The Great Divide

Affirmative action is succeeding in government. The problem is, nobody's happy with the results.

Women and minority men hold bigger percentages of white-collar jobs in government than in the workforce as a whole. The percentage of women in professional jobs last year was two and a half times what it was 17 years ago. African-Americans nearly doubled their presence in these occupations, while Asians and Hispanics nearly tripled theirs. Minorities nearly doubled their presence in the executive corps and women's proportion of top slots increased seven times, according to a new study by the Merit Systems Protection Board, a draft copy of which was obtained by Government Executive earlier this year.

But minorities, especially African-Americans, believe flagrant discrimination still exists in government. Few whites agree. Whites think that minorities, especially African-Americans, have made significant progress in getting high-level civil service jobs. Few blacks agree. Many white males think the advances of both minorities and women have come at their expense. Few minorities and women agree. Now misperceptions on both sides of racial issues are polarizing the federal workforce just as dramatic downsizing efforts are dimming the hope of advancement for workers of all races, according to "Fair and Equitable Treatment: A Progress Report on Minority Employment in the Federal Government," written by MSPB's office of policy and evaluation.

The employment advances of women and minorities, especially since the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, rapidly and substantially altered the complexion of the government's white-collar workforce. White men have seen their proportion of white-collar jobs shrinking. Many have grown angry, believing equal employment opportunity has come to mean promotions and new jobs are reserved for women and minorities.

"I have been denied positions because I am a white male. As a supervisor I have been pressured to select applicants who had less experience and in my judgment less ability, though they did 'qualify' for positions," wrote a GS-14 in response to the MSPB survey.

Clumsy, quota-driven Clinton administration political appointments and the affirmative action directives of some of those appointees have fueled resentment. The 1994 congressional election campaigns loosed an affirmative action backlash that gave voice to such resentment inside and outside government. Repealing affirmative action, including programs affecting civil servants, was high on the agenda of triumphant congressional Republicans. Critics were buoyed by the Supreme Court's ruling last June that federal affirmative action programs are subject to "strict scrutiny," the toughest level of legal review, to make sure they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest. By July, legislation to end federal affirmative action programs had been introduced in the House and Senate, where Majority Leader Robert Dole, whose campaign for the GOP presidential nomination was underway, sponsored the bill.

Ironically, the programs Republicans set out to dismantle were created by one of their own. It was President Nixon who, in 1969, first ordered federal agencies to create programs fostering equal opportunity for minorities and women in the civil service. Nine years later, the Civil Service Reform Act set the goals of making sure the federal workforce mirrors the population and ensuring women and minorities are present in all grades and jobs in proportion to their presence in the workforce. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission then instructed agencies to submit five-year plans showing where women and minorities were underrepresented and set annual goals to bring their numbers into proportion. The Reagan Administration eliminated the goal-setting requirement in 1987, but affirmative employment efforts continued with considerable success.

For example, African-Americans now hold a greater share of white-collar government jobs than in the overall white-collar labor force. Other minorities have reached or are near parity. But disparities persist in average grade levels. Minorities still are found more frequently in clerical and technical jobs, most of which top out at grade 9. And, while minorities hold 29 percent of all government jobs, they fill just 10 percent of non-political senior level posts. Whites and Asian Americans are twice as likely to hold jobs at GS-13, GS-14 and GS-15 than other groups.

As minorities gained ground in the white-collar workforce, white employees, especially white men, lost their stranglehold on those prime positions. White men's share of professional jobs dropped from nearly 84 percent in 1978 to just under 60 percent in 1995. Last year white men held fewer than half the administrative positions in government, down from more than 70 percent seventeen years ago. The dramatic decline hasn't meant massive job losses for white men in professional and administrative jobs. Instead, employment in the two categories increased and women and minorities got most of the new jobs, while the number of white men increased only slightly.

