Race in the Workplace

The nation's workplaces still struggle to become colorblind.

By Robert J. Grossman Mar 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, March 2000

It has been more than 35 years since the champions of the civil rights movement gained one of their crowning achievements—the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many hoped the law would spur a new era of opportunity for minorities. But many workplace experts say that once-bright outlook on the future has yet to materialize for the black members of the nation’s workforce.

To be sure, there are some encouraging developments. For example, in 1964 there was not a single Fortune 500 company headed up by a black executive; now there are three—A. Barry Rand at Avis Rent-A-Car, Lloyd Ward at Maytag Corp. and Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae. And even more black managers are in the pipeline—like Kenneth Chenault, American Express’s president and chief operating officer, who is expected to take over as CEO in 2001.

However, even with these high-profile examples, the overall statistics are sobering: Combined, blacks and Hispanics account for less than 2 percent of executive positions in the United States.

The numbers leave people like George Gamble unimpressed. Gamble, director of the International Institute for Diversity and Cross-Cultural Management at the University of Houston, says, "What’s going on in corporate America is deceitful. A few minority CEOs—like at Maytag and American Express—get exposure and people think things are better. But in the trenches it’s a different ballgame."

To get a truer picture, Gamble says, speak to average workers. "They’ll say ‘things have not gotten better for us,’ that ‘The company I’m working for has allowed a couple of people to make it so they can say we’re diverse. But the system continues to be terribly unjust. The masses haven’t benefited, and there’s only so much this company is going to do.’"

Ted Childs, IBM’s vice president for global workforce diversity in Armonk, N.Y., sees a brighter side. "Race relations have improved significantly since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," he says. "When I joined IBM in 1967, we didn’t have a lot of African American managers or executives. If someone became a second-level manager out there, I’d hear about it. Now we’ve reached the point where I don’t know all the African American executives. That’s an extraordinary example of progress."

But Nat Alston, vice president of HR at the State Employees Credit Union of Maryland and vice president of the National Association of African Americans in HR (NAAAHR), contends the conditions experienced by black employees today are no different from what he experienced 30 years ago when he started in HR. "They would say it’s no different, and I think that demonstrates that we haven’t made meaningful progress at all. We’ve seen America get comfortable with its prejudices. It’s like the Cold War, with Russia and the U.S. living under peaceful co-existence."

Leroy Warren, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Federal Task Force on Discrimination in the Workplace, agrees. "It’s not much better than 20 years ago. What you hear is progress, but the reality is we’re still in the same rut." At best, he says, the nation has "moved ahead a few inches."

Are these merely the comments of a disaffected few? Apparently not. "African Americans’ opinions on how things were going in business have not improved at all," says John P. Fernandez, president of ARMC Consultants in Philadelphia and the author of a study of workplace race relations over the past 20 years.

Sobering Statistics

At issue is whether the glass is half full, as IBM’s Childs perceives, or 95 percent empty, as the NAACP’s Warren sees it.

The record suggests that Warren may be closer to the mark.

For example, as a whole, black employees still haven’t achieved financial parity with whites, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • In 1983, 25 percent of working blacks were clustered in low-paying service and unskilled jobs. By 1999, that number had dropped only slightly, to 22 percent of working blacks.

  • For every dollar a white man earned in 1979 (the first year for which figures are available), a black man on average earned 76 cents. Two decades later, in 1999, the numbers were identical.

  • In 1979, black women earned 57 cents for every dollar a white male earned; by 1999 that figure had risen, but to only 64 cents on the dollar.

"There’s still a huge gap and it hasn’t improved over the last 20 years," says Steve Hipple, a BLS economist in Washington, D.C. "African Americans are in lower-paying, lower-skill occupations. Even though African American women have seen a little increase in earning power, it’s still very low."

The gap between the races also shows up in the unemployment rolls. According to BLS data, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be unemployed in 1999—a ratio that has remained unchanged since the 1970s. In 1999, black teens were 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than white teens; again, the ratio is comparable to the 1970s.

Similarly, advancement for black employees in professions has moved slowly. Between 1983 (the first year for which statistics are available) and 1999, blacks consistently made up about 11 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Yet in 1983, only 3 percent of engineers and 3 percent of attorneys were black. In 1999, blacks made up 5 percent of engineers and 5 percent of attorneys. In 1983, 3 percent of physicians were black, rising to 5 percent to 6 percent in 1999. Over the years, blacks in marketing, advertising and public relations rose from 3 percent to 5 percent, and blacks in financial management went from 4 percent to 7 percent.

Blacks who have made it into the managerial arena seem to have stalled at the lower levels or have been relegated to less mobile staff positions, Alston says. "We look good in the numbers, but when you look at the landscape and see where they’re concentrated, it’s not a good representation," he says. "We don’t see enough in marketing or finance."

Representation of blacks in the human resources field is marginally better. In HR, the percentage of blacks serving in personnel and labor relations positions grew from 4.9 percent in 1983 to 7.5 percent in 1997, according to BLS. But, as with other professions, plateauing at mid-level remains an issue. "African Americans are making it in [HR] middle management, and some are advancing to the VP level," says NAAAHR president Tom Vines in Washington, D.C. "But in terms of reaching senior VP or chief HR officer, it’s still a challenge."

