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Why We Still Need Affirmative Action

A panel of civil-rights experts and lawyers, led by DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, told an audience of CEOs and senior executives at our panel at our diversity event in Washington, D.C., that anti-affirmative-action activist Ward Connerly fails to recognize the damaging extent of past racism or that contemporary institutionalized racism is pervasive and powerful. They spoke after Connerly addressed the audience.

Visconti took Connerly to task for billing the initiative to end affirmative action as “a civil-rights cause,” noting that thousands of voters have been duped into signing petitions and voting in favor of measures over the years because they’re typically described as bans on discrimination instead of attacks on programs that help women and people from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Luke Visconti, Chief Executive Officer, DiversityInc

“If I asked you to vote for a civil-rights initiative, would you vote for it? Yes. That was the title of the law that was passed in Michigan that was against affirmative action. … I respect you for being here and I respect the civil dialogue we’ve had here but I disagree with you on that point. The language on all these bills is misleading. The ramp up was misleading. Black people were hired to hand out petitions for the civil-rights initiative in Michigan. It was disingenuous. It was not the proper way of doing things. When Americans are confronted with the choice of being fair or unfair, they overwhelmingly want to be fair because we know we have a legacy and we have to move forward. That is where we have to focus on the solution … and that solution is affirmative action. In utopia, we may not need it anymore. But none of us will live that long. None of us.”

Weldon H. Latham, Senior Partner, Jackson Lewis

“We’d love to have a level playing field. We’d love to take away preferences. But you jump way ahead. You want to fight hard to eliminate the solution before you eliminate the problem. The government has become less important because presidents, like Reagan and Bush, devalued the Office of Civil Rights and held back on enforcing the law. But companies stepped up and said we have to do it, not because we’re nice guys but because we like to win. I tend to agree with [Connerly] that affirmative action is going away, but it’s going away for a different reason. It’s going to self-correct. The solution will go away because we will have a new solution.”

Gilbert Casellas, Former Head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

[Addressing Connerly] “You are a soft-spoken guy and speak in a reasonable voice, but unfortunately those views are also espoused by folks at the fringe of our society and they espouse them in very hateful ways and it is divorced from historical reality and a social context. Research … demonstrates that at the retail individual level, there is still unconscious bias … and so we have to do things to overcome that. We have to take affirmative steps to make sure that those unconscious biases are not driving us to certain places. At the wholesale level, at the structural level, there are still disparities. They happen today and continue to exist, so we can’t divorce ourselves from the reality. Those disparities … can’t be allowed in a democratic society to persist. And that is the role of government: to equalize it.”

Dr. Ella Bell, Professor, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, and Founder of ASCENT

“The historical moment when affirmative action was created is not here anymore. It is a very different historical moment. We need to design an intervention that will fit this particular historical moment. When we think about affirmative action, the term just seems to get everyone crazy. You can’t use that term anymore. It’s not effective. When we think about affirmative action, we don’t think about Hispanics. We don’t think about Asians or people with disabilities. Why? Because affirmative action in most people’s minds is Black and white. This is no longer a Black and white world. You want to be competitive as a company. You cannot be competitive if you just think Black and white.”

Lora Fong, now General Counsel, Senior Vice President, Transformation Services, DiversityInc; then Corporate Counsel, Salesforce.com

There are real human costs with opportunities that are lost … We can bandy about statistics but it really only takes one lost genius who missed an opportunity to create a deficit for this country. I appreciate the goal of having a color-blind society. It is not where we are now, so what are we going to do about it? In the interim and as far as corporate America goes … who are we going to hire if the government doesn’t perpetuate and move toward this compelling state interest of making sure our public education system and our government workers are populated with diversity? This is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. I didn’t make those words up, but they resonate with me and I’m sure they resonate with many of you.”

16 Comments

  • CONNELLY ‘S RIGHT. AA AND ANY KIND OF DISCRIMINATION HAS NO PLACE IN AMERICA. BLACKS WERE MAKING GREAT PROGRESS ON THEIR OWN BEFORE AA. ASIANS DOMINATED ADADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL FIELDS BEFORE AND AFTER AA. WHEN BLACKS ARE MOVING EN MASSES BACK TO THE SOUTH, IT’S TIME TO MAKE AMERICA EQUAL REGARDLESS OF THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN.

  • Great article with panels comments responding to affirmative action. Could I get permission to use this in our Human Rights Commission Newsletter?
    Let me know if I can.

  • I commend you for inviting Ward Connerly and him for accepting the invitation. None-the-less, it is painful to see a Black man with over seven decades experience in America continue to espouse views and positions that are at once naive, ill-informed and destructive.

    It is extremely difficult to separate Mr. Connerly from those elements – particularly on the right – who proffer him (and his views) as validation of their own false claims of victimhood and hateful rhetoric.

    That said, it appears that the debate over Affirmative Action will continue … but instead of each side engaging in verbal bomb throwing, perhaps the debate will be reshaped using the facts that numerous businesses have accrued over the years. I think the most cogent comment came from Weldon Latham of Jackson Lewis when he said, “You (Connerly) want to fight hard to eliminate the solution before you eliminate the problem.”

    I doubt that the panel had any impact on Ward Connerly’s views, but as the positive impact Affirmative Action has had on business the prevailing reality, I suspect Connerly will fade into what I believe will be a well earned oblivion if not ignominy.

