In 1965, black Americans were largely outside the mainstream of the U. S. economy. But an unprecedented effort by the federal government wrought a massive social change. Badgered and prodded by Washington, corporations changed their ways and began large-scale efforts to recruit blacks--as well as women, Hispanics, and other minorities.
Progress for blacks has not come without cost. The push for equal job opportunities contained within it a dilemma when applied under what came to be known as affirmative action: Preference for some creates discrimination against others. Many whites resent the preferential treatment they see being given blacks, a feeling that has intensified as the economy's growth has slowed and corporations have squeezed employment. And many blacks have had to endure the suspicions of co-workers that they advanced because of the color of their skin rather than their abilities.
Affirmative action has been a substantial accomplishment despite these problems. Black participation in the work force has surged over the past 25 years, especially in big companies, thrusting millions of black families into the middle class. But this very success has erected barriers on the road to full equality. For too many companies, affirmative action has become a routine bureaucratic function. Minority workers are ordered up by the numbers and treated as so many interchangeable parts. Yet, enlightened companies have proved that it is possible to meet numerical hiring goals while keeping the focus on the individual employee. They do not hire unqualified, or even marginally qualified, workers just to make a target, and they see to it that minorities have a chance to thrive. This approach is harder, and the initial costs are higher to do things this way, but such an approach ultimately is far more productive.
So we have come a long way. Now, a task for the `90s is to open up the ranks of management. Far too often, minority management trainees are shunted off into staff jobs--often human relations--that represent dead ends on the corporate ladder. The relatively brief time that has passed since blacks were excluded from all management jobs helps explain their nearly total absence at the top. But until black managers are given key line positions, they will never make it to the upper reaches of management.
What remains to be done? Both parties are attempting to milk the debate about a new civil rights bill for their own benefit, while the argument has bogged down in a morass of conflicting opinions about quotas. We find it impossible to tell whether the proposed bills would involve quotas or not.
But there is a larger point to be made from the unedifying argument over new civil rights legislation. The nation must remain committed to affirmative action because, as the business community recognizes, the nature of the U. S. work force is changing. Less than one third of the 10.7 million jobs created between 1985 and 1990 were filled by white males, and the proportion will be even smaller in the `90s. In other words, growth is going to come from minorities and women. Corporate America has no alternative but to develop the talents of these new, dynamic forces.