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Open Systems for Affirmative Action


Bethesda. -- For one reason only, I feel qualified and obliged to speak out on the increasingly divisive affirmative-action debate.

More than 20 years ago as a middle-aged white man, more for BTC reasons of politics than principle, I became executive director of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. It was during the first and second Nixon administrations. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was still new, and the 1972 amendments were about to be enacted. The world was in turmoil.

It was a personal epiphany to experience first-hand in the course of agency investigations, conciliation and other activity, the odium of discrimination directed at my minority colleagues -- and at me too because I was united with them. The truth of discrimination, particularly racial discrimination, stripped of the polite masks it usually wears in public, is ugly indeed. And it is precisely because discrimination artfully disguises itself in so many disarming ways that blunt and painful remedies have been used to fight it.

Let's agree on one point, if we can. The ugly presence is still with us, masquerading in various forms and wreaking social and economic havoc. It hasn't gone away, and it isn't going away.

Perhaps we can agree on a second point as well. Those who strenuously object to "goals and timetables" or "numerical remedies" in employment selection, government contracting or medical-school admissions also have a telling point. Since the Supreme Court decision in Grigg v. Duke Power, all the initially appropriate work on statistical or proportional representation has been tortured into absurdity, and is widely regarded as a raw exercise in redistribution economics. Each year, some new absurdity joins the continuing parade, the most recent being "diversity training."

One could argue that the blunt instrument of statistical remedies for discrimination was appropriate for the Seventies (I, for one, do argue that). At the same time, we must acknowledge that employment systems in particular are irregular, subjective and random systems, and therefore it has never been realistically possible anyway to put them in a statistical straitjacket. On whichever side of that argument one lands, it seems inescapable that Seventies remedies are no good for the Nineties.

The issue, starkly framed, is this. On the one side are those painting a milder face on the grim visage of systemic discrimination. On the other are protected classes and civil-rights advocates, certainly recognizing the negative side effects of existing remedies, but unwilling to give them up without the hope of something better to take their place. It's the worst kind of stand-off, already bedeviling the Clinton White House.

But wait! There is hope, and a potential solution, if we only turn our attention away from the internal aspects of the debate and think about the profound changes in our economic world. The clue to the solution may lie in some of the ideas the new Republican majority are talking about as cornerstones of their policy direction. I'll call the core idea "open systems." It can be directly and explicitly applied to the affirmative- action arena, thus serving to end the bitter and divisive stand-off.

Before developing the open-systems idea, let's remind ourselves what's happened in our economic world while the affirmative-action debate has raged for 20 years:

* The old industry (and government) "command-and-control" model on which current affirmative-action remedies are based is fast fading.

* Jobs no longer exist in the same old places under the same old labels.

* Gaining initial entry to the employment system is no longer any guarantee of security, stability and progression.

* The whole world, from Malaysia to Costa Rica to Eastern Europe, is now competing for many of the same jobs, making motivation and preparation and education all the more important.

* Information and technology cycle around the globe at dizzying speeds.

* New forces in the work world should make workplaces more amenable to change and more accessible -- forces like self-managed teams, quality leadership, re-engineering and "organizations without walls."

Does this sound like the kind of world where it makes any sense to continue to stick with Seventies affirmative-action remedies?

Each employer and workplace should work out open-systems affirmative action plan for itself. Here are some ideas:

* Use of information technology to do a better job of matching short- and long-term job opportunities with job seekers (as in "dial-up" electronic job-posting systems).

* Government incentives for aggressive corporate development of new employees of the kind Motorola has become known and respected for; progressive elimination of Department of Labor ETA programs, which never worked anyway, even in simpler, more static times.

* "Contracting" systems that encourage employers to strive to bring new and disadvantaged players into the economic system with the minimum complications due to wage and hour standards, "prevailing-wage" laws and other such requirements.

* Close working partnerships between private employers and public schools and colleges in order to bridge the gap between work and the educational system.

* Expansion of working intern programs (with "mentoring" features) and of cooperative work-study programs.

* Government "jawboning" to encourage employers to examine their facility location policies in light of open-employment system architecture.

Seems simple enough? A gradual shift from measuring "negatives" (i.e. how closed systems, along with other societal factors, block statistical representation in the work force) to emphasizing creativity in building open systems, the economic benefits of which will be apparent soon enough. I think it's an idea worth rallying around and developing further.

Thomas G. Cody was executive director of the EEOC from 1972 to 1974. He has also been a management consultant for more than 30 years and is the author, most recently, of "Careers 2000."

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