  • A more balanced presentation of the issue would have been enhanced by including Mr. Connerly’s remarks in addition to those holding opinions opposite of his. In pursuit of honest dialogue and desire to persuade convincingly we do ourselves no favcors by not fully presenting both perspectives of this important subject. Enlightened decision making and true advancement in equality demand that we know and expose both sides of this issue, otherwise we run the risk of being perceived as dogmatic and equally inflexible.

  • We need affirmative action still because if I obtain on an exam 100% -female & hispanic and the other guy -male -white obtains the same I would not get selected without that edge of affirmative action.

  • Certainly discrimination still happens. We all discriminate every day. A hiring manager must discriminate to match the appropriate candidate to the position. But when it’s purposefully done in response to some personal bias, it needs to be legally addressed. When it’s an adverse impact issue (unknown personal bias or affect) then training and teaching needs to happen. But many of the comments (from all sides of the topic) that pit “us vs them” in any manner of language is as ethically discriminatory as anything that the average individual in this day and age is likely to come across. Educate yourself to clear your rose-colored glasses the best you can…and do your best to respectfully inform and teach others so they can do the same. Recognize the positive aspects of individuality and don’t obsess on those that you may view as less than positive. And let the “us vs them” attitude that this topic always reeks of, die! Only then can we find equality in individuality. It’s not being “color blind” that will resolve the situation. It’s recognizing and appreciating the positive attributes that we all have to bring to the table. Businesses who don’t do this will fade into the sunset, and nature will take it’s course. Any time you discriminate against the most qualified individual to hire someone else–legally done or not–is wrong.

  • Anonymous

    President Bush’s Minority housing initiatives created the largest increase in minority home ownership in U.S. history. His cabinet selections were incredibly diverse in regard to gender and race, and included firsts in selections/appointments to department level posts, including the US Supreme Court, Defense, State and AG. Was Reagan’s elimination of Carter’s affirmative action programs, “leveling the field” or an effort to eliminate inequitable considerations for those who had “a legecy”? Is not that a perspective?

    I do enjoy reading this magizine. It gives me great insight into how the diversity logic ticks. For instance, convening a panel of “civil rights experts and lawyers, led by the CEO of DiversityInc” details just how “diverse” the makeup was of the group. This panel’s findings allowed Mr. Visconti to tell a group of CEOs and senior executives, how Mr. Connerly’s perception of affirmative action fails to recognize the damage of past practices. I believe having Mr. Connerly respresented in this dialogue is very healthy. I too strive to reach beyond the horizon of “what has always been” to be inclusive in hiring practices, but still do not see affirmative action practices as fair for all. As our country’s demographics rapidly change, will the focus of “the legecy” also adjust.

  • Anonymous

    Something to think about…

  • Anonymous

    Racism is a cultural, institutional,generational dynamic that was here before affirmative action and will be here after affirmative programs are gone or changed. Until the above dynamics about race in this country is changed their will always be a need for affirmative action to level the playing field.

  • Anonymous

    The most qualified is not always the best person for the job. Because of the inequities that STILL exist on the playing field, we all know that without affirmative action, you can be qualified to the eth degree and never get the job. But qualifications – while must be met to apply – should not be the determining factor in all cases. Working in the arena of civil rights and affirmative action every day, many question whether it has become a joke, a “cya” – especially when the commitment to equality is over powered by the politics of the workplace. And we know that is still predominantly in the hands of Caucasian men. But it is far better to have AA than not.

  • Anonymous

    To hear people talk about the unfairness of affirmative action is ridiculous. We were once told in a seminar for supervisors that the most unfair thing we could do in supervising a group of people is to treat everybody the same. This is the nature of affirmative action. We cannot achieve fairness (a level playing field) by treating everybody the same. Those who complain about affirmative action being unfair have no credibility, because things never were “fair”. Since we didn’t hear their righteous indignation when the “unfairness” was on the other foot, it becomes obvious that fairness is not the issue with them at all.

  • Anonymous

    Those that think affirmative action is not needed need to look at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. At the agency, we have one or two african americans at the Senior Executive Level, none are hispanic, and the percentage comparisson is 98% white, 2% other. Explanation: Discrimination is still a huge problem. Those in power perpetrate it; they just don’t do it openly.

  • Why we still need Affirmative Action? Because two wrongs make a right? Sorry, but I just don’t buy it.

  • Anonymous

    If it’s still needed then it needs a clause to adjust to the changing demographics. Without that clause it is as discriminatory as the employment practices that advocates for AA claim still exists. I don’t know that I’ve personally seen anything within my bubble of the world as inappropriate as the as many of the speeches and comments during President Obama’s inauguration. That is no more appropriate than the open discrimination of past generations. Does one make the other right. No. Thus also does AA need to be adjusted for the changing tides.

  • It is not as simple as it seems, but I must be in disagreement with Dr. Bell (with due respect) and other, but “The historical moment when affirmative action was created is still here. It may be a very different historical moment but it is here. We need to but cannot design an intervention that will fit this because as Albert Einstein stated, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” And back in 1862, President Lincoln sent a long message to Congress one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation that addressed and I will quote bits and pieces,”
    “Yet I trust that in view of the great responsibility resting upon me …We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?”
    The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion…We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country…
    Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We…The world will not forget that we say this… The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

  • yes we still need it, I have been searching for a job, and I always get the same reply either they are not hiring or come back at a later time, or they’ll call, yet it never fails to amaze me that when I return to the company they have hired someone else, even though I was told they were NOT hiring, and yet causes a tremendous amount of stress, depression, and financial burden. No it’s not fair to discriminate, or to hire only friends, and or family. It’s not right to discriminate on a person while they’re at work either, and I have been a victim of that at every job I’ve ever had.

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