Affirmative Action Backlash
TYRONE D. TABORN
Chief Executive Officer
Career Communications Group
I like to think of myself as a journalist who somehow lost his way and became a manager. As CEO of Career Communications Group, which sponsors the Black Engineer of the Year Award, the Women of Color Award Conferences, Black Family Technology Awareness Week and La Familia Technology Week, and publishes Black Engineer and Hispanic Engineer, my subject today is affirmative action, specifically affirmative action backlash. After thinking long and hard about how to approach the issue of backlash, I decided to start with a question. What backlash are we talking about? Webster’s defines backlash as “a sudden, violent, backward movement or reaction; a strong adverse reaction to a recent political or social development.” But, there is nothing subtle or recent about trying to derail society’s attempts to right the legacy of discrimination and racism in the United States.
Affirmative action has been subject to attack for its entire history. Political opponents have repeatedly tried to overturn it during the past 15 years. Now we have a secretary of labor and an attorney general who oppose affirmative action. So in fact, what we call a backlash against affirmative action has been around since the 1970s. The cover story of an issue of U.S. News and World Report in March 1976 was “Reverse Discrimination: Has It Gone Too Far?” Almost since the beginning, opponents of affirmative action have cloaked their motivations by calling the program reverse discrimination against white men. And that’s been very effective with the public.
A lot of polls have been taken, but I’d like to mention one, a recent Gallup poll showing that 33 percent of white Americans favor a decrease in affirmative action. Only 25 percent of white Americans considered racism in the workplace to be a big problem. Among African-Americans, however, 56 percent felt that affirmative action should be increased, and 46 percent felt that racism in the workplace was a big problem. But what’s behind these numbers continues to alarm me. Housing and educational patterns continue to show large-scale separation of the races, which leaves most images of African-Americans and Hispanics to be formed by the mass media. As a journalist, I’ve seen the impact of mass media on how we shape policy. Imagine that 56 percent of whites believe that blacks are less intelligent than whites and that 62 percent believe that blacks are less hard working. By itself, perhaps, this wouldn’t be a big issue, but when it translates into hiring policies and teaching, the problems become serious. That’s why those numbers are important.
Supporters of affirmative action seem to be losing the public relations battle right now. After a generation of progress, it appears that America’s commitment to equal opportunity, not only for blacks but also for other minority groups and women, is at a crossroads. A movement dedicated to ending affirmative action, with a stream of electoral wins behind it, has led to significant rollbacks in equal opportunity programs. Somehow, opponents of affirmative action have perpetuated the idea that discrimination is a thing of the past and that affirmative action gives benefits to less qualified minorities, thereby denying opportunities to white men. The debate is often presented in the mass media as less qualified black people taking away jobs, college seats, and financial aid from more qualified whites.
Let’s just take a moment to focus on education. Although minority groups are the fastest growing segment of the population, they make up only 12.4 percent of the entering class of doctors. Three medical schools, Howard, Meharry, and Morehouse, all historically black colleges and universities that play a major role in training black medical students, account for 15 percent of minority students entering medical school. Of the 123 other medical schools, six account for another 15 percent. So nine schools account for the enrollment of 30 percent of all minority medical students. Many of you might recall the Bakke case, challenging that 16 out of 100 places were held aside for qualified minority students by the medical school at the University of California Davis. The court ruled that, in the absence of past discrimination, quotas were illegal but that minority status could be used as a factor in an applicant’s favor. The reality is that whites still receive the majority of top-level jobs, government contracts, and slots at leading colleges and professional schools. The facts show that affirmative action has not cheated white men out of jobs, wealth, and business opportunities. I don’t recall a class action suit involving white men, but I’m aware of many settlements on behalf of minorities and women: Coca Cola, around $192 million; Texaco, $174 million; Denny’s, $54 million; Mitsubishi, $34 million.
A report by the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration found that, of 3,000 discrimination opinions in federal district courts, reverse bias was an issue in fewer than 100. And even in those cases, the courts found that most of them involved a white applicant who was less qualified than the minority or woman applicant. So how is it that so many people have such mistaken perceptions of affirmative action? In some cases, we can attribute it to race-baiters who have convinced voters that affirmative action is not in the nation’s best interest. But that only answers part of the question. Another factor may be the lack of public education. More than 60 percent of us look to television as our only source of information. We don’t read enough, we don’t question enough, and we’re easily manipulated by politics of fear. So when it comes to a program for dealing with affirmative action and the workplace, education and debunking myths through the media must be major components.
