How Society Affects Spirit, Performance and Success:

Why Affirmative Action
Has Not Outlived Its Usefulness

by Deborah Brown


Perhaps the greatest misconception about affirmative action is that it is a preference program. Affirmative action has never meant giving unqualified individuals access to employment, business and educational opportunities. Rather, it was designed and should continue to be a program that requires critical thinking about what constitutes legitimate qualification requirements and gives opportunities to qualified and deserving individuals. What fair-minded person has a problem with that? Its primary aim has been to end the exclusion of people who belong to groups that have been subordinated or left out of certain jobs and schools.

At one time in this country, black people had little chance of getting viable work outside of government and the black community. White society simply was not interested in any contribution they could make. There have always been bright, talented, creative African-Americans, but only recently have there been opportunities for them to make a contribution to the larger society. Those opportunities came about chiefly through the civil rights struggle and the implementation of affirmative action.

Colin Powell's name was not on the short list
for General until a more diverse list was requested.

The Bias at the Door
A job-hunting friend of mine, whom I'll call Lou, is sophisticated, polished and well-educated. Not long ago, he heard about a position in a small New Jersey town. It would take a long, two-hour drive to get there, but the hiring manager he spoke with on the phone was enthusiastic about his credentials. When he arrived, however, her enthusiasm vanished; so did the position. Something changed once she saw him. Lou, an African-American, was convinced the problem was his race.

Of course, we all carry weights--the societal resistance that must be overcome to achieve such life goals as a quality education and fulfilling employment. In this country, African-American ancestry has meant a difference in experience--a set of weights--of great endurance and heft. While members of other groups have certainly experienced discrimination, the immediately visible physiological differences of African-Americans sets them apart and leaves them more vulnerable to color-based snap judgments. The stereotypes commonly ascribed to blacks are more negative, plentiful and enduring than those ascribed to other groups. The remedy has required change not just on the part of the individual but on the part of the surrounding society as well.

Before you can open your mouth, hand over a resume or say "I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard," you immediately encounter and must overcome a going-in bias. Affirmative action has been an important remedy helping companies to push beyond that initial bias. Affirmative action's primary contribution may be the lens it has placed on the world that has made it suspicious when the qualified candidates for a particular opportunity overwhelmingly represent a single group.

Before you can open your mouth and say, "I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard," you encounter a bias.

Colin Powell's experience profoundly illustrates the point. Under the Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander in the Carter administration, Powell's candidacy for General did not pass muster when the slate of qualified candidates was initially developed. Only after Alexander insisted on a more diverse list did Powell's name appear. The rest, as they say, is history. Not surprisingly, Powell is a visible and vigorous proponent of affirmative action.

What African-Americans meet at the door is an assumption that they will not measure up to the standards an organization has set. That assumption is fueled by an unspoken presumption--Murray and Hernnstein's book The Bell Curve notwithstanding--of the intellectual inferiority of African-Americans, ostensibly confirmed by their lower standardized test scores. There is a tendency to focus too strongly on one or two easily observable measures of qualification and not on the most important: how people perform once they are in the actual situation, regardless of the factors--drive, motivation, resilience, sheer determination, passion or native intelligence--that got them there. But test scores are designed to be only predictive and, in reality, they often are not.

In Japan, the subordinated class did poorly on tests--until they moved outside the country. There, they were not seen as inferior.

A Class Divided
Why do so many black testers, even intelligent African-Americans who go on to do well in life, test poorly? An experiment conducted by educator Jane Elliott and captured in the film Eye of the Storm is highly suggestive of some of the subtle issues that need to be examined in order to answer that question. Elliott conducted the controversial "blue eyes-brown eyes" experiment on an unsuspecting group of Riceville, Iowa schoolchildren in 1965.

Elliott divided her class of third-graders into two groups. One day she informed the class that for the day brown-eyed children made up the group that was "less than"; they were not as smart, not as attractive, not as clean and not as civilized as the other group. The next day it was the blue-eyed group's turn. All the children were white.

In fact, white men were 45% to 52% more likely to be offered jobs over black or dark Hispanic men of the same qualifications and attitudes.

