The racial composition of Georgetown University's basketball team became the focus of heated congressional testimony yesterday when the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said statistics could be used incorrectly to conclude that the team's all-black makeup is due to racism.
Clarence Thomas, chairman of the EEOC, used the No. 1-ranked college basketball team, which represents a predominantly white school, to argue that statistics have been misused to charge discrimination against employers. He told a House subcommittee on employment opportunities that differences between the proportion of blacks, Hispanics or women at any work site and their proportion in the total work force are not proof of discrimination.
Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said neither Congress nor the courts had implied that Georgetown was guilty of discrimination and asked how Thomas could use that example as a "starting point" to urge that the government stop using statistics as an indicator of possible discrimination.
"Findings of statistical disparities establish a prima facie case, and that is so important because the burden shifts to the employer," Williams said. ". . . There are only two ways to find fire -- get burned or look for the smoke. Statistics help us find the fire before we get burned. I encourage you to continue to use statistics."
The EEOC is reviewing its guidelines for detecting discrimination against minorities and women, the Uniform Guidelines on Employe Selection Procedures, which the courts have used as an authoritative interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The guidelines set a standard of "adverse impact," including statistical underrepresentation, as evidence of "discrimination unless justified."
Thomas argued that statistics might sometimes be appropriate to help prove discrimination, "but every statistical disparity is not discrimination."
"You could conclude from the results of a study of the Georgetown basketball team that statistically you have to be black," Thomas said, "or you could also conclude, if you did not use race-conscious statistics, that you have to know how to play basketball.
"Now, what does that mean in Georgetown's case ?" he asked. "Obviously you need to be taller than 5-foot-8; you probably have to be aggressive on defense, and with Coach John Thompson's system, you probably have to be disciplined and a good student, because if you are simply a good basketball player, you cannot play for him. So there's a whole range of considerations other than race.
"But if you just looked at the clear statistical disparity between the student body at Georgetown and the basketball team, you could conclude . . . that you have to be black to play for a black coach," Thomas said.
Williams fired back that the EEOC is supposed to look behind any statistical disparity that leads to a presumption of discrimination.
Thomas replied that in some cases the EEOC had not gone beyond the statistics to see if charges of discrimination were justified.
When Thomas complained that he didn't understand a question from panel Chairman Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), Hawkins replied: "I don't think we understand each other very well.
"You disagree with the courts, you disagree with Title VII which prohibits bias in employment , you disagree with every opinion ever written, so I don't know whom you're in step with except possibly [U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [William H.] Rehnquist . . . , and on that basis you are talking about changing federal policies?"
Thomas, chairman of the EEOC since 1982, replied: "I have concerns when you start counting by race in society. That's my personal view, it has been my personal view most of my life and will continue to be my view.
"Just as Coach Thompson may not be discriminating, others may not be discriminating . . . ," Thomas added. "But this cuts both ways. Someone may have a great representation of minorities in their work force, and we may go behind that and find evidence of discrimination."
"Well, if your views ever become universal in this country, God help us because . . . you simply want to emasculate all progress we've made in the last 50 years," Hawkins told Thomas.
Hawkins said he would hold hearings to monitor the EEOC's enforcement of Title VII, which he said Thomas wants to turn into a "dead letter." Thomas said he welcomed any review.