Success will be critical for thousands of corporations in the coming years for several reasons. For one thing, litigation has increased as a result of recent civil rights legislation that gives more rights to class action suits as well as the ability to recoup recovery and litigation costs. That’s why we see major litigators moving into discrimination law, and we’re likely to see a lot more of that. For another thing, as many companies begin to lay off employees, minority populations will be adversely affected. In one of the best reports of its kind, back in 1992, a piece in the Wall Street Journal showed that during the last round of major layoffs, African-Americans were the group hardest hit. What is significant about this piece is that it showed that the African-American community never made up those jobs. Last hired, first fired. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that we seem to be heading to a repeat of those years, but the numbers have changed for the worse. I’ll use March 2001 as a start, because during that month, layoffs increased, and unemployment of African-Americans increased to 8.6 percent, which was double the nationwide rate. Latino unemployment remained constant at 6.3 percent, which was still considerably higher than the 3.7 percent for whites. So corporations will be under great scrutiny to be just in their policies.
I recently spoke at The Alliance, which is the association of black employees of AT&T and NCR, where large numbers of women and minorities have been fired, while in those same departments, majority people were not fired. I can tell you that AT&T and NCR will be in court and litigation for quite some time because the stakeholders involved will be speaking out very loudly. Affirmative action programs may come under even greater attack and backlash as companies deal with their stakeholders. To help frame this discussion, I’ll describe several issues that employers should consider.
First, affirmative action shouldn’t be used as an excuse to explain away a lack of achievement and advancement. I remember my first year at Cornell. I came from the West Coast, from California, and I knew not a soul. I wound up at Telluride House, which was a scholarship house, where I believe I was the only minority person in over two decades. I was told by one of my housemates that “minority kids slow us down here at Cornell.” In fact, one went further and said that minorities had taken his best friend’s spot at Cornell. I was 18, and I don’t think I knew much better. I wish I had known then what I know now. But, perhaps, my lack of knowledge helped put me on the path I have followed to find justice in this society. Only a week later, a young Jewish man befriended me there. It was clear from the beginning that he was not intellectually gifted, and he said, “Tyrone, I’m surprised I’m here at Cornell. But my mother and father went here. They’re both doctors, and they gave Cornell a lot of money my senior year.” So he wound up at Cornell. Like universities, at the executive level of most corporations, the selection criteria are often partly subjective and usually have little to do with GPAs, SAT scores, or performance ratings. Other considerations have much greater impact, such as having a high-level supporter, a coach, or a mentor who will speak on your behalf at the right time; being able to communicate and make presentations effectively; and making executives feel comfortable around you. In other words, understanding the corporate culture is key. I wonder how many complaints of reverse discrimination are simply the result of good old competition.
Everyone in the organization should understand that achieving diversity is in the interest of the company’s business goals. Employees are just some of the many stakeholders in a corporation. Consumers, shareholders, and fund managers all have interests in the way large employers conduct themselves.
Third, companies must keep up proactive diversity actions. While a lot has changed in the way businesses operate, one thing remains the same—the need to have access to the best and brightest workforce. Companies can avoid tokenism by enlarging their workforces, which means traditional recruiting strategies will have to be augmented with programs that strongly emphasize work/life issues and emphasize the company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen. To me this seems obvious. Companies ask me to talk to them all the time. The first thing I ask to see is their college recruiting schedule. Usually I say, “You’re not going any place where there are Hispanics or African-Americans. How in the world do you even bring them in to be considered?” I always say that in business schools we don’t teach Common Sense 101. Because people are usually comfortable with the places they come from, corporations tend to recruit from the same campuses where the top executives graduated. We’ve got to change that traditional thinking.
Finally, everyone in the organization should be involved in recruitment and diversity efforts, including the most senior executives. Put them on the campus at a historically black college or university. Involve them in outreach programs, in conferences with women and other minorities. Key executives should be part of both internal and external business resource groups. Companies have different names for these groups, such as women employees’ groups or Hispanic employees’ groups. All of these are business resource groups and should be looked at as resource groups.
In the end, perhaps the historical patterns of exclusion are so deeply ingrained in our society that this fight may never end. And perhaps that’s good, because it means we will never forget. There are many bright and creative people who can and want to continue to make a difference. I was encouraged by a study from Ernst and Young showing that two-thirds of college students believe it is important to work for an organization that values diversity. Although that is promising, results will not be determined by words. They will be determined by actions. And those actions will necessarily generate reactions. I hope we will be successful someday in mitigating the reactions.