In 1991, researchers with the Urban Institute in Washington produced a little-noticed study indicating that white males seeking jobs encounter discrimination about 7 percent of the time.
This is an important finding for blacks such as myself who are inclined to dismiss white complaints of reverse discrimination as a thinly disguised attempt to keep diversity out of the workplace.
But that same study showed that black males were treated unfairly three times more often -- an important finding that rebuts those whites who say blacks frequently see racism where none exists.
I bring up the Urban Institute study in the hopes of introducing some sanity and balance into the current debate over affirmative action, maybe even a little honesty. To call the issue divisive is to engage in understatement.
Both sides hurl accusations without attempting to understand or even appreciate the perspective of the other. The tenor of the debate suggests we have made very little progress in race relations since the halcyon days of the 1970s, and that is a distressing thought.
Moreover, as the Urban Institute study demonstrates, both sides gloss over points that should be obvious: Discrimination against blacks exists. Reverse discrimination also exists. Neither is fair.
"Perhaps, the civil rights community has not effectively made the point that civil rights laws cover everyone," notes Ralph Leas, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights. "Perhaps we need to do a better job at communicating the idea that discrimination is morally and legally wrong, no matter who is the victim.
"On the other hand," Mr. Leas adds, "in cases where an employer is too lazy or too ignorant or too hateful to treat his employees fairly, affirmative action can be an effective remedy. PTC This doesn't mean quotas. It doesn't mean that you promote unqualified workers. But when persons are discriminated against race, you have to use race to rectify the problem."
I happen to agree with Mr. Leas. The irony of civil rights is that blacks feel compelled to join forces in order to be treated as individuals. At the same time, some of those who decry the unfair treatment of minorities have stereotyped and vilified whites in a way that would be unacceptable for any other group. Not all whites are racist. Neither can we automatically assume that a white man is lying when he complains that he was denied a job because of his race.
The issue -- and it is a vital one -- is how do we protect the rights of one group without trampling upon the rights of the other?
Unfortunately, discrimination can be as subtle as it is pervasive, as the Urban Institute's study demonstrates. Researchers used 10 pairs of young men who were carefully matched in every particular except race. These "audit teams" were even matched in terms of looks, dress and "dialect." The teams then applied for entry level jobs in Washington and Chicago. The study was designed to measure how each person was treated by the prospective employer, how far each was able to proceed in the selection process, and whether the applicant was steered into a higher or lower position.
In many cases, the researchers found no evidence of discrimination at all. But in more than 20 percent of the cases, employers treated the black applicant worse than his white counterpart. The blacks were more likely to be treated rudely and to be steered toward less-appealing jobs. And blacks did not advance as far in the selection process.
The study "demonstrates that unequal treatment of black job seekers is entrenched and widespread," said the researchers for the Urban Institute, a policy think-tank. They also said the findings contradict claims "that hiring practices today either favor blacks or are effectively color blind."
But researchers also found that the outcome was reversed in 7 percent of the cases: The white applicant was given short shrift compared with a black applicant with identical credentials.
So now we know: Some whites have cause to be angry. Some blacks have cause to be angry.
The debate should not be over which group has greater reason to feel victimized, but how we can ensure that no one is victimized at all.