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THE NATION : AFFIRMATIVE ACTION : One Company's Story in Promoting Diversity

June 25, 1995|Stephen Steinberg | Stephen Steinberg, a professor of urban studies at Queens College, CUNY, is the author of "Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy," due out from Beacon Press in September

NEW YORK — Opponents of affirmative action who insist they are upholding the ideal of a colorblind society seem ignorant of the factors that led to its development as a policy. Affirmative action was a policy of last resort, created only after it became clear that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race or gender, failed to achieve its goal in the workplace. What opponents of affirmative action forget is that good-faith efforts to increase minority representation were largely ineffective until backed up by specific "goals and timetables" that, in effect, gave preference to minority applicants.

A good example is the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., one of the nation's largest corporate employers and a major government contractor. In 1973, AT&T was an archetypal example of caste segregation in the workplace. The Bell System employed 351,000 persons in low-paying operator or clerical jobs, 95% of whom were women. Of 234,000 higher-paid craft workers, 95% were male and only 6% black. Virtually no women or blacks were in management positions; even supervisory personnel in "female" departments were male.

Although officials could point to "equal opportunity" policies that had increased black employment from 2.5% in 1960 to 7.9% in 1970, this mainly reflected the hiring of black women as operators.

When AT&T filed a petition for a rate increase in long-distance phone service in 1970, the Federal Communications Commission, with President Richard M. Nixon's backing, launched hearings into the company's employment practices. Eventually, this led to a landmark consent decree that required the Bell System to hire more women and minorities.

According to a Wharton School study, AT&T's program got off to a poor start, but by 1975, 97% of its short-term hiring targets had been reached. Furthermore, these gains occurred at a time when technology was eliminating low-skilled jobs. Nor was the company's profitability or competitiveness hurt. If anything, Bell System units were strengthened by their diverse work force.

Unfortunately, no comparable body of evidence exists that would permit a precise accounting of what has been achieved nationally under affirmative action. But this much is clear: The occupations in which blacks have made the most progress--in government service, major blue-collar jobs, corporate management and the professions--are all subject to vigorous affirmative-action programs in place for 20 years. Before affirmative action, the black middle class consisted of a small number of professionals and businessmen anchored in the ghetto economy.

Much is thus at stake in the current debate over the future of affirmative action. In recent years, there has been a rising chorus of criticism against affirmative-action programs--and not only from whites who say they are being asked to pay for sins they did not commit.

Some legal scholars challenge the constitutionality of affirmative action and assert it betrays the cardinal principle of the civil-rights movement: a colorblind society. Also, many black conservatives denounce affirmative action as patronizing to blacks and corrosive of black self-esteem. Even some liberals, who say they support affirmative action in principle, contend it is self-defeating because it triggers a popular backlash.

These are powerful arguments. But they fail to recognize the lesson of history: that decades of preaching non-discrimination, and a decade or more of relying on good-faith efforts by employers, were generally ineffective until they were backed up with specific affirmative-action mandates. By the same token, gutting affirmative action will erode the gains women and minorities have made. Far from contributing to a colorblind society, it will deepen the racial divisions that mar American democracy.

The problem is falsely stated when it is suggested we must choose between merit or preference, between the rights of individuals or the rights of groups, between a colorblind or a color-conscious society. Rather, the choice is between racial progress or returning to the period before affirmative action, when we salved our national conscience with laws that did little to reverse centuries of occupational apartheid.

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