Blacker and Browner


Washington. -- The term ''affirmative action'' has become, for some, more of an expletive than a description of public policy. It was designed to open doors for those previously excluded from participation in aspects of the economic life of our country. In government contracts, many occupations, and at the nation's most prestigious universities, African-Americans had been largely absent before affirmative action.

African-Americans are still underrepresented in upper and middle management, as university faculty, in the judiciary, as senatorial staff and elsewhere. Yet many are saying there has been too much affirmative action. And with whites pounding pavement and taking on contingency work, the underrepresentation of African-Americans and other minorities seems a less compelling problem than the unemployment of nearly 8 million Americans.

While eliminating affirmative action may ease the frustration of those unemployed folk who think that they were nudged out by an affirmative action hire, it won't create more jobs for the angry white men many Republicans see as their constituency.

The labor market is more competitive than it was a decade ago. But it is easier for Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to take on affirmative action than it is for them to deal with the nation's employment situation.

Businesses, ironically, are less hostile to affirmative action. Our nation's changing demographics make it profitable for most of our nation's corporations to pay some attention to diversity.

The black and brown populations are, for example, younger and more heavily concentrated in the inner city than white populations. Is the entertainment industry practicing affirmative action or just sound marketing when it hires a young man of color to promote a product in the inner city?

A third of our nation will be black and brown by the year 2010. Shouldn't those whose profits hang by a slender thread go ahead and market to minority communities, employ workers from those communities when they are qualified, and train them to be qualified when they are not? Some call this affirmative action; others call it smart economics.

While reverse discrimination is rare, and the moral argument of opening doors and providing opportunity is compelling, it is equally possible to make an economic argument for affirmative action, an argument that speaks about the increased profit that accrues to firms with diverse work forces.

Part of the argument goes like this -- human resources are our nation's greatest resources. Are we prepared to allow outmoded exclusionary attitudes to limit the human-resource potential of our nation? Shouldn't everyone who has something to contribute be allowed to do so, regardless of race, gender, or ''past practice?'' Do you have to have a parent who was a banker in order to be a banker, too, or are there things the banking industry can do to make employment in the industry more amenable to all workers?

Part of the argument suggests that excluding people today alienates them tomorrow, and that money is better spent developing policies for inclusion than dealing with the consequences of exclusion, including crime and dependency. The argument also talks about consumer buying patterns and the affirming message that consumers get when they see a diverse work force, especially at the top.

All those economic arguments collide with an economic reality -- good jobs are hard to come by, and those who write the rules also want to control the allocation of jobs.

But it makes neither moral sense nor economic sense to gut affirmative-action programs. Income and unemployment gaps remain, and changing demographics suggest that both profits and social progress are to be made by keeping a door propped open for those heretofore excluded from much of our nation's economic activity.

Julianne Malveaux, an economist and talk-show host on WPFW in Washington, wrote this commentary for the Progressive Media Project.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.