Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Affirmative action in the public sector could decimate the black middle class

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Jonathan Tilove
Newhouse News Service
July 23, 1995
c. Newhouse News Service

If America’s public sector reflected the nation’s racial makeup, nearly one out of every two blacks working for the government would be out of a job. The black middle class would be decimated.

There is something important that President Clinton didn’t mention last week in his vigorous defense of affirmative action. Amid all the sound and fury over affirmative action, there stands this perfectly obvious yet generally unrecognized reality. Once seen, this fact throws all the conventional math about who wins and who loses with affirmative action into disarray.

Affirmative action in private employment, in government contracting and in college admissions may still clearly benefit the black community. But affirmative action in public employment does not.

Why? Because, as practiced, affirmative action in employment attempts to increase the hiring and promotion of underrepresented minorities and women. The implicit, and sometimes the explicit, goal of affirmative action is to create a work force that mirrors the community it serves.

But the places in the public sector where blacks are underrepresented are few and far between. On the contrary, blacks are concentrated in public jobs federal, state and local, from the Postal Service to the public schools, from top to bottom and coast to coast well beyond their proportion of the available labor force.

Obviously, that makes blacks the group with the most to lose in this dawning age of public-sector layoffs, buy-outs and privatization.

But, less obviously, it also means the affirmative-action claims of other minorities, usually Latinos, for their proportional share of public jobs almost have to come at the expense of blacks.

Whites have already dipped below parity in public-sector employment. And the hefty black share of those jobs looks more disproportionate every year, as the Latino and Asian populations swell through immigration, creating a moving target for affirmative action to chase.

Where all this leads is to a wholly undebated aspect of the affirmative-action controversy. And it pinpoints the precise place where push comes to shove on all the fuzzy and complicated issues surrounding affirmative action, the place at which one must decide who affirmative action is intended to benefit, and how.


Is affirmative action about making amends for a history of discrimination or about ensuring diversity? Does a newly arrived minority immigrant have the same claim to affirmative action as a native-born black? Or are Latinos, in fact, the truer victims of history in the Southwest? And what does it mean when affirmative action runs counter to the self-interest of a black community whose integration into American economic life was, after all, the whole effort’s historic raison d’etre?

Alvin Smith, a retired, second-generation, black postal worker from Jamaica, Queens, puts it this way in what amounts to an epigram for what many thought affirmative action was all about: “If the country owes anything to anyone, it’s to African-Americans.”

And, says Smith, “if black Americans had the same opportunities to achieve and to display their talents and know-how in jobs in private industry, maybe there wouldn’t have been that many in the Postal Service.”

Instead, the public sector, with remarkable consistency, has emerged as the seemingly permanent black niche in the American economy.

Blacks are 10.3 percent of the civilian labor force, and yet, better than 18 percent of both the federal and the state and local government work forces. Altogether, about one in four blacks is employed by government compared to only 14 percent of white workers. And most significantly, 43 percent of all black managers and professionals work for the government.

For example, California has been the focus of so much of the public debate because of a proposed ballot initiative that would do away with race and gender preference in public employment, contracting and college admissions. But little noted is that nearly 10 percent of officials and managers in that state’s public sector are black, even though they represent little more than 6 percent of the state labor force and only 4.5 percent of officials and managers in California’s private sector.

— All minorities are vying for same pool of jobs

There are many reasons for this relative black success in the public sector nationally.

Thirty years of affirmative action was certainly critical. That blacks are now 14.3 percent of all those working in police protection and 10.7 percent of those in fire protection just above parity is ample evidence of that.

And the presence of a lot of black mayors in big cities certainly augmented black gains.

But the black presence in the public sector also tells a lot about the relative lack of success of blacks and of affirmative action in the rest of the economy.

And there has been the historic lack of black people’s access to capital to create their own businesses.

There are the now-burgeoning immigrant economies in many cities that, for all practical purposes, do not hire native-born blacks and are untouched by any notion of affirmative action.

And, while things have improved, there were and remain far leaner opportunities for blacks in the mainstream private sector.

