When I saw the American Red Cross’ “Be Cool, Follow the Rules” swimming pool safety poster in the news last month, I knew the drawing was developed by minds with no understanding of the sordid history of African Americans and public swimming facilities. I knew the poster – just as sinister as it was simple – was created and approved by people that did not comprehend the impact of characterizing children of color as troublemakers. I knew the poster was created and approved by an organization that did not have an appreciation for diversity or cultural sensitivities. Consequently, I was not shocked to learn that this poster originated at the American Red Cross.
The Red Cross’ immediate response to the uproar over this poster rings somewhat hollow to those of us whom have been given countless assurances that the Red Cross is committed to turning the page on its history of cultural and racial insensitivity. Over a decade ago, this weakness was brought into stark focus when the nation watched the Red Cross flounder its response to Gulf Coast residents in desperate need of help before and after Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, the Red Cross acknowledged afterwards that some African American communities had less access to aid than white communities and that many black evacuees were forced to turn to churches and civil rights groups for assistance. These groups – dubbed the “Black Cross” – had no choice but to help when the Red Cross was nowhere to be found. Finally, the Red Cross lamented that its workforce and volunteer force did not look like the people it served and admitted that this was a liability in its effectiveness.
In the months and years that followed, Congress tried to put the Red Cross on a path to address its central challenges, including diversity. In 2007, Congress amended the Red Cross’ Congressional charter in any significance for the first time in decades and directed it to be inclusive and diverse. Years later, it seems this common sense instruction was ignored.
As a leader of the Committee on Homeland Security, I advocated to Red Cross leadership that it put in place the right policies, procedures, and personnel to adequately address the challenges posed by its lack of diversity by appointing a Chief Diversity Officer and establishing a National Diversity Advisory Council. When Red Cross leadership announced that they agreed with the need for these positions, I received assurances that these new mechanisms would help Red Cross address its longstanding cultural and racial diversity challenges. I was hopeful that Red Cross would turn a corner. Regrettably, it is clear that optimism was misplaced.
For almost a decade, I have engaged in intensive dialogue with the Red Cross’ top leadership about its continued challenges and have held the Red Cross accountable for delivering on its promises to develop a more diverse workforce – from headquarters leadership to the often volunteer boots-on-the-ground. Though recent data suggests that there may have been marginal progress in the level of representation of African Americans and Latinos within the Red Cross workforce, it is hard to believe that this racially insensitive poster would have ever been green-lighted for publication if there was a person of influence from a diverse community involved in the decision making process.
What some may see as just as a public relations gaffe is confirmation of what I have known for quite some time - the nation’s largest charity organization remains oblivious to cultural sensitivities and how these issues have had and will have a direct impact on its mission. Furthermore, Red Cross’ response to the backlash against its “Be Cool, Follow the Rules” poster – to contract with an outside diversity advocacy organization for future guidance, shows that the structure that was put in place to promote a more diverse and culturally sensitive culture within the organization is simply not working. This decision makes a mockery of the work put into improving the organization and is further evidence that when it comes to achieving cultural and racial diversity, Red Cross’ top brass are clueless.