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Personally, I am pro-Affirmative Action; however, I also know that Affirmative Action has a limited life expectancy. I believe that an orderly transition is preferable to one characterized by divisiveness and turmoil.

Toward that end, I have sought in this statement to stimulate thought and dialogue that can facilitate development of effective transition strategies for our country and its communities and institutions. If we are to have any chance of having widespread race­ neutral people practices by 2028, we must begin the change process now.

-R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., 2003

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Writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent University of Michigan Affirmative Action case, Justice Sandra Day OConnor expressed the expectation that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest (pursuit of diversity) approved today.Some observers ignore this statement, others view it as a quasi-guarantee that the use of Affirmative Action will be acceptable legally for another twenty-five years, and still others see it as an admonishment to develop legitimate alternatives to Affirmative Action by 2028 since, as Justice OConnor intimates, the Court at that time likely will not approve continuation of Affirmative Action.

This latter interpretation raises several questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of the desired state in which the need for Affirmative Action will no longer exist?
  2. What factors are hindering our reaching this desired state?
  3. What factors are facilitating our reaching the desired state?
  4. Are twenty-five years sufficient time for the necessary transition?
  5. What are the implications for human resource professionals?


The Desired State

In the sixties, when Civil Rights/Equal Opportunity policy and legislation became realities, consensus emerged that African-Americans should be mainstreamed (represented) in all walks of life in the United States. When the mere existence of these legal and administrative factors did not produce the expected increase in African­ American representation in the country’s corporations and institutions, policy-makers turned to Affirmative Action as a band-aid for jumpstarting the desired demographic shifts in representation. The original creators and supporters of Affirmative Action never intended for it to be permanent.


What was expected then is what Justice OConnor apparently expects now; specifically, that the country collectively will figure out how to secure the desired racial representation without race-conscious tools. To do this, gatekeepers such as admissions officers and human resource practitioners will have to depart from traditional practices that have not produced the desired representation with Affirmative Action assistance. By and large, however, these individuals have elected to cling to Affirmative Action as a resource for getting around the limitations of traditional managerial processes.


This clinging to Affirmative Action often stems from an expectation that artificial jumpstarting will lead to a naturalcapability to manage representation issues with race­ neutral processes. Frequently, this hope stems from an assumption that artificial mainstreaming will generate familiarity and comfort levels that, in turn, will result in a decline in the need for race-consciousness interventions.


What this perspective historically has overlooked are the challenges associated with differences of any kind. Regardless of whether racism continues, the very existence of racial differences can mean a continuing presence of tension (not necessarily conflict) even under the best of circumstances. To deal with these realities, managers and individual contributors will have to develop a capability for making quality decisions in the midst of racial differences, similarities and tensions; indeed, this capability will be central to the evolving of race-neutral management frameworks in the midst of internal and external racial differences, similarities and tensions.


So, the critical component for eliminating the need for Affirmative Action will be the creation of race-neutral people processes that not only produce the desired racial representation within institutions and corporations but also give rise to internal environments that effectively engage and empower all organizational participants in pursuit of the enterprises mission and vision. Accordingly, the question becomes, “Will gatekeepers (e.g. human resource professionals, admissions officers, and internal diversity practitioners responsible for managing recruitment, selection, and other people processes) proactively work to reduce their dependence on Affirmative Action?” In other words, “Will gatekeepers move to develop effective exit strategies from Affirmative Action?


Hindering Factors

Multiple circumstances conspire to make it difficult for those with gate-keeping responsibilities to reduce their dependence on Affirmative Action. One principal barrier is a failure to consider approaches to diversity other than managing representation and relationships.

For a number of years, I have advocated that four basic approaches have evolved for addressing diversity:

  1. Managing Work Force Representation (assuring that the desired demographics exist in the work force).
  2. Understanding Work Force Differences (assuring quality, productive relationships exist among work force participants).
  3. Managing Work Force Diversity (assuring the development of an internal environment that works for a representatively and behaviorally diverse work force).
  4. Managing Strategic Diversity (developing a capability to make quality decisions in the midst of differences, similarities, and tensions related to any mixture that is strategic for the organization).


Most practitioners either have no conceptual understanding of these four approaches, or are stuck on approaches #1 and #2. Not long ago, a practitioner described such a situation to me:


Roosevelt, you know our corporation. We made great progress with representation our demographics and numbers were first-class. Then, we emphasized awareness and sensitivity training. And here, we also made significant progress. We then sort of went dormant or relaxed, and now we are back again working at representation looking at how we can recapture the demographic gains we have lost. I guess once our numbers are okay, we’ll revisit awareness. Is this the way it is supposed to flow?