“Private industry didn’t open their doors and most people wanted some kind of security and so it was schoolteachers, the Post Office, New York City Transit, the Veteran’s Hospital,” says Arlene Beverly, a retired New York state hospital nurse and union organizer for professional workers in the public sector.

Beverly and her husband, a retired transit worker, live in St. Albans, a neighborhood in Southeast Queens, N.Y., where 93 percent of the population is black, 36 percent work for the government and the median household income is twice that of blacks nationwide.

Even before affirmative action, Beverly, 70, recalls, “everybody I knew growing up in Harlem and then in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, were civil servants.”

— Competition stirs added resentment toward blacks

The prototypical black civil-service job was with the post office. According to sociologist Melvin Oliver, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, in the early 1960s, only teaching employed more blacks with college and advanced degrees than the post office.

It was viewed as an oasis of opportunity. It was also sometimes called “the graveyard of black talent.”

Today, blacks represent 20.9 percent of all postal workers nationwide, but, for instance, they are at better than 400 percent of parity in the Chicago district and well over 600 percent of parity in Los Angeles.

To Tirso del Junco, a Cuban-American who is a Los Angeles surgeon and serves as vice chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, this “overrepresentation” of blacks is evidence of black discrimination against both Hispanics and whites.

“Now these people, they are doing to the Hispanics what the whites did to them,” said del Junco.

Likewise, Serafin Cintron, who heads the postal workers’ National Hispanic Society, believes that black postal workers use their tight networks and control of the postal service’s diversity efforts to subtly but effectively discourage aggressive recruitment of Latinos.

But, said James McGee, a former Nashville postal worker who is now president of the mostly black National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, “Our numbers are where they are because we applied and passed the test. We have done pretty well in that.”

To Oliver, del Junco is tapping inappropriately into broader resentment toward blacks in the post office and the public sector. “All the issues of poor-service delivery get conflated with, ‘What do you expect with black employees?’ ”

But, for the black community, said Oliver, the post office and the public sector more generally have “historically, and in the cultural memory that gets recorded from generation to generation, become known as the places you go to and find a good job.”

— Blacks starting to build seniority, do networking

That, said Randall Toure, was the way it was, growing up in the black middle- and working-class precincts of Queens, where by 1990, in a landmark of sorts, median-black-household income in the borough, built on a foundation of public-sector employment, slightly exceeded that of white households.

“That became a mantra: City jobs, security, health benefits, steady income. Do your 30 and retire. Do your 25 and retire,” said Toure, who is executive director of Southeast Queens Clergy for Community Empowerment.

Toure himself was three years into New York’s City College and well on his way to success at law school when his father, a subway-token clerk, called with career advice.

“He said ‘The Transit Authority is hiring subway conductors. I want you to do down and take that test.’ I said I was going to go to law school. He said, ‘You never know what will happen. Take the test.’ I went down there, and there were 4,000 people lined up to take that test. Everybody I ever met was there. People I hadn’t seen in years.”

In that setting, classic affirmative action, with its agenda of “casting a wider net” and aggressively recruiting those who might not apply for a job is hardly necessary.

In fact, blacks in the public sector now stand to gain more from seniority, from networking, from connections, from who they know, from all the things that once worked against them, than from affirmative action, the express mission of which is to disrupt those insider webs in the name of greater fairness and equal opportunity.

— Ending affirmative action could be a help to blacks

For just that reason, said UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger, “ending affirmative action could have positive consequences for blacks in the public sector.”

Waldinger, who is completing separate books on blacks and immigrants in New York and on ethnic Los Angeles, found that, for example, in New York, every group has its economic niche Jews in law and teaching, Italians in trucking and construction, Chinese in restaurant and apparel, blacks in the public sector.

“These niches tend to be self-perpetuating. The kinds of contacts and information networks just lead the group to continue to reproduce itself, until it’s pushed out or better opportunities open up elsewhere,” said Waldinger. For blacks in the public sector, he said, “So far, the push hasn’t occurred and the better opportunities haven’t opened up, either.”

But, Waldinger acknowledged, at least when it comes to the push part of it, that may be changing.

