Equality On The Job -- Are We There Yet? -- Five Options To Consider On Affirmative Action's Future

Copyright, 1998, The Seattle Times Co.

Some say we never should have started trying to change society with affirmative action. Others say the goal of equal opportunity is now achieved. Others would amend the goal; still others would keep the current system indefinitely. Few would argue, though, that with initiative 200 before the Legislature, the issue gains a new urgency for our state. In considering where we go from here, we need to answer for ourselves: where is it we want to be?

Are we there yet?

That question looms monumental as Washington state legislators and their constituents wrestle with Initiative 200, which would end affirmative action as practiced by the state and local governments.

Opinions vary, from those who think the nation never should have started down the path of race- and gender-conscious policies, to those who think we never should leave it. Many hold views somewhere in between.

Over the past three days, The Seattle Times has explored affirmative action in employment - its historical roots, how it operates, its results in government and in business - in an effort to help voters determine: Are we there yet?

But there is no simple answer. Only one conclusion is clear: The answer depends on where you think the destination lies.

"There" has many possible definitions. Here, based on extensive research and interviews, are five to consider.

Destination 1: Back to the beginning

Some say the country never should have set out on the path of affirmative action.

They say the nation had arrived at the correct destination with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

That law gave minorities all the protection they needed, critics of affirmative action assert.

Others argue it wasn't enough, and they cite the explanation President Johnson gave for affirmative action in 1965:

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, `You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

Johnson proposed that the nation seek "not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

Deciding whether this first step should have been taken is fundamental to your view of affirmative action.

Michael Medved, a conservative film critic and radio talk-show host, is clear in his opinion:

"Any time that government labels and judges people differently because of their skin color it is wrong, despicable, inappropriate, un-American, evil.

"Yes, it is possible for the government to try to guarantee equality of opportunity, and it should try to," Medved said. "But equality of result, equality of outcome is beyond government's reach to attain and should be beyond government's reach to attempt."

But Tony Orange, the director of the state Commission on African American Affairs, says the creation of affirmative-action programs was a necessity. Discrimination didn't end just because Congress passed a law making it illegal, he points out.

He recalls the comment of African-American activist W.E.B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP: "The problem of the 20th century is the color line."

"That is a prophetic comment as we face the 21st century," Orange said. "The issue of race is still the most important issue in America. And affirmative action is a tool, a remedy, for present and past discrimination. It's not to help minorities, it's to end discrimination."

Destination 2: Mirror the population

Some might accept the idea of affirmative action but believe it should stop with the accomplishment of its earliest stated goals: making sure a government's overall work force reflects the population it serves.

That is what Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman called for in 1970, as did other public officials.

The Times found that many public agencies have substantially accomplished this task for minorities, although most still fall short for women.

But this first step runs into complaints from both sides.

Opponents of affirmative action question why any racial or ethnic groups should be favored over any other minority groups, and they object to the inclusion of recent Latino and Asian immigrants, who don't have a long history of facing discrimination in this country.

On the other end of the spectrum, proponents of affirmative action complain that this step only gets minorities and women in the door, not up the ladder into the job hierarchy.

Destination 3: Match the labor force

This is the goal of affirmative-action programs today: to match a particular agency's work force with the talent available among people working or looking for work in particular categories.

Those who would consider this goal an end would stop affirmative action once that match has been made.

The only major entity in Washington now close to doing that, The Times found, is the King County government, which has met 93 percent of its goals for minorities.

Some say reaching this destination is possible within another generation.

"We know we are there when we have a more diverse society at every level, from blue-collar jobs to the boardroom. I think we're there in 20 years," says Sue Jordan, director of the Washington Human Rights Commission.

But many people on both sides of the I-200 debate have problems with this destination.

Some who oppose the initiative and support affirmative action argue that ending the policies at a pre-set point would prevent government employment from keeping up with the state's changing population, which is increasingly diverse.

Other affirmative-action backers complain that this destination just protects the status quo. Even when all of its goals are met, they point out, the government work force will only reflect the composition of the general labor force, in which white men hold the better jobs and command the bigger paychecks.

On the other side, many who support I-200 criticize the very foundations of the current system.

"I don't know where the assumption comes from that in any given job you would have all ethnic groups perfectly proportionately represented, and that absent that representation it must be a sign of job bias," said John Carlson, co-chair of I-200.

"There are a magnitude of reasons why you will have disparities that have nothing to do with discrimination," he said, adding, "The only way you will get proportional representation in all sectors of life is to hire by race and to put increased emphasis on race. Most Americans want less emphasis on race."

Destination 4: Equal job distribution

There are those who might aim for another, more theoretical destination: Distributing jobs evenly among all racial, ethnic and gender groups.

