Diversity, Not Affirmative Action

The technological boom can be an engine of equality for black America. But first we need to address the barriers that continue to exist in the work place. We can do this through diversity, not affirmative action. Contrary to popular opinion, the difference is not a mere matter of semantics.

Despite the fact that black Americans are presently enjoying record highs in terms of per capita income, they continue to earn just 56 percent of the median income of white families. That’s just a 1 percent improvement since 1965.

The technological revolution has dramatically expanded the high level job market and therefore holds the promise of finally facilitating equality in the workplace. Sadly, young, qualified black Americans continue to face very real barriers in the work place that prevent them from taking advantage of these new opportunities. Dr. Margaret Simms, vice president of research at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, has observed that young black Americans suffer in the labor market due to a perceived deficit in "soft skills." Simms defines soft skills as "thinking and problem solving skills, oral communication skills, personal qualities and work ethic, and interpersonal and team work skills."

For example, when hiring, bosses may look for those personal traits they associate with their own success. Consequently, they may end up hiring people who look, think and act in a manner similar to themselves. If confronted with a minority applicant who looks, sounds or communicates differently, they may turn these differences into perceived soft skill deficits.

As a South Carolina-area attorney specializing labor law confided to me,

"We constantly see employers who treat minorities more adversely than they would do whites in similar circumstances….We occasionally see hiring from closed sets of talent pools….Very frequently we see employers who operate under unfounded stereotypes and assumptions about the abilities of minorities and women. I think this is probably reflected in the differentials in pay between men and women and between whites and minorities."

Unfortunately, this sort of latent discrimination is virtually impossible to prove. Partly because there exists a strong tendency among judges (and sometimes even juries) to favor an employer’s interpretation of events. But more to the point, because people in management simply tend to mentor people who look and act and sound like their sons.

What that means is that young, white Americans have traditionally benefited from the availability of mentors to help hone their talents, while minorities, even to this day, suffer from a lack of mentors to identify with and learn from. There is a logical progression: a lack of mentors equals a lack of learning opportunities, equals a lack of advancement, and equals a lack of certain high level positions being filled by minorities. With time, this sort of arbitrary sorting of high and low level employees comes to be regarded by many as the natural way of things.

Fortunately, there are some very practical things we can do to change that, beginning with educating employers on what the shifting ethnic and racial composition of the national marketplace means for their bottom line. Consider: the ability to conduct negotiations with suppliers in their own language, or tailor production elements to their specific expectations can provide a critical strategic advantage. On a design and marketing level, being in touch with the cultural and behavioral norms of a diverse consumer base can go a long way toward distinguishing your message from the cacophony of other sounds in the marketplace.

Within an organization, facilitating ethnic, racial and gender diversity represents a strategy for opening the company to new members and new ways of doing things. From this perspective, celebrating diversity is more than a mere act of political correctness, it is a way of cultivating dynamic new ideas in the work place. It is a way forcing employers to think outside of the box. It is a way of preventing your corporation from becoming a slow, stodgy, monolithic bureaucracy where everyone thinks and acts alike. Plainly, this is a good thing. As French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin observed, progress is "the friction of diverse minds working together."

Of course my critics would be quick to misrepresent what I’ve written above as an endorsement of affirmative action. That’s what happened in 2003, when I organized a series of meetings between the Republican House leadership and several prominent black Republicans aimed at increasing ethnic diversity within the Republican Party. After one of the meetings, we resolved to hire 200 new black republican staffers. The Washington Post promptly pounced. In a Jan. 30 editorial, "But Don’t Call it Affirmative," the Post editors ridiculed those Republicans in attendance for implementing a form of affirmative action. Basically, they called us hypocrites.

I shot back a letter to the editors explaining that while our efforts were related to race, they did not constitute affirmative action. We had no intention of pushing certain candidates ahead of other candidates by virtue of their skin color. Rather, we resolved to broaden our recruiting practices by increasing our presence in underserved communities. We wanted to give ourselves access to job candidates who may have been overlooked in the past. Plainly, this is not affirmative action. This is simply understanding the value of diversity. The manner in which we achieve this goal is of great importance — and not a mere matter of semantics, as the Post editorial insinuated.

My letter to the Post editors — gasp — went unpublished. But my point remains. We need to convey the importance of facilitating ethnic and racial diversity. Not by toting diversity as an extension of political correctness, but by showing corporate and political entities how their assumptions are costing them.