Developing Black Talent in Latin America

“We don’t have a race problem,” is a common reaction in my native Latin America when American diversity executives show up in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking lands to expand their global diversity efforts.

Latin Americans often feel U.S. Americans are projecting the United States’ racial tensions onto a Latin American context. There’s much truth to this. However, we Latin Americans need to face the reality that the darker one’s skin, the poorer one tends to be.

Before I recommend steps to engage in a true Latin American conversation, consider this story. Zumbi dos Palmares is the only university created for people of African descent in Latin America. It was founded in 2003 in Sao Paulo. Ninety percent of its more than 1,100 students are black, and it graduates more than 600 students a year.

Recently, while I was still president of Diversity Best Practices, the organization, along with Working Mother magazine and the National Association for Female Executives, held various D&I conferences in Brazil. During the week we brokered a meeting between a group of mostly African-American chief diversity officers, Zumbi students, teachers and administrators.

Over caipirinhas, olives and bread, the students told tales about being black in Brazil, where black or mixed-race people account for nearly half of the population but only 13 percent of college students. Their stories of marginalization and struggle were stark after listening to rooms full of people speak about their commitment to diversity.

“Where have all the black Brazilians been all this week?” one of the African-American CDOs asked in dismay. She had relied on her Brazilian colleagues to bring the right mix of people to the conferences. And while there were many forms of diversity among those invited, the dearth of blacks was evident and disturbing.

To understand what happened, one must understand how race dynamics have played out across the region. The U.S. was largely colonized by families, which made racial segregation easier to maintain. As American capitalism led many from rags to riches, even money was not enough for blacks to be accepted as equals; race trumped class.

In Latin America, it has been the opposite. In a continent colonized by soldiers who left their girlfriends and wives far behind, there was a massive intermingling of blood, leading to a racially diverse mixture of people where discrimination by race alone would be difficult. But the legacy of vast income disparity in Latin America allowed the elite to marginalize based on socioeconomic class rather than race.

In countries such as Peru there were laws that gave special privilege to whites. However, if a dark-skinned person had enough money, he or she could buy a “certificate of whiteness” and acquire those same privileges; class trumps race.

Understanding this key difference will lead to different understandings, approaches and strategies such as using socioeconomic diversity as the back door to get to racial diversity issues in Latin America. This is why the diversity conferences we had were racially homogenous. While there are many black workers, they were in lower-paying jobs; the socioeconomic barriers were too great for the attendee lists to include them.

Back to the Zumbi story. As we finished our caipirinhas, two African-American CDOs addressed racial diversity in a Brazilian way. On the spot, Rosalind Hudnell of Intel and Jackie Glenn of EMC each pledged funds to help the university develop its black talent. Zumbi responded with a proposal for how it would use the money for an online job and resume posting site, which is now up, and an entrepreneur incubation center which launched this November.

The talented, educated and ambitious black Latin Americans at Zumbi, and millions like them across Latin America, are ready to be part of the region’s economic emergence. But first, the reality of their struggles due to the color of their skin needs to be addressed. They’ll take it from there.

Andres Tapia is a senior partner in the diversity, inclusion and talent optimization practice at Korn/Ferry Leadership & Talent Consulting and author of “The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.” He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.