Under this model, if 10 of 100 white workers were managers, then about 10 of 100 black workers would be managers as well. And if 20 of 100 white workers were service workers, then about 20 of 100 black workers would be as well.

That step would bring greater equality into the labor force, would close the gaps in the types of jobs held by the various groups, and would even end median-pay disparities.

This destination is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The Times found, for example, that it has virtually been achieved among men and women state-government workers engaged in professional jobs.

But this destination is not a stated aim in any current affirmative-action program. And Carlson's arguments against the previous destination would only intensify for this one.

Destination 5: The road goes on forever

Finally, there are those who believe that affirmative action will always be needed.

Their destination is the elimination of discrimination, racism and sexism. And that, they believe, will never occur.

Under their model, affirmative action would continue indefinitely as a monitoring device, with goals and timetables available to correct disparities between an agency's work force and the talent in the labor force.

Once a goal is met, however, the agency would suspend the tools of affirmative action, including targeted recruitment and special consideration in hiring and promotion - at least until the establishment of a new goal.

Such has been the status at King County for minority men for a decade, The Times found.

"I can see an end to the need to establish hiring goals or promotion goals," said Jackie Baker, affirmative-action manager for the city of Seattle. "I don't see an end to the need for affirmative outreach. . . .

"It's the human-nature thing," she said. "If you are not constantly challenged to be inclusive, you'll fall back to being exclusive."

Roy Standifer, manager of diversity programs in the state Personnel Department, believes that the history of discrimination in this country has taught him to be distrustful of good intentions. "If it's depending on good faith or law," he says, "give me law."

That view should be rejected, says Bruce Chapman, a former Seattle City Council member who voted for the city's affirmative-action policies in 1972 but now opposes them.

"What does that tell us about the people of the United States? That they're racist, that by their nature they're racist," he said. "I think that is a very discouraging kind of philosophy and it really represents a prison for all races. If that is the philosophy, it's very hard to see how we become one nation."

Is it a permanent process or a means with a defined end?

In all the rules and regulations governing affirmative action, there is nothing that spells out how or when the program is to end. It has been set up as a permanent process, not a remedy with a deadline.

This goes counter to many people's view of the program.

"When affirmative action was first discussed in the mid-'60s and began to be put into place, no one contemplated that it was going to be a permanent policy or program in either the government or the private sector," says Hubert Locke, a retired expert on public policy at the University of Washington.

"I think that is the nature of the problem today. I think most people believed it was going to be phased out," Locke says. "The dispute is about whether now is the appropriate time to do so."

Locke himself has mixed feelings about affirmative action, and many people on both sides of the debate think it does not address some problems that contribute to the disparities in the workplace.

Critics, including Medved and Chapman, point out that if the government is going to try to help people, it should help all people who are disadvantaged, not just what they call the "favored minorities."

Those who support it say it wasn't designed to do that. At one time, they say, it was just one of a range of Great Society programs aimed at addressing poverty, health problems, substandard education, inadequate housing, residential segregation and joblessness. Most of those programs have been curtailed or abandoned - except affirmative action.

"Affirmative action is one tiny tool to correct the effects of discrimination. It is not a poverty program," says Robbi Ferron, who chaired the Governor's Task Force on Affirmative Action for the past two years. "Unfortunately, it is billed as if it is going to cure everything."

Nor does it necessarily address a root problem that ultimately shapes the composition of the labor force: education.

"I think the educational system continues to need to be overhauled, so that we do have the best education system in the world. I don't think it is anymore," says Jordan of the state Human Rights Commission.

If education continues to be inadequate for African Americans, for example, they won't be able to take advantage of the very affirmative-action policies that were designed to help them overcome racial discrimination.

"I think that's why a number of people like myself are conflicted about affirmative action," Locke said. "I would say, `Look, it's time we sat down and devise other policies and tools to get at the problems we are trying to resolve.' "

But when he hears Carlson promoting I-200, Locke says, "I have to come out of the chute defending affirmative action to the death."

Are there options beyond a simple yes or no?

Initiative 200 forces a choice of only two destinations: Continue affirmative action as it is, or end it.

John Spellman, who started affirmative action when he was King County executive in the 1970s and continued it for state government when he was governor in the early 1980s, hasn't taken a position on I-200. But he rejects the views that it never should have started - or that it never will end.

"At some point, we're not going to need it," he said. "We're getting there, and in many ways we are there."

But he is content to leave that decision to the courts.

"I think it ends piece by piece," he said. "It is incrementally being determined by the courts on constitutional grounds, and I do not disagree with the courts at all."

Nationally, the courts have begun to place limitations on affirmative action. Over the years, however, the courts have ruled in favor of the city of Seattle's affirmative-action policies.