By the end of the day, the "less than" group was demoralized. They were shuffling their feet and holding their heads downward. Yet, they had experienced only small, subtle inequities (the other group could stay longer at recess, drink from the water fountain, have seconds at lunch). To signify their inferior status they merely had to wear a blue collar.

The results of this simple experiment were staggering. Elliott found that the less than group required dramatically more time to answer test questions. When asked why they didn't do as well, the children replied, "Because I was thinking about my blue collar."

When the experiment was over, the children wearing the collars tore them off their necks and tried to destroy them. In the debrief that followed the two-day experiment, the children's responses to Elliott's questions evidenced a visceral understanding of discrimination that only the discriminated against ever seem to acquire.

If you were to magically have
the color and features of a black person,
how much should you be compensated?
White people thought $50 million would be reasonable.

The Stigma of the Blue Collar
Around the world, subordinated people test poorly. But a case in point suggests the role that rejection and stigma plays because it gives an opportunity to examine what happens under "subordinated" and "nonsubordinated" conditions. In Japan the burakumin are ethnically Japanese but are analogous to the Untouchable class in India. Because historically this class had cleaned and butchered animals, tanned their hides and made leather products, they were regarded as filthy and despicable under the tenets of Buddhism. In their native Japan this group tested 15 points lower than other Japanese. But when they moved outside the country they were viewed simply as Japanese. The removal of the outcast stigma resulted in the disappearance of the deficit on I.Q. tests.

Similarly, the test scores of African-Americans are lower than the test scores of other groups, but the scores are consistent with the findings of the blue eyes-brown eyes experiment and the burakumin example.

While much of the focus of the discussion and scholarly research has tried to account for differences in performances on native, inborn ability--the esoteric study of genetics, it may well be that the phenomenon is simpler to explain: the effects of the assault on the human spirit. This is not the traumatic life-threatening experiences endured by prisoners of war, for example--but rather the corrosive and steady drip of day in, day out micro-inequities beating a rhythm of "less than . . . less than."

People understand that white skin has an almost tangible value
in our society and that there are career and financial outcomes
based on what color you are.

What the blue collar and burakumin examples suggest is that human beings, regardless of their color, are not built to withstand the subtle programming that comes with subordinated status. Of course, there are those who demonstrate a robustness--a resilience of spirit--enabling them to survive and flourish despite their circumstances. But in too many instances, it inflicts deep wounds--sometimes mortal--to the spirit. Affirmative action takes into account the fact that those viewed as less than always have to do, be and overcome "more than" their counterparts to ever be competitive. And that even so, extraordinary accomplishments--such as the accomplishments of the many outstanding athletes who predated Jackie Robinson--may go unnoticed and unheralded without an incentive to push beyond our stereotypes and preconceptions. When Branch Ricky recruited Jackie Robinson, the first black man ever allowed to play major league baseball, it was because white audiences were drifting to the more interesting games in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Robinson knew his selection was because of sheer timing, and he knew that there were other peers who were just as good if not better than he was. Robinson later became a legend. To this day, blacks must be more accomplished to prove that they belong. Why then, should our society provide only for the toughest and most robust of African-Americans to succeed when it is not required of whites?

There is a preference when it comes to male minority
job seekers, but it is not for male minorities.

Invisible Privilege
The work of Peggy Macintosh brings the far-flung blue-eyes, brown-eyes experiment and the burakumin examples even closer to home. A researcher and professor at Wellesley College, Macintosh has studied the concept of invisible privilege. To illustrate, she has constructed such privileges that most whites can take for granted. Here are three entries from her list:

  • I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  • If I am late to a meeting I don't have to worry about it being a reflection on my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
Her simple-to-understand examples shed light on how the type and quality of experience black/white Americans, "better than"/"less than" Riceville third-graders and burakumin/mainstream Japanese are all related. In each of these examples, privilege is the key variable. The groups to whom it is proferred perform and fare better than do groups to whom it is denied. In this country, we rarely stop to consider, much less articulate, the shape and scope of privilege that white Americans take for granted.

Good intentions have done little to solve this country's race and poverty problems. Affirmative action has inched us forward.

