Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on an affirmative action case that once again raised
the contentious question of how best to create equal opportunity for all Americans. Interestingly enough, many on both sides of the debate over the University of Texas’s use of race in college admissions seemed to accept that the United States has been steadily growing towards greater equality over the past generation.
But research we just completed for a new book, “Documenting Desegregation,” tells a different story. In many workplaces, the United States has fallen off the path to equal employment opportunity, with racial and gender segregation on the rise in many firms and industries.
The results of our research found in part that there has been a trend toward racial re-segregation among white men and black men since 2000 and increased segregation since 1970 between black women and white women in American workplaces — so much so that it has eliminated progress made in the late 1960s. This is not simply an academic question, but a fundamental problem with American society. While most of us morally embrace equal opportunity and race and gender equality, we find that America is still a long way from those commitments. Only by confronting our shortcomings as a society can we address them.
To understand current conditions, we need to look at how we got here. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate in employment, there was near-total segregation in private-sector employment. Black men, black women, and white women almost never held the same job in the same workplace as white men. When they did share workplaces, women and people of color were almost always in low-skill jobs with no authority. In sum, good jobs were reserved for white men.
That changed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Employers immediately began hiring more black workers and promoting them to jobs once reserved for whites. In the 1960s, black men made strong gains in skilled blue-collar jobs and black women in clerical work. This trend continued through the 1970s, with black men, black women and white women gaining unprecedented access to white-collar managerial and professional jobs. Between 1964 and 1980, employment segregation between black men and white men dropped by 15 percent.
But in 1980, progress for black Americans in the workplace came to an abrupt stop.
By 1980, the civil rights movement had lost most of its political steam. The Republican Party had made racial divisiveness and attacks on affirmative action central to its political project, and the Democrats became timid out of concern they could lose the Southern white vote.
Following Ronald Reagan’s election, the government cut funding for federal agencies charged with promoting equal opportunity. Affirmative action was largely recast as reverse discrimination and committed employers had to struggle against the federal government to defend the equal-opportunity principle.
As a result, our research found, racial employment segregation has hardly budged since 1980. Drawing on the most comprehensive data available, our recent study contained information from more than five million private-sector workplaces, collected annually by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) since 1966. In our research, segregation means the extent to which two groups work together in the same occupation in the same workplace.
Distressingly, 19 of the 58 industries we surveyed — nearly one-third of all industries — showed a trend toward racial re-segregation between white men and black men over the last dozen years. Transportation services, motion pictures, construction, securities and commodities brokerages are some of the sectors that reflect this trend. In addition, re-segregation since 1970 between black and white women in workplaces has eliminated progress made in the late 1960s.
Transportation services, railroads, publishing and many low-wage manufacturing industries show increased segregation between black and white women. Unfortunately, increased access to private sector managerial jobs for black men and black women came to a grinding halt more than 30 years ago as well. Meanwhile, black women’s employment segregation from white women has actually grown somewhat, as white women made continued gains into traditionally white male jobs.
Ironically, the Civil Rights Act instructed the newly formed EEOC to monitor progress toward ending race and gender discrimination and equal opportunity in employment. The EEOC has never had the funding or resources to fulfill this mission. Our book does just that, documenting the progress and regress of private sector firms toward equal opportunity in employment.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any progress since 1980. Overall, white men are more likely to work in the same job in the same workplace with black women, black men and white women than they were in 1966. And women and minorities have made significant gains in management jobs in social services.
But it’s notable that the progress we have made has not been fueled by federal intervention. In fact, our research shows, federal contractors have shown a pattern of re-segregation and an increased preference for white men since 1980. Many industries and firms show patterns of increased racial segregation and lower access of black men and women to good jobs.
Where has there been progress? In general, African Americans tend to do better in workplaces that use formal credentials to make hiring decisions. Minorities and white women have made the most progress in professional jobs. These occupations require specific educational credentials to be considered for employment. African Americans also progress in those relatively rare large, private-sector firms that monitor their managers diversity track record.
In other words, merit-based selection actually leads to affirmative action in employment. A focus on merit coupled with managerial accountability helps control racial biases in decision-making. Without clear hiring criteria and accountability, bias tends to flourish.
To level the playing field for these merit-based practices and promote diversity in jobs that require college degrees, affirmative action in college admissions is crucial. Diversity in college enrollments and completion leads to diversity in employment even in non-managerial jobs. Many responsible employers recognize this dynamic and have petitioned the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas to leave affirmative action in college admissions untouched.
As our findings make clear, we’ve got to do more to get back on the path to equal opportunity in America’s workplaces. Government regulators have a role to play in these efforts, especially in the absence of mass movements pushing for change. The government could use the data we deployed in our research to make clear which cities, industries and even firms have the most troubling employment records.
If the worst offenders must face aggressive legal or regulatory action and the threat of bad press, companies will likely renew their commitment to equal opportunity both to avoid negative publicity and to successfully recruit productive and diverse labor forces.
Currently, corporations are largely protected from public scrutiny when it comes to equal employment opportunity. But if campaign contributions, pollution discharges, stock market activity and even balance sheets of publicly traded companies are all public record, shouldn’t employment practices be as well?
It’s time to fulfill the original Civil Rights Act mandate and make visible where there is progress toward equal employment opportunity and where past gains are slipping away. Only by acknowledging that progress is not inevitable and that equal opportunity progress has stalled can we move toward creating equal opportunity for all.
Kevin Stainback is an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University. His research centers on issues of social inequality.
Donald Tomaskovic-Devey is a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the current chair of the Sociology Department.