Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned race-conscious measures used to diversify college enrollment, hard-line conservatives say their next goal is outlawing affirmative action in private industry.
A white man may believe he lost a job as a victim of “reverse racism,” but personnel policies that reach beyond good old boy networks for new talent have fueled job creation and economic growth. Contrary to myth, white workers still gain the most from that growth — and they could gain even more by a bolder, wider application of affirmative action.
An analysis of employment data reveals that many more Black workers hold managerial and professional jobs than 50 years ago. Yet the percent of white men in high-paying jobs continues to grow, not shrink — and, relative to their status in 1973, white women have benefited the most from corporate affirmative action programs.
You can see these results in reports filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by large companies and federal contractors in North Carolina. These are businesses with the most resources to invest in diversity training and recruitment. Progress they’ve achieved presents the rosiest picture of gains for workers of color — and the truth about persistent inequality.
▪ In 1973, 2% of the Black men and 0.5% of the Black women at these N.C. companies held managerial positions. After 50 years, those numbers only climbed to 6% and 5% — hardly a stellar achievement.
▪ The percent of Black workers hired as professionals (auditor, lawyer, engineer, editor, etc.) increased more robustly, from 1.3% to 11.7% over 50 years, but a Black employee is still twice as likely as a white employee to be a low-paid laborer or machine operator.
▪The number of higher paying managerial and professional jobs has soared in the past five decades as our state moved from a labor-intensive to knowledge-based economy. At N.C. businesses filing EECO reports, two out of five white men now work in those top positions. That’s double the one in five in similar jobs in 1973.
▪ Fifty years ago, most White women in these N.C. companies were wage laborers in textile and other plants (51%) or clerical-office staff (25%). Just 2.5% worked as managers and 4% as professionals. Now, 12% are managers and 31% are professionals — a seven-fold increase in higher-paying jobs. Only 9% are operatives or laborers.
▪ The number of Hispanic/Latinx employees at these businesses has grown substantially but not their status — 59% were operatives, laborers or service workers in 1973, compared to 49% now. Today, 6.5% hold managerial positions, up from 4.6% in 1973.
The slow climb up the occupational ladder and stark differences in pay help explain enduring income gap between white, Black and brown families. Among full-time workers, a white woman receives 79 cents for every dollar paid a white man, a Black man 73 cents, and a Black woman 63 cents.
Affirmative action has limits, but it should be expanded, not banned — and expanded not just to address inequality between workers. We must also address a biased political economy that favors the super-rich over all workers. For example, we’ll never close the deep racial, class and gender gaps in generational wealth by continuing to let most of the gain in productivity flow to mega-millionaires.
We must choose tax and regulatory policies that deliberately embrace the marginalized, empower workers broadly and elevate the long-term common good over narrow interests.
Our nation has a long history of bold, affirmative actions with built-in exclusions and preferences that widened racial and wealth divides — from the Indian Removal Acts to urban renewal, FHA programs to investment subsidies. Let’s be bold and do better.
Marcus Bass is the executive director of Advance Carolina. Bob Hall is the former director of Democracy NC.