Angry White Men

As the civil service has grown to more closely mirror the diversity of America, it also has come to reflect deepening racial divisions in this country. One measure of discontent with diversity efforts is the number of reverse discrimination complaints federal workers file. After remaining steady since the late 1980s, that number has started to grow. Sex bias complaints filed by men averaged about a third of the total between 1988 and 1993 and race complaints by whites hovered around 20 percent of the total. Those numbers bounced up in 1994, the year of the "angry white male" political revolution. Men's complaints of sex bias jumped to nearly half of all sex discrimination claims. Race discrimination filings by whites climbed to 30 percent of the total.

"As more women enter higher positions, men may feel they have a reason to complain," says Ronnie Blumenthal, who heads the EEOC's office of federal operations.

Many white men simply believe they cannot win promotion if women and minorities are in the candidate pool. One white male executive says he felt for several years that it was easier to promote women than equally qualified men. Stories circulate in more than one department about white men who file discrimination charges every time a woman or minority is promoted. Ten percent of whites surveyed by MSPB said they had not applied for a job or promotion in the belief that no white employee had a chance of being selected.

Law enforcement agencies have been home to some of the most organized opposition to affirmative action:

  • White male FBI agents closely monitor how the bureau resolves race and sex discrimination cases. The FBI Agents Association fought in court against the 1993 settlement of a class action suit brought by black agents.
  • The National Association of Treasury Agents opposes settlement of a five-year-old discrimination class action brought by black agents against the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The association contends white ATF agents have suffered as much discrimination as blacks. It has threatened a class action of its own should the settlement include any remedies resembling quotas. The association's deputy director, a white male ATF agent, has a pending discrimination case alleging a less experienced black woman was promoted over him.
  • Last May, retired and active ATF agents joined several hundred police officers and other agents attending the "Good 'Ol Boys Roundup" in backwoods Tennessee. The gathering, described in media reports as "whites-only," featured T-shirts reading "nigger hunting license" and depicting O.J. Simpson on a gallows. The roundup, an annual event organized by retired ATF agents, apparently has drawn employees of the FBI, the Customs Service and the IRS.

Clinton's Clumsy Quotas

The Clinton administration's zealous affirmative action efforts may have provided ammunition for the backlash against equal opportunity in government. For example, Clinton left the EEOC without a chairperson for 21 months while searching for a Puerto Rican woman to take the job. A June 14, 1994, Washington Post editorial called the quest a "caricature of equal employment opportunity policy" and said the administration came "perilously close to institutionalizing some of the very distinctions as to race, gender and all the rest that their appointments are meant to overcome." Clinton finally tapped former Air Force general counsel Gilbert Casellas, a Puerto Rican man, for the EEOC post.

In January 1994, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued cultural diversity performance standards for managers that came under fire for requiring executives to become advocates for particular groups. To win an outstanding rating, managers and supervisors were expected to speak "favorably about minorities, women, persons with disabilities and others of diverse backgrounds and their participation in the work group" and to "participate as an active member of minority, feminist or other cultural organizations." The Senior Executives Association interceded with Roberta Achtenberg, then HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, and the references to speech and participation in outside groups were dropped.

An Aug. 10, 1994, memo written by Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, raised another flap. Dorn told his top managers to consult him every time they wanted to fill jobs at GS-15 or above with candidates "who will not enhance your organization's diversity." He warned that "goals, timetables and controls on hiring decisions" could follow a failure to heed defense Secretary William Perry's call for "vigorous action" to increase the number of women, minorities and disabled people among DoD civilian managers.

"As a white male, I can kiss my future goodbye," a GS-14 Defense Department staffer told The Washington Post. "I am keeping Dorn's memo handy. . . . It should serve as excellent prima facie evidence of discrimination due to race."

