I grew up in Manhattan in the 1940s and early 1950s, and save a scattering of Puerto Ricans, few Hispanics were to be found. Then, after almost four decades of being a Midwesterner, I returned to Manhattan in 2004. I immediately saw Mexicans, El Salvadorians, and similar Spanish-speaking immigrant workers everywhere. Spanish was the lingua franca in restaurants, nursing homes, building maintenance, and construction, among others. Employed blacks were visible, too, but as far as I could tell, nearly all were recent immigrants from the Caribbean. Outside of occasional retail clerks (almost entirely female) and messengers, the native black working population had, despite contrary census data, seemingly vanished, at least as far as I could observe first hand. Even once historic “black jobs” like cleaning lady and nanny seemingly now lacked a substantial native-born black presence.
What explains this employment transformation and, critically, where have all these blacks gone?
Severe economic downturns or natural catastrophes outside the U.S. had certainly not pushed millions of newcomers into our workforce. Obviously, even a lowly U.S. service job outshined field labor in Mexico, but this was also true in the 1950s when blacks occupied many jobs now held by immigrants. Nor can “slave-labor” pay explain this influx given minimum wage requirements. Moreover, this wave of Hispanic and Caribbean newcomers hardly posses the special skills required for the new technologically-oriented economy—Mexican fry cooks are not Indian software engineers. The 1965 change in immigration law intended to reunite families might explain some of this influx, but why has this flood occurred after a two decade wait and it certainly cannot explain those here illegally or without U.S.-based families.
The answer, we submit, is that since the 1970s, native-born blacks have effectively priced themselves out of the labor market via seeking aggressive anti-discrimination protection and, as employers shunned these now gold-plated employees, the government itself became the employer of first resort. In other words, government “help” beginning in the late 1960s made native born blacks increasingly unaffordable and then, rather than let them languish and risk social upheaval, government stepped in, no different in principle as when Washington once filled warehouses with artificially over-priced wheat and cheese.
Begin by recognizing that the clamor for “more rights” and “more protection from discrimination” has become a religious, addictive article of faith among blacks. No black civil rights organization rejects “discrimination” as the Mother of All Evils to explain black economic woes, and the cry never stops. A recent New York Times story (September 1, 2009) told how the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, plans to sharply expand the civil rights division, hiring 50 new lawyers and ramping up aggressive enforcement to end, once and for all, racial bias in housing and employment. It is the mid-1960s all over again, though the perpetual victimization message has had a half century to sink in. This Justice Department initiative is on top of hundreds of state and local anti-bias agencies, multiple other federal anti-discrimination efforts, plus innumerable judicial orders, intrusive consent decrees and bureaucratic fatwas whose numbers defy cataloguing.
Aggressive government deus ex machina intervention to win jobs also fits well with African-American beliefs that nefarious whites are wholly responsible for their plight. So, when an ill-educated black job applicant with a spotty work history is not hired, the reflexive explanation is “racial discrimination” and black grievance organizations trolling for recruits can welcome a new conscript. What anxious-to-expand black organization will tell disgruntled job applicants to study hard, avoid drugs and similar Calvinistic tactics? This sound advice is far too “white” in today’s victimization-infused racial landscape and if one’s demand for more anti-discrimination legislation does not boost employment, just shout louder. Marching for “economic justice” is also far easier than learning new skills.
Judged by the sheer volume of protective strictures, this “pass a law, get a job” approach has been wildly effective. Those unfamiliar with anti-discrimination laws cannot possibly imagine the minefield faced by perspective employer. Just visit the federal government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website to see for yourself. The guidelines are almost surrealistic and remember that the EEOC is only one of dozens of federal and state anti-discrimination enterprises. The site begins by announcing that “significant work remains to be done” and offers a grab-bag of research studies showing how blacks fare poorly in competing for employment and how they remain confined to low-paying positions. (That disparities may be explainable by non-discriminatory factors is, of course, unsaid.) Critically, the agency admits that it can supply no definition of “race” but, nevertheless, racial discrimination can exist entirely by motivation (as well as impact), an approach reminiscent of the line, “I don’t know what it [smut] is but I can recognize it when I see it.” Now, imagine an employer trying to navigate a law where the protected specie is legally undefined and inquisitors may delve into the subconscious!