One of these was the test case of Claude Harris, the state's first African-American firefighter.

In 1976, a lawsuit on behalf of five white fire captains challenged Harris' promotion to battalion chief ahead of whites who ranked higher on the promotional exam. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court let the promotion stand. Harris later served as Seattle's fire chief, from 1985 to 1996.

Now, another white fire captain is challenging affirmative action. Capt. Randy Hansen has sued the department, alleging retaliation, discrimination and violation of free-speech rights because of discipline related to his satire, the "White Anglo-Saxon-European-American Male Firefighter's Association."

Hansen, a strong supporter of I-200, believes affirmative action should end.

"Originally, it was very necessary. Reaching parity with Seattle's demographics to properly reflect the citizens we serve is positive," he said. But now he believes it is an illegal system whose continued use "creates a divisive atmosphere that negatively impacts morale and unnecessarily stereotypes competent minority and female firefighters."

He adds, "Basically it is a remedial program. Where does it end?"

It doesn't, Harris says.

Harris likens affirmative action to a labor union.

"Just like you need a union to protect workers, you need affirmative action for people of color," he said. "You won't need affirmative action all the time, just like a union doesn't always need to go to binding arbitration."

Harris echoes many when he asked how long affirmative action will be needed: "Until there is no more discrimination."

When will that be? "There was discrimination in the past, there is discrimination now and there will be discrimination in the future."

Tom Brune's phone message number is 206-464-2997. His e-mail address is: tbru-new@seatimes.com

Tracy Grandberry Age 32, student at Seattle Central Community College

"I've got friends who feel they've been affected by affirmative action, that they were qualified for a position and maybe a person of another race got it. I'm always, like, `Well, maybe you weren't as qualified as you thought you were.' Everything is not always cut and dried, like they think it is. I don't think affirmative action has to do with everything."

Kevin McDonald Age 19, law-enforcement major at Lower Columbia Community College, Longview

"In the ads of the newspaper, there's one for the position of trooper. At the bottom, it has a star that says women and minorities are encouraged to apply. Can you blame me for worrying, when you know who I am? It just makes me think that because I am a white male I don't get the same opportunity because of affirmative action."

Philip Lu Age 51, biotechnology consultant

"I'm not knocking affirmative action, but I'm not so sure how much it's done for Asian Americans on the whole. . . . It hasn't broken the glass ceiling, especially for Asians. Asians have made great strides in the United States because of our hard working, not so much because of affirmative action."

Marie Adair Age, 55, retired accountant

"I just think these things are preposterous and out of hand. Hiring should be based on an individual's capabilities, and then everyone has a chance because they can compete. I've never felt discriminated against in my life for any reason, not as a woman or as a handicapped person."

John Lovchik Age 57, businessman in real-estate finance

"The statistics are pretty obvious that there is not equity, that there is not a level playing field. I just spent a few years thinking about the plight of people who are discriminated against and what their options are, and frankly they have no options. Those of us who are in the majority have the options. We're the ones who created the problem, we're the ones who have to solve the problem."

----------------------------------------- Tell us your answer: `Are we there yet?' -----------------------------------------

Over the past four days, The Seattle Times has reported on the impact of affirmative-action programs on the work forces of governments and big businesses in Washington state - all with the goal of helping you answer the question, "Are we there yet?"

Now it's your turn. We'd like to hear how you'd answer the question, given both your own perspective and experience and the new information we've provided.

To respond, you may:

-- Send us e-mail at: porch@seatimes.com

-- Write to "Are We There Yet?" in care of Tom Brune, Newsroom, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

-- Leave a voice-mail message at 206-464-3313.

Please include your name, phone number and city of residence, and tell us if you don't want your response published. On the responses we do publish, we won't include your phone or street address.

Thanks in advance for taking the time.

This project was produced by staff of The Seattle Times:

REPORTER: Tom Brune.

GRAPHICS: Karen Kerchelich, Michelle Kumata, James McFarlane, Ken Oelerich.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Steve Ringman, Dean Rutz, Mark Harrison.

DESIGN: Tracy Porter.

COPY EDITOR: Carole McClosky.

PROJECT EDITOR: David Boardman.

----------------------- Forecast for Washington -----------------------

Population diversifies but remains mostly white.

As it has since 1950, the state's minority population will continue its steady growth over the next two decades, demographers say. Still, though, more than three-quarters of the state's residents will be white in the year 2020.

Fast growth projected for Latinos, Asian Americans.

Through births and migration, Asian Americans and Latinos will continue to be the state's two fastest-growing minority groups, demographers predict. The gap will widen between those groups and African Americans, whose numbers will only gradually rise.