February 23, 1998
Volume 50, No. 22
Do we have a color-blind society? Not yet, says Ethridge
Those who wrote "history repeats itself" certainly knew what they were talking about. They should have added that in this country, politics, economics and racism play major roles in repeating history. Recent elections have zeroed in on the issue of affirmative action, and while the threshold issue of racism was rarely spoken of, its presence was unmistakeable because of the complexions of many of the programs' beneficiaries. Here, however, I'll stick to politics and economics.
Affirmative action programs were designed to end the systematic exclusion of women and people of color from opportunities in employment, education and other areas of American society. The federal government developed executive orders and regulations to "level the playing field."
The 1980s saw diminished federal enforcement of affirmative action legislation, and gains slowed as a result of this "hands-off" approach. William Bradford Reynolds, assistant secretary of labor for civil rights, and Clarence Pendleton, chair of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, traveled around the country alleging that goals were quotas and, as such, illegal.
However, three decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 supported using race and/or gender as a factor in hiring or promotion decisions. These decisions clarified that goals and quotas are not synonymous and affirmed the development of voluntary affirmative action programs. Still, the idea was firmly planted in the minds of many Americans that affirmative action is "preferential treatment" toward individuals because of their race. But the general public really does not understand what actually constitutes "affirmative action."
Today, the Supreme Court and certain federal courts are using terms such as "strict scrutiny" and "narrowly tailored remedies" to determine civil rights cases. And arguments against affirmative action go something like this: the playing field is now level; the programs have been ineffective for all except the middle class, who did not need these programs anyway; and affirmative action goals and set-asides are un-American because they are not based on merit. A more "compassionate" argument is: affirmative action is discrimination and creates the stigma of minorities as unqualified. These myths and others have been perpetuated by segments of our society who are woefully uninformed.
Economic conditions influenced attitudes about affirmative action in the 1980s, and those conditions are affecting affirmative action now. Companies and corporations are downsizing and moving jobs to foreign countries where labor is cheaper. Affirmative action is not the culprit in the loss of positions for many American workers; the desire for greater profit is.
In truth, affirmative action continues to be necessary. A 1989 Money magazine article titled "Race and Money" showed that blacks earn 10 percent to 26 percent less than whites with similar or lesser educational backgrounds. This country's distribution of wealth is lopsided in part because middle-class blacks are less than one-third as likely as whites to have equity in business. Hiring audits by the Urban Institute and others indicate that one-fifth of white applicants were able to progress further in employment than equally qualified blacks.
A look at recent lawsuits shows that blacks and other minorities are still treated unfairly in basic pursuits. In 1991 Holiday Spas Health Club settled a $9 million lawsuit for systematically discriminating against black applicants in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Atlanta. In 1993 Denny's restaurants settled claims of discrimination for refusing to serve black customers. Finally, Chevy Chase Bank agreed to an $11 million settlement when the U.S. Department of Justice found it guilty of race discrimination in its mortgage lending practices for redlining minority neighborhoods in Maryland.
These examples and others make clear that well-designed affirmative action programs for women and other "protected class" members deserve our undivided attention. Abolishing an effective concept-"management by objectives," if you will-because of the protestations of misinformed or uninformed individuals would diminish the opportunities of an ever-growing and increasingly competent population of women and people of color.
Affirmative action is a concept that enables this country to refute Thomas Jefferson's belief that a harmonious society is impossible. "Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites and the 10,000 recollections, by blacks, of the injuries they have sustained will lead to the extermination of one or the other race," he said.
If we have learned anything in this country since Jefferson's statement, we should be able to avoid having his prediction come true. We should capitalize on the diversity that will be prevalent on an even greater scale in our workforce, neighborhoods and schools by the year 2000. We must employ the skills and talents of women, people of color, immigrants and people with disabilities to compete successfully in the global marketplace.
Implementing well-conceived affirmative action programs is a proven method of systematically capitalizing on our most important human resource: diversity. Affirmative action is a concept that has been adopted to make diversity true in fact, and the results have been positive, but much more work remains to be done.
Women, people of color and people with disabilities continue to be under-represented on decision-making boards, in higher-level administrative and faculty positions in our colleges and universities, as doctors, as lawyers, as engineers. Minorities and women continue to earn less than white males with the same or lower educations.
Until those differences cannot be attributed to race or gender, affirmative action will continue to be necessary. Equal opportunity is an egalitarian goal that can be accomplished through a well-conceived and properly implemented affirmative action program with goals and timetables.
Bob Ethridge is associate vice president for equal opportunity programs.