A `Race Neutral' Helping Hand?

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has long been a proponent of affirmative action. But these days, the San Francisco-based utility says downsizing has made it nearly impossible to meet to its minority hiring targets. "We're always playing catch-up," gripes Barbara Coull Williams, PG&E's human resources vice-president. That's why the federal contractor is asking Washington to approve a pilot program that would count mentoring and leadership-development seminars as part of its affirmative action program.

What a difference a few years can make. Through the 1980s, Big Business backed federal antibias rules because they provided a shield from discrimination suits. But today, the climate for affirmative action has changed. It's under assault in the states, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Now, even Corporate America is having second thoughts.

Some companies and policy experts are devising new ways to offer preferential treatment. The delicate task is to assuage the white backlash without igniting a black one. One option now gaining political momentum: breaks based on economic need, not race or gender. "In this environment, you may have to choose between diluting the concept or losing it altogether," says Milton D. Morris, vice-president of the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington.

CONFLICTING NUMBERS. The affirmative action debate is arousing emotions on all sides. And it's hard to cool feelings down with hard, cold numbers, since few exist and most of the research is inconclusive. University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman, for example, has shown that antibias laws--which don't require efforts beyond nondiscriminatory behavior--had a greater effect than affirmative action in promoting black employment. But those studies only looked at the years 1964 to 1975.

And, as usual, the few statistics are used to support both sides. By 1992, 5.3% of blacks, 3.2% of Hispanics, and 2% of Asian Americans held managerial positions, compared with less than 1% for each group in 1966, says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Proponents view the jump as evidence that affirmative action has helped but is still needed to integrate the workforce. Opponents see it as proof that racial preferences have done their job. Now, they insist, it's time for new ideas.

Preferences based on economic feed offer both sides a compromise of sorts. Clinton Administration officials, struggling to respond to angry white male voters, are now beginning to examine the idea.

A needs-based system is also gaining favor among the GOP and moderate Democrats, who want to preserve some breaks for the disadvantaged. "I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," says Clint Bolick, vice-president at the libertarian Institute for Justice. He is helping congressional Republicans draft legislation that would impose a needs-based system in school admissions, federal contracting, and employment. Bolick says employers could "give points to people who had overcome disadvantages in their past."

Proponents say a needs-based system would still benefit minorities, who are disproportionately poor. But critics say an economic test is no panacea: In 1993, 20.3 million white households earned under $25,000, compared with 6.7 million black and 4 million Hispanic households. "You'd have an awful lot of needy whites taking the place of blacks," says Abigail Thernstrom of the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

CUTOFF POINT. Meanwhile, companies are struggling to balance the interests of employees. Instead of having the government set staffing goals, companies want credit for "diversity strategies." They aim to develop all employees by smaking workers sensitive to each others' diverse backgrounds.

Honeywell Inc., for one, sponsors workshops on employees' cultures and uses a review process to identify promising candidates. It says such programs help promote minorities and defuse the white backlash against racial preferences. "The affirmative action process at Honeywell was successful up until three years ago," says Curtis White, Honeywell's vice-president for corporate diversity. "But a plan like that cannot be put in place indefinitely."

The flaws in affirmative action have led some reformers to call for its elimination. Lawrence H. Fuchs, a professor at Brandeis University, would start by denying benefits to new immigrants because he argues they haven't suffered past discrimination in the U.S. After that, "we have to say at a date certain, all counting by race should be phased out," he says.

Charles Kamasaki, policy director of the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic civil rights group, worries about drawing a line that defines who has suffered discrimination. He notes that a longtime U.S. permanent resident may have suffered as much bias as an African-American.

Blacks, too, have their doubts about affirmative action's success. In the long run, some think self-help may serve them better than painful integration efforts. Young African Americans are flocking to historically black colleges, where enrollment rose 25% from 1986 to 1992, compared with an overall 13.8% jump at all U.S. colleges, according to the United Negro College Fund. White colleges "have not engaged in the wholesale recruitment, admission, and nurturing of [black] students," says Walter J. Leonard, former president of Fisk University in Nashville.

Regardless of how the debate goes, the progress of minorities and women in the workforce won't come to a halt, say executives. They're an increasing portion of the labor market. And companies need to reflect their more diverse customer base to gain a competitive edge. Even if affirmative action were repealed, "we would still need different types of people," says Susan K. Cooper, senior vice-president at BellSouth Corp. The trick for policymakers will be to map a course that will bring people together, not split them further apart.

New Thinking on Affirmative Action

LIMIT BREAKS TO NEEDY This would counter claims that affirmative action helps well-off minorities. But minorities fear being squeezed out by poor whites.

RESTRICT USE BY NEW IMMIGRANTS Supporters argue that minorities suffering past discrimination deserve benefits more than new immigrants.

FOSTER DIVERSITY Instead of strict head counts of women and minorities under affirmative action, companies prefer diversity strategies intended to foster a bias-free workplace.

BLACK SELF-HELP Some African Americans prefer creating their own avenues for success-for example, all-black colleges-rather than relying on affirmative action.


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