By Leah Smiley
Over the last few days, there has been a lot of talk about affirmative action and racism. It was ironic because this week, I spoke to a group at Virginia Wesleyan College on the topic of “America & Racism: Has 50 Years of EEO Law Gone Too Far?” Following is a brief summary of my talk.
While there is a chorus of individuals who assert that any discourse about fairness, equity, or diversity amounts to reverse discrimination; there is also a legitimate issue to be addressed here. The choir recognizes that ‘privilege’ is a powerful asset. Each step that we take toward leveling the playing field is an encroachment on the unearned benefits that have characterized racial division for centuries.
Like other countries who have Equity and Diversity legislation, Equal Employment Opportunity law is step in the right direction. But keep in mind that the law is for the lawless, or those who benefit from such actions. For example, if you are not a thief or someone who fences stolen goods, then mandatory minimum sentencing for stealing may not be that high on your list of priorities. Likewise, slavery was abolished in 1865 and while it was a highly divisive issue at that time– today, slavery is not a topic that roils many. But this issue of Equal Opportunity and Diversity is another story.
While I was on campus, a student asked me, “Are colleges going to be able to deny admission for black students”? I said no. Regardless of what the law says, achieving diversity through inclusion of different groups is invaluable for every educational institution. Here’s why: students won’t stay in college for ever. When they leave the campus, and enter the workplace, the lack of skills in this realm called diversity is going to land your high achieving alumni in minimum wage positions.
As more organizations become global, the inability to work with all different types of people, generate great ideas in the midst of conflict, and target diverse new markets, will become a thorn in the student’s side. That is one of the reasons why corporations say that colleges are not preparing students for life in the real world. Even if there are some who say, “America has made it this far with White men”. Reality says that history neglects the contributions that thousands of diverse individuals have made over the years.
If there is ever going to be a time when EEO Law is ruled “unconstitutional”, there must be some things in place first. For one, fairness for all (including LGBT and immigrants) has to be the order of the day. Second, more people must use their privilege as power. Privilege is not bad– what is bad is how you use your privileges.
For instance, the Clippers turned their jerseys inside out to protest their owner’s negative comments. For all of the millions of children that look up to basketball players, that was a very weak demonstration of how to use privilege as power. Think about it, how powerful would it have been if the players stopped the playoff game? Ah, but the risk was too great. Rosa Parks made a sacrifice that still pays benefits today. And Mohammed Ali is known as the Greatest of All Time, even though he was banned from the sport for 5 years when he was in his prime. We all have to make those types of sacrifices for the next generation. Let’s not have faux fairness, but genuine change.
Finally, each person has to be respected for their individual strengths and contributions. If we are not willing to go above and beyond the call of duty for fairness and inclusion on behalf of others, then 50 years of EEO Law has not gone far enough.
– Leah Smiley is the President of The Society for Diversity, the #1 professional association for Diversity and Inclusion. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto http://www.societyfordiversity.org