As a partner and chief diversity officer at Thompson & Knight, Pauline Higgins was not afraid to press the issue of hiring minorities at the 126-year-old Texas law firm. But when she left in 2008, she was replaced by an associate with less influence.
Now, current and former partners say, the diversity committee meets less often, and the firm has fewer black lawyers than before. It is a trajectory familiar in many elite realms of American professional life. Even as racial barriers continue to fall, progress for African-Americans over all has remained slow — and in some cases appears to be stalling.
“You don’t want to be a diversity officer who only buys tables at events and seats people,” Ms. Higgins said recently. “It’s about recruiting and inclusion and training and development, with substantive work assignments.”
Nearly a half-century after a Texan, President Lyndon B. Johnson, helped usher in the era of affirmative action, the Supreme Court is poised to rule as early as this week on whether the University of Texas can continue to consider race as one of many factors in its admissions policy. It is a case that could have a profound impact on race-based affirmative action programs across the nation, and it has reignited a discussion of how much progress [people of color], blacks in particular, have made in integrating into some of the most sought-after professions, especially since the recession.
There’s a comforting-to-white-people fiction about racism and racial inequality in the United States today: They’re caused by a small, recalcitrant group who cling to their egregiously inaccurate beliefs in the moral, intellectual and economic superiority of white people.
The reality: racism and racial inequality aren’t just supported by old ideas, unfounded group esteem or intentional efforts to mistreat others, said Nancy DiTomaso, author of the new book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism. They’re also based on privilege, she said — how it is shared, how opportunities are hoarded and how most white Americans think their career and economic advantages have been entirely earned, not passed down or parceled out.
The way that whites, often unconsciously, hoard and distribute advantage inside their almost all white networks of family and friends is one of the driving reasons that in February just 6.8 percent of white workers remained unemployed while 13.8 percent of black workers and 9.6 percent of Hispanic workers were unable to find jobs, DiTomaso said
DiTomaso concludes, based on her research, that most white Americans engage, at least a few times per year, in the activities that foster inequality. While they may not deliberately discriminate against black and other non-white job seekers, they take actions that make it more likely that white people will be employed — without thinking that what they’re doing amounts to discrimination.
"The vast majority assumed everyone has the same opportunities, and they just somehow tried harder, were smarter," DiTomaso said of those she interviewed. "Not seeing how whites help other whites as the primary way that inequality gets reproduced today is very helpful. It’s easy on the mind."
So white Americans tell a neighbor’s son about a job, hire a friend’s daughter, carry the resume of a friend (or, for that matter, a friend’s boyfriend’s sister) into the boss’s office, recommend an old school mate or co-worker for an unadvertised opening, or just say great things about that job applicant whom they happen to know. But since most Americans, white and black, live virtually segregated lives, and since advantages, privileges and economic progress have already accrued in favor of whites, the additional advantages that flow from this help go almost exclusively to whites, DiTomaso said.
DiTomaso’s work does confirm that networks — not just the kind you build over awkward conversations, finger foods and watered-down cocktails but the kind you’re born into — matter, Austin said. It also points to just how different forms of inequality feed one another. Family-and-friends segregation feeds job and income inequality. That in turn feeds neighborhood and school segregation. That then leaves some kids less likely to receive a quality education and escape from the cycle, he said.
It’s not that black workers don’t attempt the same sort of job assists within their own networks, said Deirdre Royster, an economic sociologist at New York University and author of Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men From Blue Collar Jobs.
African Americans ask neighbors, significant others, the significant others of neighbors, relatives and friends about open jobs, too. But since black unemployment rates were far higher than white rates before, during and after the recession, the number of people in a typical black social network who are in a position to help is far more limited.
According to Royster, there’s an additional twist: When blacks are aware of a job, they describe the job, the boss, the company and its preferences and needs. Then they follow up with a warning.
"They give the person looking for a job all sorts of information and then they say, ‘But don’t tell them I sent you,’" said Royster.
Black workers are aware of something that researchers are still trying to explain: White bosses often worry, lack of statistical evidence aside, that black workers are more likely to sue them or band together in the workplace and try to change things, Royster said. That seems all the more likely if the black workers already know one another, she said. And many white hiring managers still assume, consciously or unconsciously, that black workers bring undesirable workplace habits and qualities, Royster said.
The good news is that both the Senate and the White House seem to agree that a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented people in the country right now is necessary (the House seems less convinced, though they have yet to put out anything solid). But as it stands, the path to citizenship seems as though it will be rife with socioeconomic barriers. Both blueprints emphasize the need for undocumented people to “take responsibility for their actions” and pay taxes and a penalty (I’m guessing the U.S. won’t be taking any responsibility for a foreign policy that devastates economies in the global south and makes it so that folks have to come here for work in the first place). How steep will this penalty be? Who will be able to afford it, and who won’t? Moreover, the blueprints lay out a pathway to citizenship that includes a criminal background check. While on its surface this may not seem unreasonable, we need to be watching out for the details on what kinds of crimes will block this path. What will make a “serious” criminal? Will it include the kinds of crimes – sex work, petty drug convictions, theft – that low-income and undocumented queer and trans folks often turn to as strategies for survival? We know that convictions largely play out along lines of class, race, and gender identity, and if we’re not diligent about calling out the details of completing this path it’s likely that citizenship will remain inaccessible to many undocumented people.
After the application fees, fines, and background checks, immigrants who have cleared these hurdles will be given a provisional legal status, and will have to wait for existing immigration backlogs to be cleared before they are eligible for lawful permanent residency. Both blueprints have made it clear that during the time that immigrants have this provisional status, they will not be eligible for public benefits. While we don’t know exactly how long the wait between the provisional status and permanent residency will be, it seems likely that the wait will be at least a few years. Add to that the five-year bar – which forbids immigrants with legal permanent residency from accessing most public benefits for the first five years they have that status – and it becomes clear that for low-income undocumented people who are able to get through the initial hurdles, relief in terms of very basic needs such as health care and housing will not be coming any time soon. This is particularly disturbing when thinking of undocumented children and young people, who may literally go a lifetime without access to health care or food assistance.
Both blueprints emphasize that employers who deliberately hire undocumented workers must be held accountable. To do this, employers must be able to verify that their workers have the appropriate documentation to work, and herein lies the problem: in the past, verification systems (such as E-verify) have been rife with errors. As it happens, these errors disproportionately affect people who tend to change their names – that is, women and trans folks (possible extra bonus: being outed as trans at work!). Though the White House’s blueprint mentions a pilot program for people to check their own records and make sure that everything is accurate before applying to a job, it is unclear what recourse a transgender person, for example, might have for changing their information in this system.
But it is important to remember who and what kind of political action got us to a point where immigration reform finally seems inevitable after many, many years of need and just as many of political inaction. And here I have to give mad props to DREAMer youth, many of whom are queer, who have spent the last few years on an unapologetic campaign to get the country to face the fact that non-action on immigration is unsustainable by engaging in direct actions and refusing to give up and go away – even when the odds seemed so far out of their favor. If we are going to make immigration reform meaningful for queer and trans immigrants, we must stay steady on our hustle. We have to remain diligent in watching out for all the ways the most marginalized immigrants could be excluded from this process, and demand better for our communities.