This individual was describing being stuck on Managing Work Force Representation and Understanding Work Force Differences. He lacked clarity or even awareness of approaches #3 and #4, but possessed a sense that his organization was not necessarily on a productive track. As illustrated by this example, organizations not culturally prepared for a representative work force can experience difficulty in maintaining demographic gains. As a consequence, they cycle repeatedly back and forth between Managing Work Force Representation and Understanding Work Force Differences.


Here, the distinction between the pursuit of representation and diversity comes into play. Diversity in this context includes behavioral differences. Gatekeepers can achieve representation without producing behavioral variations. The presence of multiple races does not necessarily equate to behavioral diversity; however, increasingly the creation of a representative work force results also in the presence of behavioral differences. Work forces that are representative and behaviorally diverse require utilization of#l, #2, and #3.


This condition of being stuck on approaches #1 and #2 severely hampers the gatekeeper’s ability to reduce reliance on Affirmative Action, since the cycle makes it necessary to focus almost continuously on racial representation and Affirmative Action. Without movement to approaches #3 and #4, managers are hindered in their ability to develop a general, race-neutral, capability that can be used for making quality decisions in the midst of racial differences, similarities and tensions.


A preoccupation with work force issues also represents a barrier to developing complements for and alternatives to Affirmative Action. Practice in thinking through challenges concerning non-work force differences, similarities and tensions would, at a minimum, broaden understanding of the dynamics of differences, similarities, tensions and representation and enhance the likelihood of discovering a productive alternative. Now, even when gatekeepers acknowledge that other important diversity mixtures exist (such as functions, acquisitions/mergers, lines of business, and/or headquarters/field mixtures), they rarely venture beyond the work force.


Growing in importance as a barrier is the emerging tendency of organizational leaders to focus primarily on avoiding public relations and/or legal embarrassments. Here, they place little importance on organizational change, improvements, or innovations in the pursuit of representation, but rather give priority to protecting their enterprise’s image. In this context, leaders give gatekeepers little motivation to move beyond Affirmative Action.

An “Affirmative Action forever!” attitude hampers shifting to a race-neutral alternative. Subscribers to this school of thought see Affirmative Action gradually and painfully becoming the permanent practice of the land.” Subscribers to this perspective contend that advocates must remain watchful and alert to counter any attacks on Affirmative Action. Obviously, this attitude cannot be a force for change.


Still another barrier is the tendency to view Affirmative Action as part and parcel of the Civil Rights Movement. Here, the emotional connection of these two forces works against change, as relatively few people do not endorse the Civil Rights Movement. In actuality, Affirmative Action reflects the reality that the guaranteeing of civil rights alone will not necessarily generate a level playing field (equal opportunity). More accurately, Affirmative Action is a post-Civil Rights Movement phenomenon.


Related to the above view is a hindering belief that continuing racism and oppression are the primary reasons we still need Affirmative Action; stated differently, Affirmative Action is a tool for fighting racism and oppression. This perspective interprets any decline in emphasis on Affirmative Action as a backing away from efforts to eliminate racism and oppression and constitutes a major obstacle to moving to race-neutral options.


The “entitlement” school of thought functions as an obstacle to eliminating the need for Affirmative Action. Proponents here see Affirmative Action as a form of reparations due African-Americans because of the United States’ enslavement of their ancestors. For these individuals, the country has not settled its slavery debt. Affirmative Action for them is only a small step toward retiring this obligation.


Movement away from Affirmative Action would represent a default on debt that has been outstanding far too long. Subscribers to this school would require some substitute reparation to replace the loss of Affirmative Action.


Finally, confusion prevails as to the purpose of Affirmative Action. Rising in acceptance is the notion that Affirmative Action is about the achievement of diversity.

Often accompanying this notion is the claim that diversity” will benefit the organization.


Originally, after the United States collectively concluded that discrimination against Negroeswas legally and morally unacceptable, Affirmative Action came to life as a vehicle for achieving the societal benefit of mainstreaming African-Americans. As Affirmative Action became less viable politically and legally, supporters cited the benefits of diversityas justification for its continuation. While the diversitybenefits may be genuine, the fundamental historical point was that Affirmative Action was about increasing the representation (presence) of African-Americans in the mainstream of life in the United States. Any movement toward race-neutral policies and practices must be grounded on an accurate reading of the historical purpose and beneficiary (society) of Affirmative Action.


