Beth Cobert, President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Personnel Management, testifies on Capitol Hill in February. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

As dangerous as it was, battling overt segregation during the civil rights era was in some ways easier than combating today’s insidious racism.

At least you could see the “white only” signs and you knew who was behind them.

Those signs are long gone, but racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination didn’t go with them. They are among us, often hidden, yet potent. The perpetrators of this prejudice would never call themselves bigots and might not even realize they act like one.

Beth Cobert, the acting Office of Personnel Management director, is urging federal officials to confront this unseen, but not unfelt, discrimination.

“As many of you know, one of the most challenging barriers to diversity and inclusion is unconscious bias,” she said at OPM’s diversity and inclusion summit at the Coast Guard headquarters Tuesday. “It’s difficult to grapple with because it is unconscious — not as obvious as calling out someone for using improper language or overtly passing someone over for a promotion. Probably the most unconscious bias exhibited during the hiring process is the ‘like me’ bias. The ‘like me’ bias means leaders and managers typically look to hire or promote people who look like themselves. A white male will select a white male, for example.”

She pointed to a study of symphony orchestras. Curtains were placed between musicians auditioning for jobs and the selection committees. “As a result, the percentage of women musicians in five of the nation’s leading orchestras jumped from single digits in the 1970s to 21 percent by 1992,” Cobert said.

The Agriculture Department used a blind application process for two recent Senior Executive Service (SES) classes. Names of candidates were excluded from the paperwork reviewed by selection panels. Cobert called the results “groundbreaking.” “From 2009 to December of 2015, the percentage of women in the SES at USDA increased by 41 percent,” she said, repeating “41 percent” for emphasis.

That’s progress, but the job for diversity and inclusion advocates is far from done.

At just 4.4 percent in 2014, Hispanics/Latinos were severely underrepresented in the SES, the top civil-service rank. African Americans were 11 percent, according to OPM data. Almost 8 of 10 senior executives were white, and nearly two-thirds were male.

Darlene H. Young, president of Blacks in Government, said OPM is “trying to do a good job” at increasing diversity and inclusion in the federal government, but she added, “I think there is some heavy lifting with that whole SES program.”

There are a lot of openings and many qualified candidates among African Americans and others, Young said, yet SES diversity is not where it should be. Changing the “mind-set of higher management is what’s needed,” she added.

That gets back to the unconscious bias Cobert denounced.

Calling for greater use of data to identify barriers to diversity and patterns of retention and advancement, Cobert said, “We need to tackle the hard stuff.”

“Diversity and inclusion is not a priority because it is something nice to have,” she said. “It’s a must to have if we are to fulfill our mission to provide excellent service to the American people.”

In a related issue, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has urged the Federal Communications Commission to increase efforts to boost diverse ownership of broadcast companies.

In a letter to the FCC, the Leadership Conference said the agency has “largely failed to take meaningful steps to improve broadcast ownership diversity.”

The coalition of more than 200 advocacy organizations cited the decision of Howard University to sell the airwaves of WHUT-TV, “meaning that the only public station in the country held by an African-American institution could go off the air.”

While it doesn’t want to impede Howard’s ability to sell the airwaves used to transmit the television station’s signal, the conference said that “the FCC must look at the bigger picture to ensure the diversity of viewpoints in the public domain so critical to the health of our democracy can and will be maintained.”

The FCC did not reply to a request for comment on the letter.

Read more:

[Obama wants to take ‘acting’ off Beth Cobert’s director title at OPM]

[Report shows lack of diversity in top civil-service ranks]

[Hard-hit federal employee training gets attention in Obama’s 2015 budget]