Andrew Hacker has also explored the concept of invisible privilege and the intangible value of white skin. Hacker, author of the book Two Nations and a professor of political science at Queens College, constructed a provocative scenario. In it he tells students to imagine that it was discovered that through some terrible mistake they were not born black as they should have been and that the situation must be rectified. They were to assume that at midnight they were to magically become black, with not only darker skin but the bodily and facial features associated with African ancestry. He asked them to imagine what recompense they would consider reasonable assuming that they were to live for 50 years more. Most students felt that $50 million or $1 million for each black year would not be out of place.

People understand that white skin has an almost tangible value in our society, that there are career and financial outcomes based on what color you are. When it is translated into dollars and cents, it is these kinds of exorbitant figures that get quoted.

. . . it's the corrosive and steady drip of day-in, day-out micro-inequities beating a rhythm of "less than . . . less than . . ."

There is yet another study that shows how just a tiny bit of bias early in your career begins to create a different trajectory that over time widens and widens. Reported in The American Psychologist, authors Martell, Lane and Emrich used computer simulations to show that relatively small sex bias effects in performance ratings led to substantially lower promotion rates for women, resulting in proportionately fewer women than men at the top levels of the organization.

While the study did not focus on the effects of race-based bias, one would imagine that the effects would differ only in the degree of the initial bias and the likely (greater) effect on career outcomes on African-Americans.

Americans are not naive.
They saw that affirmative action can and has been abused,
but they were able to separate inept implementation
from the true aims of the program.

The Evidence of Preference
The extent of the controversy surrounding affirmative action would suggest that it has had a powerful and pervasive negative impact on the employment and advancement prospects of whites. The reality is quite different. Studies continue to show that higher wages and advancement opportunities go overwhelmingly to white males, and statistics indicate that senior-level management is still 96 percent white male.

A quick survey of the representation of women and minorities in such diverse areas as the executive ranks of almost all corporations, the upper ranks of government service, among firefighters, surgeons, over-the-road big rig truck drivers, skilled craft workers and tenured professors in most subjects reveals that white male monopolies have remained virtually untouched.

In the absence of special pressure to locate good candidates from a diverse background, jobs go to people who fit the traditional profile. The status quo dictates that if a job has always been occupied by white people, a white person is overwhelmingly likely to be chosen to fill a vacancy.

Exhortations that advise, "just don't discriminate" have not brought about much progress. It is true that change has been slow and halting, but until we come up with something better, affirmative action should nonetheless be given its due. As Barbara Bergman, professor of economics at American University, points out, affirmative action does provide an impetus and practical steps for dismantling discrimination, rounding up promising candidates, and getting rid of artificial barriers, thereby achieving inroads into positions not previously held by people of their race and gender. Good intentions and business as usual have done little to solve this country's race and poverty problems. Affirmative action, though flawed, has inched us forward. Companies need an incentive to counter the preference of the status quo. What bears this out are the findings of several studies that tested the job market.

The Evidence of Discrimination
In their study, Clear and Convincing Evidence: Measurement of Discrimina-tion in America published by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, authors Michael Fix and Raymond Struyk report startling results. The organization set up job pairs; one half of the pair was white, the other black. Both were college graduates trained to act like entry-level job seekers and to be as similar as possible in their education, experience, openness, energy level, articulateness and even size. They went through mock interviews and were coached to act as much like the other half of the pair as possible. The jobs they interviewed for ranged from general laborer to management trainee.

The study found that white men were 45 percent more likely to be offered jobs. In a similar study that paired whites with dark Hispanic males (with excellent English skills), white males were 52 percent more likely to be offered jobs. These kinds of studies produce the same results again and again. There is a preference when it comes to male minority job seekers, but it is not for male minorities.

Affirmative action is an acknowledgment that there are different weights of varying size and heft and that there needs to be remediation for these differences. Some of us carry relatively light wrist weights and achieve an impressive (wind aided) time crossing the finish line. For others of us, the time and speed is less impressive until you stop to consider the poundage of the free weights some of us carry and the effects of running against a strong head wind. Although white women have benefited the most from affirmative action, significant numbers of black people have also been helped.