Only a few snippets must suffice. Discrimination is prohibited on the basis of a “race-based illness” such as sickle cell anemia for blacks or diabetes for those of Hawaiian ancestry, so those seeking “fairness” in their hiring must grasp “generally accepted medical criteria” (EEOC language) when screening job applicants. Similarly impermissible is refusing to hire a job candidate because of their “cultural characteristics” linked to race and ethnicity, and this includes the person’s name, attire, grooming, having a “black accent,” or, heaven forbid, “sounding white.” Even if a non-protected group member is rejected, discrimination can legally occur if the employer mistakenly believed that this person belonged to a protected group and, just to guarantee perfection, an applicant cannot be denied a position if that person associates with someone from a protected class. So, a white with black friends may seek redress if denied a promotion.
Escaping the charge of "racial discrimination" can lead to a convoluted "even-handedness." So, if a black job applicant is rejected due to having a small child, the employer must make sure that some white applicant was also rejected for the same reason. That the two applicants' situations were different is irrelevant. Superficial outward appearances determine bias from a legal perspective. Thoroughness now requires detailed background checks of rejected applicants to insure even-handedness. And to be fair, even Caucasians (left undefined) are protected from discrimination.
These EEOC guidelines are pretty demanding but fear not, there’s lots of advice on how they can be satisfied (“proactive prevention”). It starts at the top:
- Develop a strong company-wide anti-discrimination policy.
- Train all managers and employees in the do’s and don’t and make sure executives are accountable for enforcement.
- Decisions involving protected employees must be transparent and documented and don’t forget to enlarge the pool of protected applicants (including senior supervisors).
- If time is left over after actually running the business, regularly conduct self-analyses to see if all company policies treat protected employees fairly and in non-discriminatory ways (including rectifying historical discrimination).
(So, if promotions might conceivably result from networking at the firm’s annual golf outing, perhaps add a yearly basketball tournament so African Americans can likewise network.)
The list of remediations continues.
- Make sure that opportunities for promotion are sufficiently publicized, that promotion criteria are well understood, and if protected employees fail these standards, supply necessary role models and mentoring.
- If complaints about race-related unfairness arise, decisions must be fully explained and complainers protected against retribution (and, obviously, all grievances require thorough investigation, and the complainer’s identity must be protected).
But, as they say on late night TV infomercials, wait there is more!
Compensation practices require constant scrutiny and those who believe they are under-paid must receive ample opportunities to challenge and reverse decisions. Management must also develop an “inclusive culture” (EEOC’s term), which means all employees having access to “workplace networks” (again, EEOC terminology). Now, conceivably, senior staff may insist that blacks be invited to the regular young employee TGIF bar hopping lest they miss out on the work-related gossip so vital to corporate advancement.
Believer it not, it only gets worse. Walter K. Olson’s The Excuse Factory observes that employers can run afoul of anti-discrimination laws by insisting on employee traits that are so obvious, so pertinent to the job that they are never put in the official job description. These include traits like a pleasant attitude, a willingness to follow instructions, being neatly dressed, an outward enthusiasm for the position and being law-abiding, among many others that define “a good worker.” In today’s upside down world, this too-obvious-to-warrant-saying policy invites legal trouble: since possessing an agreeable disposition is not formally part of the job advertisement, and not a specified must-have part of the job, a sullen, foul-mouthed applicant with a “’tude” can insist that he was turned down on racial grounds since nothing was actually said about his obnoxious demeanor. Obviously, since no job description can be exhaustive, a litigation-prone black applicant can always claim that it was race, and only race that lead to him not being hired.
Now for the coup de grâce—thanks to government lawyers aided by civil rights groups ever on the lookout for legal precedents, the financial cost for perusing a discrimination claim is zero and huge settlements await winners. Having standing to sue without any legal cost is perfect for lottery fans. Indeed, a failure to receive promotion announcements or not being invited to go drinking after work may yield more money than might be earned in years of employment.
