The white and black teachers from Jackson, Mich., whose quarrel over affirmative action was decided by the Supreme Court this week, remind us that racial factors remain imbedded in the issues of hiring, firing and promotion in offices and workplaces throughout the economy.
Another reminder, from a different perspective, comes from business consultant Edward W. Jones Jr., who has taken a long, hard look at the impact of race on the competition for advancement at the top levels of U.S. corporations.
Jones' study, conducted at the request of the Harvard Business Review, shows that the door has clearly been opened. "Starting from almost total exclusion, blacks now hold positions of responsibility, with prestige and income that our parents often thought impossible," Jones writes in the May issue of the Review.
But once inside, blacks are making little progress at all moving into the top ranks of corporate management, he argues.
His evidence includes two studies of the biggest American companies conducted in 1979 and 1985 by Korn Ferry International, a recruiting firm. Of 1,708 senior executives who responded in the first study, three were black, two Asian, two Hispanic and eight female. Of 1,362 senior executives who responded in last year's study, there were four blacks, six Asians, three Hispanics and 29 women. The 1985 survey went to the top four or five executives at each of the 1,000 companies on Fortune magazine's lists of the biggest U.S. industrial and service firms. The 1979 study surveyed the top 800 firms.
"I think it is fair to say that this is almost no progress at all," Jones concludes. Moreover, the problem is growing worse because the pressure for affirmative action for minorities and women has lost steam. He quotes an unnamed chief executive of a major American company: "I'm concerned. The curve of progress has started to flatten more than it should relative to the effort we've made." And he cites a 1983 survey of business opinion leaders who ranked affirmative action 23rd out of 25 human-resource priorities. In many companies, the issue is not on the front burner.
Jones, a black executive at New York Telephone Co. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. before founding a consulting firm in New Jersey, spent three years gathering information for the Harvard Review article. He concludes that the barrier is not overt racism. "As one white senior executive put it, 'No thinking person would pick a white manager for promotion over a more qualified black manager.' The problem is the influence of unconscious, unthinking criteria on the choice."
He calls the problem "colorism" -- the predisposition to act in a certain way toward a person because of that person's race or gender. While whites typically have an automatically positive internal image of other whites, it takes an effort for them to react positively toward blacks, he says.
Colorism has its roots in racial prejudice, but at the corporate level it is coupled with ignorance -- the ignorance of white executives who have little, if any, normal social relationships with blacks and deal instead according to stereotypes, consciously or not. "If, for example, a white administrator makes a mistake, his boss is likely to tell him, 'That's OK. Everybody's entitled to one goof.' If, however, a black counterpart commits the same error, the boss thinks, "I knew he couldn't do it. The guy is incompetent.' The stereotype reinforces itself," Jones says.
Some blacks who have risen in the corporate ranks have done so by accommodating their actions to what they believe the white stereotype requires, says Jones, who interviewed 30 black executives with six-figure incomes and several hundred black managers for the study.
"It means being smart, but not too smart. Being strong, but not too strong. Being confident, but not egotistical to the point of alienation. Being the butt of prejudice and not being unpleasant or abrasive. Being honest, but not paranoid . . . . Speaking out on issues affecting blacks, but not being perceived as a self-appointed missionary or a unifaceted manager expert only on black subjects." Many become "psychological contortionists" in the process, Jones says.
The process feeds upon itself in other ways. A black on the upward path may think twice about hiring a black assistant or recommending a black colleague for promotion, out of fear of how white superiors will react. And the blacks with the strongest sense of moral courage and the surest sense of self are the most inclined to leave the corporate ranks.
"Will black managers ever be allowed to move up the organization and succeed by the old-fashioned way, by earning it?" Can society move toward a color-blind work environment? he asks. If so, blacks "must be allowed to fail as well as succeed. In other words, they must be treated the same as white managers," he says.
The first step, Jones says, is recognition that colorism exists, followed by a commitment to confront it. The requirement "is to accept how deeply rooted our feelings are about race and color, then remove the taboo from candor on racial realities. We must open up communications and not deny or pretend. Corporations cannot manage attitudes, but they can manage behavior with accountability, rewards and punishment, as in all other important areas of concern."
Business is not alone in turning away from the numerical realities of affirmative action. The numbers carry less weight than they used to in Congress and the federal government as well. But Jones is right when he says: "What gets measured in business gets done. What is not measured is ignored."