I've worked in some fairly diverse work environments in my time. The Air Force comes to mind. In four years of service, I was employed alongside soldiers, Marines, seamen and fellow airmen. At one point, I shared quarters with a black man from the Bronx, an Hispanic man from San Diego and a white man from the deep south of Oxford, Miss., William Faulkner's hometown. Throw in my vanilla Midwestern accent and ideals and our dorm was quite a slice of varied social mores for an 18-year-old fresh out of high school.
The chain-of-command leadership of the military neutralized such things as race, socio-economic status and, as far as I could tell, placed a sunroof on the glass ceiling, as women zoomed through the ranks as swiftly as men. At one point, my supervisor was a sergeant with five years experience, who himself answered to a staff sergeant with six years. A female senior master sergeant—who after 20 years had served Lyndon Johnson through George Bush, Sr.—had primary charge of the outfit, yet technically she was obliged to salute a baby-faced second lieutenant fresh from officer's training school. Rank trumps experience in the military, but you better believe that second lieutenant showed all due respect to that senior master sergeant.
My first job after the military, however, was a virtual petri dish of diversity that, for the first time, brought me face to face with the ugly drama of racism. It was at a foodstuffs storage plant just outside of Milwaukee; a place as big as an airplane hanger, stuffed to the gills with all the products—from Hot Pockets and pork chops to window cleaner and toilet paper—that eventually stock a grocery store. Our job was to cruise the aisles on motorized mini-forklifts, fill food orders and load the 18-wheeler delivery trucks.
Of the roughly 700 workers at the plant, about 50 were college students, like myself, working part time. At least another 150 were blacks and Hispanics, mostly part-timers themselves, and the rest were lifers—proud union good ol' boys and girls who assumed the top perch in the plant pecking order.
Many of those grizzled vets were plainly weary of us college boys and especially the blacks and Hispanics, and I witnessed countless passing potshots and unveiled annoyance. It was a demanding job, particularly in the meat and freezer department, where the temperature was zero degrees, and we all dressed like polar explorers stacking massive chunks of cow and pig onto wood pallets. With each food order, the clock was ticking; we were timed for efficiency, which took practice to achieve.
One night, a group of black men was called into the freezer (or the "box" as they called it) to help out the regular crew on a heavy night. The freezer department, because of its intense conditions, employed the most dogged union vets whose inner-circle solidarity was impenetrable.
After a few hours in the box, I noticed a growing hostility between one of the black workers (Robert) and a vet. Several times I saw the vet scowl and heard him utter racial slurs under his breath. Robert heard them too.
Finally, among the thousands of iced-up boxes in an isolated area, Robert and the vet met on their forklifts. Robert busied himself with his order and avoided eye contact. I was nearby and watched the vet impatiently squeeze his machine past Robert while lashing out with a string of profanities, peppered with that slang word stick of dynamite: "nigger."
Incensed, Robert left the box and reported the incident to the supervisors. In the meantime, I overheard several of the vet's co-workers tell him to deny everything, which he did. The other black workers soon got wind of the episode and came to Robert's aid as the supervisors interviewed the two parties. Later that night, as uncomfortable as the situation was, I told the supervisors what I saw and that the vet was lying. They took down my account, dismissed me, and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it. No official reprimand. And barely a token gesture at damage control.
Over the next week, about 25 black workers quit. They were expendable. The union, untouchable. It was business as usual, and more black workers would soon join the plant and fill the holes. I can only hope the plant has since found a way to deal with its own diversity, instead of learning the hard way that respect for human beings is the most admirable priority in a business' bottom line.
Jeff Barbian is a senior editor of Training. firstname.lastname@example.org