Facilitating Factors

Two factors are working to make the continuation of Affirmative Action more problematic. The first is that the clock is ticking.


As we approach 2028, any debate around Affirmative Action increasingly will have to consider its “temporary, band-aid” status. Pressure will mount for specifics as to exit strategies for generating effective race-neutral frameworks for achieving the desired mainstreaming. By 2028, the country will have had over sixty years of experience with Affirmative Action. “How much more time will be needed?will become the pressing question and also a major force for change.


The growing complexity of implementing Affirmative Action will become a weighty burden that facilitates change. Not only will all kinds of groups (not just racial and other minorities) clamor for “protected statusand inclusion under Affirmative Action, the protests of those not encompassed likely will become louder. Further, as slavery and legal discrimination recede further into the countrys history, fewer and fewer citizens will have an accurate historical context for Affirmative Action. To complicate matters further, as Hispanics become the largest minority, the dynamics of minority relationships and politics will be in flux. All of which likely will make continuation of the Affirmative Action status quo extremely challenging.


Eventually, the question will not be whether to eliminate the need for Affirmative Action, but whether we will do it in a planned, systematic fashion or in a scenario characterized by extreme turmoil, conflict, and divisiveness. The longer we delay beginning the transition, the more likely turbulence and divisiveness will become the precipitating factors.


Implications for Human Resource and Diversity Practitioners


If 25 years are to be sufficient for the transition from race-conscious to race­ neutral people processes and for the elimination of the need for Affirmative Action, internal human resource and diversity practitioners will have to assume leadership roles. Below are some guidelines for individuals wishing to lead the transition from Affirmative Action.


Affirm your organization’s commitment to racial and ethnic representation in your work force. By commitment, I mean a willingness to work proactively to assure the creation and maintenance of a representative work force. Without a firm, trustworthy commitment to representation, any exit strategy will be difficult to implement.


Because representation is the focus of Affirmative Action, I do mean a representative work force, as opposed to one that is behaviorally diverse. Commitment to representation does not preclude pursuit of behavioral variations. But these are two different questions: “Do we want representation?” “Do we want behavioral variations?


Secure commitment for the development of an exit strategy from Affirmative Action. This is not a commitment to abandon or oppose Affirmative Action, but rather one to prepare for an orderly transition when the time comes. Proponents of Affirmative

Action will be able to accept the concept of an exit strategy only if convinced the organization will maintain a continued, effective effort to achieve a representative work force at all levels.


Legitimize the dialogue, debate, and experimentation that will generate the creativity and innovation needed for the development of an effective exit strategy. Care will be needed to create a context of trust, openness, and candor. Leaders will have to nurture this process carefully.


Part of the process will involve answering the question, Why representation?Wherever you end up in your response, do not downplay the societal imperative as opposed to the business rationale for achieving representation. In many settings, the societal imperative will be greater than that of business urgency. Simply stated, a democratic, racial, and ethnic pluralistic country requires the proportional economic participation and inclusion of all groups. This is a must for societal well-being.


Deliberately develop race-neutral people processes for attracting, selecting, and retaining a representative work force. A common set of process criteria and performance standards will be applied to all. Key will be the assurance that each criterion and standard has been scrubbed vigorously to make certain that they are based on absolute requirements, and not on personal preferences, conveniences, or traditions that are not requirements. You do not want to screen out someone on the basis of anything less than a requirement.


Build a collective and individual Diversity Management capability.

Collectively and individually, organizational participants should seek to acquire the diversity skills (ability to recognize, analyze and respond appropriately to diversity mixtures) and to attain diversity maturity (the wisd_om and judgment necessary for using the skills effectively). This capability is unquestionably necessary for the development of an environment that fully engages a representative and behaviorally diverse work force.

Such an environment will greatly facilitate the transition to race-neutral people processes.


Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

About Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr.

Dr. Thomas was the originator and developer of Diversity Management. Hailed as the “The Father of Diversity Management,” Dr. Thomas defined diversity as “any collective mixture characterized by differences, similarities, and their related tensions and complexities.” Dr. Thomas’ classic and pioneering framework, the Strategic Diversity Management Process™ (SDMP), continues to impact thousands through skills-based training, professional consulting, eLearning, and measurement tools.