White and male Baltimore County: Logical reasons for lack of diversity aside, government must do better.

August 07, 1996

BALTIMORE COUNTY government is typical of many institutions where the power and the best-paying jobs continue to be held by white males.

This is not the result of malicious discrimination. Employers tend to hire people they know. And the people they know -- friends, former colleagues -- tend to hail from the same background, racially and otherwise. One of the strongest arguments for affirmative action is that it forces employers to counter their natural gravitation toward the networks with which they are most familiar and comfortable. The white maleness of Baltimore County government's top echelon is largely symptomatic of this tendency.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger hired Terrence Sheridan, who is white, as police chief because he had known and respected him for years. National searches are time-consuming and many times disappointing in terms of finding exceptional people, minority or otherwise. Mr. Ruppersberger did choose a fire chief (a white male) after a national search. But the appointment didn't work out well, and the executive turned again to someone he knew -- former county fire chief Paul Reincke, who is white.

The lack of diversity in top county positions also stems from the rapid pace of racial diversification in Baltimore County. Those who entered the county merit system 15 or 20 years ago were nearly all white. These merit employees now have worked their way up and are being promoted to management positions. Moreover, minorities hired since demographics began to change had low seniority when government downsized during the early 1990s and thus were first to get laid off, draining the pool of potential minority leaders.

The county is being run by competent people. But as Baltimore County becomes more diverse, competence won't suffice. The government in Towson must start to reflect the county's diversity. Otherwise, those in government will have a hard time understanding or meeting the needs of its newer constituencies. Diversification will require recruiting more qualified minorities at the entry level so they can move up the merit system. And it will require executives to be wary of the temptation to hire just people they know.

Pub Date: 8/07/96

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