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Martin Davidson
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Martin Davidson

Dr. Martin Davidson is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he also serves as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference.

Falling prey to the 'zero tolerance' card

Q: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acted too quickly in removing Shirley Sherrod from her USDA job. How can today's leaders assess when to move quickly and when to hang back?

Let's not be confused. As Shirley Sherrod reflects on the apology expressed and job opportunity offered by Tom Vilsack following the accusations that she was a racist, one could characterize the drama as an example of a bad call--actually a series of bad calls--made when leaders had to make a decision under uncertainty -- like an umpire incorrectly calling a base runner safe on a close play in baseball. But that would not explain why we see leaders so frequently make ill-conceived and just plain dumb responses when race emerges.

The real problem is that when it comes to race, leaders all too often suffer from bouts of race reactivity and they play the "zero tolerance" card. The knee-jerk condemnations of Sherrod by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, by the NAACP and by Vilsack initially reveal how our sensitivity makes any discussion that is racial transform into a discussion about how someone is racist.

As we now come to understand what really happened, this situation illustrates, a person can talk about race without being racist. I've seen this scenario play out in my research and consulting in all kinds of organizations and social encounters.

Our fear and anxiety about having honest and open dialogue on the complexities of race make us play the "zero tolerance" card whenever anyone says something even remotely resembling racial sensitivity. But in fact, we need to have more conversations in which we hold our reactivity in check.

And let me be clear on two points. First, of course some people exploit the knowledge that we are race reactive for political gain. They know leaders are fearful of race and they use that to advantage. That may have indeed been Breitbart's initial motivation in posting the short video. I don't agree with Breitbart's perspectives or his approach, but I'm going to practice what I preach and examine the guy's behavior and role in this situation before I leap to blame him for race-baiting.

He may have been a smart political operative, but he also may have been a guy with a perspective to advocate who was also vulnerable to race reactivity. He may have posted only the short video because that is all he wanted to see and wanted others to see. That tunnel vision is precisely what I am talking about and no single political ideology has a monopoly on it. Remember, the NAACP condemned Sherrod, too.

Second, I don't like racists and am not all that interested in sitting down for tea with them. But most people I encounter are not racists. They are people who want and need to have conversations about race and they step into those conversations with varying degrees of skill and insight.

What was powerful about Sherrod's foray into race was that she was telling a story of healing and evolution from a place in which racial bias limited her to one in which racial openness led her to do her job exceedingly well. We need to hear more of those kinds of stories, not have them stifled by zero tolerance.

It's unfortunate that the zero tolerance card has played out in this situation. Usually, it is white men who are victims of this problem: They make mistakes related to race or gender and are punished before they have a chance to learn from them.

Here, a black woman has fallen victim to the "card." Leaders rush to condemn anyone who makes an "identity" mistake, in part, because it makes the leader look virtuous to do so. If I call out the racist person, other people are much less likely to label me as a racist myself.

But being intolerant toward people who make mistakes keeps leaders and their constituents from learning the valuable lessons that come from examining the mistakes. The farmer and his wife in this story actually defend, not blame, Ms. Sherrod because she ultimately supported them during their struggle. The power of the story that Ms. Sherrod shared is that any of us can make a mistake and recover--even thrive--after the fact.

By Martin Davidson

 |  July 23, 2010; 6:24 AM ET
Category:  Failures Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The way an individual immediately reacts (the "knee-jerk") to any situation is the result of that person's life experiences. So, a "knee-jerk" reaction to someone's "knee-jerk" reaction is to criticize that person's life experiences, which they cannot change. Therefore, the criticism isn't rational. The current situation involving Shirley Sherrod is not the Obama administration's "knee-jerk" reaction, but, rather, political expediency, which itself may be rationalized, but not justified. As this situation highlights, political self-interest and ideology can be ugly.

Posted by: Inciteful1 | July 26, 2010 6:56 AM
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The roles of Breitbart and Fox news in this episode differ significantly and fundamentally from those of the NAACP and Vlasek. Breitbart and Fox news were motivated by an ugly aggressive desire to do significnat damage to Obama, the Democrats, and any Progressive agenda - and they were essentially lying and manipulating the system to accomplish these goals. The NAACP and Vlasek were motivated by cowardice and a bit of foolishness (to accept anything from Breitbart et al without skepticism). While the latter roles of the NAACP and Vlasek show poor judgement and cowardice and are disappointing, the roles of Breitbart and Fox news are extremely mean, false, and even bordering on evil.

Posted by: harrumph1 | July 24, 2010 10:37 AM
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Vilsack and Obama "acted stupidly."

Mmm. Where have we heard that phrase?

Posted by: cpameetingbook | July 23, 2010 1:16 PM
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Shirley Sherrod said what nobody wants said: Lincoln freed the slaves and in doing so enslaved the poor.

Some two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it arrived in the South as "General Order #3".

"This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages."

Less than 15% of the hired labor in the US has a collective bargaining contract. The 'zero tolerance' card shows just how vulnerable the other 85% of the workforce really is.

Posted by: gannon_dick | July 23, 2010 10:26 AM
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Details in the column aside, I agree that zero tolerance is the first refuge of politicians, cowards and high school principals.

Posted by: webman2 | July 23, 2010 9:30 AM
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I suggest that when going to elect your candidates in November. That people need to remember the horror of Katrina, and what was done to many American Citizens. If that candidate has no more sympathy than Bush, and his minions showed? Do Not vote for that person, because they care not for people, but only for power, and greed. Check your candidates closely in how they've treated the poor, and different races in the past before choosing another bunch of do nothings who care for nobody, but themselves.

That shouldn't be too difficult, unless you all have a terrible memory!

Posted by: sheilahowison | July 23, 2010 9:05 AM
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