The Sticky Floor

Despite the unhappiness of some white men, there's little evidence women and minorities have been promoted faster or more often than white males. As grades go up, the proportion of minorities drops significantly for all groups except Asian Pacific Americans. Minority men (except Asians) remain stuck longer than whites in the trainee and developmental levels of professional jobs (GS-5, GS-7 and GS-9). Women in professional occupations have substantially lower rates of advancement than white men from grades 7, 9 and 11. It is this "sticky floor" in the lower grades, more than a "glass ceiling" in the upper grades, that slows progress for minorities, according to the MSPB report. In fact, the board found promotion rates from the GS-12 level and above were equitable across both racial groups and genders and that women and minorities have made significant gains in the upper ranks during the last 17 years.

Minorities more than doubled their representation in career and political senior executive slots, from 4.8 percent in 1978 to 11.5 percent in 1995. Women won a sevenfold increase in their percentage of executive posts, from 2.7 percent in 1978 to 14.6 percent today. Focusing exclusively on career executive posts, the gains of women and minorities are less spectacular. Minorities grew from 7.2 percent to 10.2 percent of the career SES, while women went from 8.6 percent to 15.3 percent of career executive posts.

The increases, while impressive, still left women represented in the SES at less than half their 36 percent proportion of white-collar jobs overall. The presence of minorities in career SES jobs also is well below their proportion in the overall white-collar workforce.

"I have heard from white males that women and minorities are taking all the jobs from white males. I was shocked when I looked at the statistics for the SES. What was all this whooping and hollering about women and minorities taking all the jobs?" says Juanita Wills, an African-American executive who directs the Office of Management Systems at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition.

Denise Meridith, the first black female wildlife biologist in the Bureau of Land Management, says she has seen far too little progress by women and minorities during her 23-year rise to the executive ranks. Currently, she is the only African-American woman in the SES at her agency. Meridith points out that she was hired as BLM deputy director in 1993 by then-director Jim Baca, a minority, and she, in turn, hired the only black male executive. "We can't depend on minorities carrying the burden for hiring all the other minorities," she says. "There are too few of us."

Most women and minorities now in government entered within the last 17 years and thus have slightly fewer years of experience than the average white man, MSPB found. But the study found the differences too slight to account for the disparity between the presence of women and minorities in white-collar jobs and their presence in the upper ranks. Differences in education also play a role in disparities in the upper grades, but the educational differences don't account for the disproportion either, the board found.

Because promotion rates from the GS-12 level and above are about equal across race and gender lines, the disproportion in government's upper reaches should eventually disappear. But the end is not in sight, according to MSPB, because the overall government promotion rate has slowed drastically. Downsizing efforts at various agencies meant that rates of advancement in 1993-1994 were between 20 percent and 30 percent lower than in previous years, the board found. Even before the drop, promotions weren't exactly speedy-just one in nine GS-12s and GS-13s was promoted annually. Now just one in 12 advances each year.

The Clinton Administration's review of federal affirmative action efforts last July found downsizing already has begun eroding progress in diversifying the upper ranks. Staff cuts eliminated most of the Navy's recent gains in moving women and minorities to the GS-13 through GS-15 levels, the review found. MSPB warns that the promotion slowdown may worsen race and gender relations. Members of each group are far more likely to cry discrimination whenever a member of another group wins an increasingly rare and coveted promotion.

Already, substantial percentages of minorities (55 percent of African-Americans, 28 percent of Hispanics, 21 percent of Asian Pacific Americans and 19 percent of Native Americans) believe they are subject to "flagrant or obviously discriminatory practices" in government, the board found. Few whites, just 3 percent to 5 percent, agree. Minorities and whites differ to the same degree about the existence of more subtle forms of discrimination against minorities. Whites also evaluated minorities' progress into top-level jobs more favorably than did minorities, except Native Americans. The greatest disparity in perception was among African-Americans and whites.

The divergent perceptions of whites and minorities lead them to different conclusions about whether or not affirmative action is needed. Among whites who believe African-Americans have made progress gaining access to top-level jobs, fewer than a third believe minority underrepresentation in a job or agency should be considered in hiring decisions. Among whites who see African-American progress as minimal or nonexistent, half say minority representation should be considered. The same pattern holds when comparing whites who believe minorities face little or no discrimination with whites who believe discrimination is present.