Because the government's ability to enforce affirmative action compliance is weak, its application has been voluntary and is uneven at best. There are, however, numerous examples of employers within both the private and public sectors who have found it within their self interest to make impressive strides in increasing workforce diversity, but many others have accomplished little or nothing. It's clear that much remains to be done.

The compelling question is, what would happen were we to abolish, curtail or forbid affirmative action anytime soon, particularly in employment. The overwhelming evidence suggests that we succeed only in aborting further progress and causing the resegregation of some workplaces. If we understand that much of the poverty, social disorganization and welfare dependence our country suffers is rooted in discrimination, it is hard to understand how that outcome could possibly be in our national best interest.

On the other hand, if we dispassionately evaluate the persuasive evidence on the extent of segregation of jobs, we will be moved to attack these problems head-on. In so doing, we will improve the incentive for those in danger of being left behind to behave prudently and to seize the opportunities that legitimately exist.

If qualified blacks are continually thwarted in their attempts to gain access to educational and job opportunities in America as a result of the retrenchment and dismantling of affirmative action, our country will be imperiled. But there is good news: A recent poll conducted by USA Today (March, 1995) shows that a majority of Americans not seduced by sound-bites and self-serving spin doctors agree with the fundamental tenets of affirmative action. Respondents to the poll were not naive. They saw that affirmative action has and can be abused and its implementation misguided and wrong-headed. But they were able to separate inept implementation and agenda-driven "malicious compliance" (the practice of shoving the least qualified black into a position--setting him or her up for visible failure) from the genuine aims of the program. What they recommend is a systematic approach to insuring that what we do is to--in Clinton's words--"mend, not end" a program that sadly and clearly has not yet outlived its usefulness.

Deborah Brown on Workforce America
The Five O'Clock Club in Harlem

Five O'Clock News: What is Workforce America?
Deborah Brown: Workforce America, a city-wide program based in Harlem, addresses the needs of those not yet in professional-level jobs but who aspire to be. Half the participants come from Harlem. There is a wide range of skill level and experience; some have degrees, some do not. The participants with the greatest potential have developed an overall career plan. All the members are African-American or Hispanic.

Because it takes an average of six months longer for African-Americans to find a job, and when they find one it generally pays much less than the salary they had targeted, a strong entrepreneurial component is being built into the program. This business component is presented as part of each member's overall plan, so participants have a sense of direction and forward movement. When the unexpected occurs (and it always does), they avoid drifting because the plan keeps members focused and directed.

Five O'Clock News: How are the career plans created?
Deborah Brown: Each member's career plan is designed based on the field they are drawn to, that is identifiably a calling, and in which they have strong demonstrated skills and abilities. We coach them to articulate what they've done and to discuss the significance of their contribution in the context of their company, department, etc. Also, we help them to be clear about not only their career goals but how they want to live--key components they are looking to achieve in their overall life; health, spirituality and family. Participants stay focused on what they want, so they really know where they are on the path, how far they have to go and how the next thing relates to what they've done previously.

Five O'Clock News: In light of the studies you cited in your article, do you think Workforce America's members have a chance in today's workplace?
Deborah Brown: In spite of some of the depressing national study results and employment statistics, I really am optimistic and feel that there are things Workforce America participants can do to improve their life and career chances overall. One, you've got to look at what it takes to land a job in the first place; and two, you must have clear expectations. You've got to know what it is that you have to offer; you must document and track what you've done and understand how it fits in the context so you have a collection of feedback and networking possibilities.

It's important to recognize that these are all life skills--not just job-hunting skills. They don't stop after you get the job; you've got to be very active in their use.

Workforce America
We Keep America Working


Deborah Brown is Executive Director of Workforce America. She has 16 years' experience in human resources with specialties in organization development and diversity. Throughout her career, working in both the profit and nonprofit sectors, she has focused on initiatives enabling employees to make use of their full potential. That commitment is reflected in her current position as vice president for administration at Catalyst, an independent nonprofit that works with business and the professions to effect change for women. Deborah has an M.A. in industrial organizational psychology from the University of Illinois.

This column is meant to improve understanding and explore various points of view so we can work together better in this increasingly diverse American workplace.