religion and national origin. (Gender was later added.)


Congress established the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1964 to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws by preventing employment discrimination and resolving complaints. The Act is designed to make employees whole for illegal discrimination — and to encourage employers to end discrimination. The EEOC is composed of five Commissioners and a General Counsel appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Commissioners are appointed for five-year staggered terms; the General Counsel’s term is four years. The President designates a Chair and a Vice-Chair. The Chair is the chief executive officer of the Commission. The Commission has authority to establish equal employment policy and to approve litigation. The General Counsel is responsible for conducting litigation. The EEOC carries out its enforcement, education, and technical assistance activities through fifty field offices serving every part of the nation.

In June, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. as the first Chairman of the EEOC. Serving with him were Commissioners Richard Graham, Aileen Hernandez, Luther Holcomb, and Samuel C. Jackson.  Charles T. Duncan, an African American Howard University law professor, was appointed as the first General Counsel of the EEOC.

After that, important civil rights organizations formed, or grew in scope. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966. New initiatives for the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People  (NAACP), founded in 1909 include Heading into the 21st century, the NAACP include focusing on disparities in economics, health care, education, voter empowerment and the criminal justice system while also continuing its role as legal advocate for civil rights issues. The AARP, founded in 1958, has also continued to be active to help members over fifty with age-related work issues. There are also several Hispanic organizations promotion civil rights and equality in the workplace such as the League of United Latin American Citizens.

A Legal Overview

Below is a history of important federal United States laws enacted to prohibit job discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act1964Prohibits discrimination in a broad array of private conduct including public accommodations, governmental services and education
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
(Title VII)
1964Prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin
Equal Pay Act
1963Protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination
Age Discrimination in Employment Act
1967Protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older
Equal Employment Opportunity Act1972Provides the right to equal job opportunities, and gives the EEOC the authority to “back up” its administrative findings and to increase the jurisdiction and reach of the agency
Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973Prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who work
Civil Service Reform Act
1978Prohibits any employee who has authority to take certain personnel actions from discriminating for or against employees or applicants for employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age or disability. Also provides that certain personnel actions cannot be based on attributes or conduct that do not adversely affect employee performance, such as marital status and political affiliation
Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act
1990Prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments
Civil Rights Act1991Provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination
Family Leave and Medical Act(FMLA)1993Allows employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a family member, or if the employee has a serious health problem.  Applies only in companies with fifty or more employees.

In the ensuing years, these laws have been continually amended to expand the protections offered to more workers in a wider variety of employer sizes and conditions.

Module Two: Case Study

Harold walked into the break room to use the microwave. He overheard two of his co-workers, talking. Their conversation turned to other staff members, and Harold overheard one of them say, “I don’t think Jamal’s very bright. I don’t know how he keeps his job here.”

The other said, “He only keeps his job here because of his skin color.”

Harold blinked, taken aback. He walked up to his two co-workers and said, “The comment you made is offensive, and there are laws against speaking about co-workers that way. I’d leave that kind of talk out of the workplace if I were you.”

The two co-workers looked embarrassed. They apologized for their statement and reassured Harold that he wouldn’t hear comments like that again in the workplace.