In light of these findings, MSPB recommends agencies gather and get out the facts about their own promotion rates, performance awards, average grades and other personnel issues. Executives and managers should survey employees, hold focus groups and do other forms of pulse-taking to find out where and how to use hard data to counter misperceptions about the role of race, gender or national origin in personnel decisions.

MSPB could not find evidence of the "flagrant" discrimination many minorities say they believe exists in government. Instead of intentional racism, the board found "a built-in inertia in favor of the status quo" which was "defined in an era when white men held the vast majority of professional jobs." Managers' decisions about hiring, evaluations, awards and promotions are clouded by a combination of stereotypes about minorities and a tendency to favor people like themselves or those recommended by people they know, the board reported. The mixture spawns lower ratings, more discipline, and fewer awards and career-enhancing assignments for African and Native Americans and Hispanics, according to the board. It also means Asian Americans are less likely to hold supervisory and management jobs, even though their grade levels are comparable to whites'.

Supervisors need help overcoming their unconscious biases, MSPB said. Agencies and the Office of Personnel Management should come up with sample questions for assessment interviews. The board wants managers trained to guard against their impulse to make the "easy" hire or promotion of people cast in their own image.

Cooling Rhetoric on Race

The campaign to bust myths and battle bias may benefit from a recent cooling-off period on race across the country. After a five-month review of federal affirmative action, President Clinton announced last July his intention to "mend it, not end it," thereby carving out a middle ground on the issue and at the same time reassuring those who feared he would drop his support for affirmative action entirely. National polls just before the speech showed sentiment running 50 percent in favor of eliminating all or most federal affirmative action programs. After Clinton spoke, nearly two-thirds of respondents favored his mending approach.

Though Republicans introduced their anti-preference bills just 10 days after Clinton's address, they began backpedaling almost immediately. Dole held off further consideration of his bill and prevented Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, from adding anti-preference amendments to appropriations bills. In the House, Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, sponsored a bill similar to Dole's and held a series of hearings on it. The bill didn't move until March 8, when Canady's subcommittee voted it out just as the Clinton Administration began circulating a draft of new rules limiting affirmative action in federal contracting.

The depth of racial divisions exposed by reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict last October confused and frightened whites. The Million Man March of black men on Washington was widely viewed as a success, but many whites, as well as a substantial number of minorities, remained troubled by what they viewed as racist and anti-Semitic comments by march organizer and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The events exposed a racial divide deeper than many Americans had imagined and left the country and government chastened, cautious and fleeing for the safety of middle ground about racial issues.

Retired General Colin Powell's flirtation with the Republican presidential nomination boosted affirmative action's stock. Powell traced his success, in part, to equal opportunity programs and said he favored continuing them, as long as quotas weren't involved. Affirmative action backers cheered when California Governor Pete Wilson and Gramm became the first two GOP contenders to drop out of the race. Both had made attacks on race and gender preferences centerpieces of their campaigns.

Still, a Pew Research Center survey in November found nearly a third of Americans remain opposed to special hiring preferences for qualified women and minorities. Pat Buchanan's February victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary showed the politics of anger still packs a punch that could make affirmative action a flashpoint during the 1996 presidential campaign. So does the fact that the Dole-Canady anti-preference bill took on new life in Congress.

Within government agencies, race and gender resentments continue to smolder. Already this year, 20 Federal Aviation Administration employees were disciplined after a hangman's noose hung in an air traffic control tower in Indianapolis angered black staffers there. The FAA recently paid a male controller $2,001 to settle a sexual harassment suit he brought after being forced during a diversity class to run a gauntlet of women who allegedly groped and taunted him. And minorities at the Commerce and Agriculture departments have organized to demand that staff cuts not disproportionately affect them.

As downsizing heats up competition for promotions and heightens job stress, the opening for healing the government's divide between men and women, whites and minorities, is liable to slam shut.

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