Clearly, no firm can pass OEEC inspection no matter how diligent or expensive lawyers hired. When costs and risks are fully calculated, it often makes economic sense to move to North Dakota (or India), sub-contract out as much as possible, automate the tasks or just exit the market. Especially for small business or those on the edge financially, a single legal case can bring bankruptcy. Even a legal victory may be disastrous in light of lawyer fees. Ironically, the traditional and relatively cheap solution to addressing impossible-to-meet regulations—bribing the building inspector, for example—is unavailable when confronting ideologues who fervently believe that they are helping the less fortunate by making them impossible to hire.
Now, compare the benefits of hiring Juan, a Mexican (of uncertain legal status), who desperately wants to return home and buy a pick-up truck, to John, an African American with a hyper-sensitive sense of racial injustice. Though both enjoy equal legal rights, Juan is unlikely to exploit them. Earning money quickly is paramount for Juan, and “trouble-making” risks it all. He has no desire to be mentored or being included in TGIF outings. He keeps quiet even if under-paid (which he makes up for with longer hours) and is hardly offended by not being told of promotion opportunities. Though hardly a Boy Scout, he avoids any job misconduct such as endless cell phone conversations that might end his dream of a new pick-up truck. Juan even suppresses his “natural” cultural inclination to be habitually late and whistle at hot babes. He lacks any appetite for litigation, keeps his nose to the grindstone, banks half his modest paycheck, and otherwise performs as a good employee, and that’s why he was hired in the first place.
What is John, our African American, to do since his cost, totally apart from his salary, makes him prohibitively expensive for any private sector employer? No problem—he gets a government job since his employer lacks any competition and cannot fail even if John spends hours playing solitaire. The only constraint is taxes, and with Americans happy to spend ever more on education, public health, fighting crime, and similar government functions, appeals to hire yet more government workers resonate well. John is now hired as a public school security guard or perhaps just to keep order in a city-run Emergency Room (his girlfriend is meanwhile hired as a teacher’s aid or parent-school coordinator). That John may have indifferent work habits or engage in petty crimes while working makes no differences. Powerful municipal unions will protect him and low productivity only means more Johns will be hired.
Statistics on this “blackening” of the government workforce confirm what many know from their humdrum encounters with the government. EEOC figures show that between 1980 and 2005, the number of blacks in city and state government rose from 619,000 to 1.1 million, an increase of 481,000 (U.S. Statistical Abstract 2009, Table 446). A recent detailed study of black employment at federal agencies found almost universal massive over-representation. This is especially true where job requirements are modest. So, for example, in the U.S. Court Services and Offender Services, blacks compared to their general population numbers were over-represented by 808 percent. Remarkably, over-representation also existed in more “technical” agencies: NASA (49.4 percent), National Science Foundation (318.2 percent), Security and Exchange Commission (112.6 percent) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (68.3 percent). To be sure, many of these “black” positions in technically-oriented agencies may be menial, for example, custodial work or clerking. Even so, the pattern is unmistakable—government to the rescue.
The implications of this dynamic are profound. The ceaseless pressure for tougher anti-discrimination laws will make blacks affordable only to the deep pocket employers or those doing business with government where workforce diversity is compulsory. The costliness of black private-sector employees also means that the burden of affirmative action far, far exceeds the salaries of newly hired employees. Moreover, as lawyers discover new types of once hidden racial discrimination, the cost of litigation-proofing the workplace will become astronomical (this can already be seen in turning corporate HR departments over to blacks so as to pre-empt law suits). Running parallel will be commensurate pressure to fill yet more government jobs with blacks who are now even more expensive for private industry. For those worried about burgeoning Hispanic immigration, this dynamic may be unfixable—just try getting blacks to surrender the hard won protection against employment discrimination (this is comparable to giving up a minimum wage).
Going one step further, the public sector transformation means going from blacks being governed by whites to whites, save at the highest administrative levels, being governed by blacks. In other words, yesterday’s short-order cook is today’s assistant school principal or IRS supervisor. How this translates into administrative efficiency is, of course, a complicated issue whose resolution remains murky. Still, the pattern is likely to be a troubling one and short of a massive privatization of government services, the dynamic will continue unabated. African Americans should recall the old Chinese proverb, be careful of what you wish for, you might get it.