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... and still there is no end to racial discrimination in the workplace

Carrying the Torch

by Carlean Ponder
Washington, D.C.

A sister received $600,000 in a racial discrimination suit filed against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Thank goodness juries are finally returning the deserved compensation to victims of such acts, but does this solve the problem? Are the folks over at the EPA or the Wonder Bread Plant that was also recently sued, really correcting their racist ways?

I don't think so; at least not if the supervisors who referred to the sister with a Ph.D, as aggressive and African-leaders as primitive are still supervising. Suit after suit after suit, dollar after dollar after dollar, and still there is no end to racial discrimination in the workplace. It was great that corporations let us into the door with the advent of affirmative action programs in the 70's but now we'd like to take a few steps forward. I remember working with an engineering firm as a work-study student in college and seeing plenty of black faces around the office. I never felt out of place, that is, until I asked about the firm's tuition assistance program. I was told that was for engineers or those intending to be engineers only. That's when I took a deeper look at the company's profile. There were no black engineers -- only black clerks and assistants of every type, but no engineers.

As a documents clerk, I came across a very interesting piece of paper identifying one terminated employee as African-American. He was hired as an engineer at the firm and then terminated two months later. Downsizing was listed as the official reason. However, I found it interesting that this particular employee was hired in time for the company to list its diversity records and therefore keep in good standing with affirmative action policies. After the diversity audit was taken, I suppose someone figured there was no longer a need for the lone black engineer. Strange.

Is this common practice? Hiring African-Americans yet keeping them restricted to certain positions, can still present a sufficient picture of diversity in the workplace. According to William Spriggs, director of research and public policy for the National Urban League, affirmative action does work but discrimination persists.

"We wouldn't be able to have this conversation about hitting the glass ceiling if affirmative action programs were non-existent because blacks would not have been allowed to even see the ceiling," said Spriggs. This is true when thinking back on recent history of just 30 years ago, but moving into corporate CEO positions and the boardroom is a different thing.

"We haven't overcome the persistent view that blacks have no skills, said Spriggs. With high tech companies in particular, who've gotten away with murder, it is assumed that there are few blacks in that industry because they don't have skills." Spriggs feels the way that people talk up the digital divide encourages this perception; most blacks attend inner-city public schools with few amenities such as classroom computers. "Whites say blacks don't have computers or even know what they are, so if we're talking about technology we're not talking about blacks", said Spriggs.

We're not talking. Isn't this a large part of the problem. I felt great knowing that the Wonder Bread Plant was going to have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for its managers referring to a grown man as 'boy' and allowing white employees to take days off to attend sports games but not allowing blacks to observe Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday. But where's the noise about the state of California ending affirmative action in its educational programs or the effort across the country to do the same thing? Lawsuits are terrific - if you can afford it.

"Some of the answer is in the courts, said Spriggs, but people are failing to think of their own personal experience to use as a base to talk about racism. That's a big part of the problem. If I ask most young black people what's the problem? They would say something like lack of skills and not discrimination. It's hard to stand up and say lots of us finished high school and college and got jobs but are still not where our white counterparts are in the workplace. To stand up and say this is my reality - defining the problem of discrimination is difficult."

How do we move forward without stepping back? While we want to concentrate on our individual careers and plot success strategies, aren't we hampering our futures by ignoring the attack on diversity across the country? Isn't there something suspect about conservatives pushing for lawsuits as an acceptable form of combating racial discrimination rather than policy? How many of us sue rather than find a new job when denied that promotion or having to endure a boss who ridicules your work performance?

Now is not the time to become less vocal about discrimination. Yes, whites say they are tired of hearing about it and blacks say they are tired of having to talk about it, but issues don't disappear into thin air. Instead, they smolder and ignite like wildfire as we've seen with the situations in Bosnia and Rwanda. Unfortunately, the young generation of African-Americans bears the burden of continuing forward with the quest for true equality in America.

Carlean Ponder is a freelance writer working in government relations for a trade association in Washington, D.C.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 1, 2001.

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