‘A Hostile Culture’

Why haven’t blacks fared better in the workplace, despite the passage of a law more than three decades ago that was designed to protect their interests and help them avoid prejudicial treatment? Some say that, in spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination and prejudice remain in the workplace, albeit in more subtle forms.

Mary-Jane Sinclair, a former HR executive and consultant in Morristown, N.J., says racial bias can range from "a sense of discomfort all the way up to aggressive prejudice—and it’s more prevalent than anyone would want to say it is. This still is a society that is not open to people who are different from those in its dominant culture."

She believes that "organizations try to do the right thing by recruiting more minorities. But when the people come in they face a hostile culture."

Sinclair has seen cases where whites told racist jokes, where the letters "KKK" mysteriously and repeatedly appeared on a worker’s computer screen. E-mail jokes—at best in bad taste, at worst blatantly racist—are common. According to Sinclair, if you ask black employees, they’ll say, "This company tries hard, but it ain’t happening."

"There’s a persistence of racism which says it’s institutionalized," says Sharon Parker, president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity Inc., a nonprofit research organization in Atlanta. "It’s about our policies, practices, beliefs and the formal ways we do things in our work lives that put up barriers to full participation. It’s partly conscious and partly subconscious. On the conscious level, there’s this politically correct attitude which drives it underground, making it harder to detect."

"It’s mostly underground, not right on the surface," agrees Herbert Wong, a Cambridge, Mass., consultant who has worked with 210 organizations on diversity and EEO issues. He says HR professionals tell him that racial tensions often are unacknowledged but lurk in the shadows around issues that they’re asked to investigate and mediate.

"It hasn’t changed that much since the ’60s," says Lisa Willis-Johnson, chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Diversity Committee and director of HR and administrative services for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in Columbus. "Today it’s still with us but there’s more cover. The blatant part is down; the subtle part has risen. The code words still exist. It’s easy to say, ‘This person won’t fit into our culture.’ In hiring and promotion discussions, decision-makers can visualize the progress of the non-minority but not the minority. The benefit of the doubt isn’t there for the minority candidate."

However, Willis-Johnson believes there are still some areas where blatant discrimination flourishes in the open. In those places, "they’ll tell you up front they won’t hire you because of your color and say, ‘I’m going to tell you this and if you sue me, I’ll deny it.’"

But most shut-outs are more sophisticated. "Now you get the job, but you don’t move ahead," observes Rejeana Pendleton, diversity manager at Carrier Corp., the heating, air conditioning and refrigeration company based in Syracuse, N.Y. "You’re not developed; you’re not part of succession planning and don’t get assigned to the high visibility projects."

The tendency to unfavorably stereotype blacks has become more "refined" but is still there, agrees Fernandez. "In the early 1970s, stereotypes were more open—like ‘They’re lazy.’ Now it’s more subtle. Whites will say, ‘They don’t have particular skills, they’re not qualified,’ or what have you."

Perceptions in Black and White

A factor that makes it difficult to effectively address racial issues in the workplace is that black and white employees see blacks’ career progress, or lack of it, through different lenses, says Fernandez. In his book Race, Gender & Rhetoric (McGraw Hill, 1998), he reports on attitudes and perceptions of both blacks and whites in the workplace from 1975 to 1995.

In his studies—based on surveys, interviews and training programs—Fernandez found that, in 1972, 88 percent of blacks believed that they had to be better performers than whites to get ahead. In 1995, 89 percent believed so. Thirty-three percent of whites believed it in 1972; 30 percent in 1995.

Consistently, in the 20-year period ending in 1995, between 75 percent and 85 percent of blacks believed that people of color had to be better than whites to get ahead.

Perhaps even more disturbing, in 1972, 56 percent of whites said blacks would file undeserved charges of discrimination if they lost their jobs. In 1995, that number rose to 59 percent.

What Comes Next?

What does the future hold for race relations in the United States? Childs says the playing field still is not level, but he points out that a growing number of blacks are assuming corporate leadership positions and he predicts continuing improvements. "We have reached a point where the people who have been advocating for African Americans over the years are in the picking mode instead of the telling mode. This may be the last 10 yards of the game."

In contrast, Warren offers harsh criticism of the tortoise-like progress achieved by Childs and the rest of the corporate diversity establishment, whom he labels "accommodationalists."

"You’re getting nothing but paid mercenaries in these jobs, people drawing a check," Warren says. "They say, ‘I got what I got, and I don’t give a damn what my kids wind up with.’"

Meanwhile, corporations are too preoccupied with mergers and acquisitions and overall financial performance to devote much time to race relations, says Vines. "Shareholder value is what investors and CEOs are looking at rather than representation of minorities in their workplaces and fostering improved relations and morale."

As a result, says Tracy Brown, president of Person to Person Consulting in Dallas, the discussion of race in the workplace often surfaces only when a problem arises. She says organizations are more likely to respond to the stick than the carrot "like Texaco and Denny’s. They were forced to do something because they ran afoul of the law." (The oil company and the restaurant chain both faced negative press coverage and legal difficulties over allegations about their treatment of blacks.)

"We throw money at looking good rather than doing good," Brown says. "We don’t care about the root causes; we don’t want to correct our behavior. Most people are spending their energy trying to avoid getting into trouble."

Editor’s Note: One way that HR professionals and employers have tried to "avoid getting into trouble" and to improve race relations is to institute diversity programs. For an analysis on the effectiveness of these programs, see "Is Diversity Working?"

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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