“I think this is a very precarious moment for blacks,” he said.

In Washington, D.C., these days, as in many other states and major cities, all the talk is of reducing the public sector. After decades of sometimes rapid growth, public-sector employment has now become very much a zero-sum game.

“The truth of the matter is, there is not enough to go around,” said Arlene Beverly, the former public-sector union organizer.

— Program inadvertently fostering immigration

“We find ourselves sometimes face to face with a black community holding onto what it’s got in the public sector while we’re trying to get our piece of the pie,” said Angelo Falcon, who heads the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, in New York.

In New York, said Falcon, the friction is compounded, because whether it’s applying for food stamps or unemployment, getting a license or going to the hospital, “the first person [new arrivals] deal with is an African-American. They start saying, ‘African-Americans have all the jobs,’ and then they start identifying all sorts of negative things with them.”

In Houston, black-Latino tensions have surfaced in the schools, according to Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin.

“Blacks fought to get access to teaching, and now the majority of students are not black and the same arguments blacks used against whites can now be used against blacks,” said de la Garza, who is vice president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a public-policy center that studies the Latino community.

Nationally, while blacks have two points on Latinos in the civilian labor force, they are 14.3 percent of all public-school employees and 14 percent of all principals, compared to Latinos’ 6.3 percent of school workers and mere 4 percent of principals, even as their children account for most of the growth in school enrollment.

“It’s about where blacks have had their own political space and can now no longer hold the political ground because of changed demographics,” said de la Garza.

But de la Garza is sympathetic to blacks on the issue of affirmative action.

“Let’s talk about what we’re trying to accomplish. That’s the debate we haven’t had. We are using affirmative action as immigrant policy, to make settlement faster and easier,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

— “There is no such thing as a rainbow coalition’

But black leaders have been reluctant to say just what de la Garza said.

Mamie Grant, president of Los Angeles’ Association of Black Personnel in City Government, though, is an exception.

“There is no such thing as a rainbow coalition and so-called compatibility among these groups in Los Angeles. The division between them is as big as the 405 Freeway,” said Grant. “I don’t believe in affirmative action the way most of my counterparts believe in it.

“I think you should be hired on your merit and you should be promoted on your merit,” she said. “The only charges of discrimination I file are for people who are No. 1 on the list, who outscored everybody, and then [the city] takes the list and starts playing with it because they don’t have enough Hispanics.”

But to civil-rights attorney Rees Lloyd, blacks are just playing the defensive, discriminatory role once occupied by whites. “What is not being said is that the most virulent form of racism in Los Angeles County right now is black racism,” Lloyd said.

In the last year, Lloyd won two Civil Service discrimination complaints he had brought against the Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center in Watts, on behalf of a Cuban-born pharmacist and a physician born in India.

In the latter case, the hearing officer concluded that the hospital, built when Watts was a black ghetto but now serving a mostly Latino community, had “an unwritten policy of maintaining itself as a black institution.”

That was allegedly occurring even as the hospital was supposed to be operating under an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission order to increase its percentage of Latino employees.

— Some goal changes help new groups, hurt blacks

Now Lloyd is suing the county on behalf of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association, to stop it from dropping population parity from affirmative-action goals. Population parity is the broadest category and the one that helps Latinos and hurts blacks the most.

At present, blacks are at nearly 300 percent of parity in the total Los Angeles County work force and in supervisory positions, while Latinos, who are now 37.8 percent of the population and 34.6 percent of the labor force, have only 23.6 percent of the jobs and 16.8 percent of the supervisory slots.

“In the ’90s, it was going to be our turn. Everyone could see the future, and all of a sudden, without public input, they change the rules,” said Rudy Rico, a county construction superintendent who heads the Chicano group protesting a recent county ruling that, in effect, would set a lower affirmative-action goal for Latinos. “We’ve been playing by the rules for 30 years, and now they change it.”

But half a continent away, in Chicago, retired postal worker Curtis Roy has a reply.

There too, the growth of the Latino population and Latino demands threaten blacks’ place in the public sector, whether it’s in the schools or the post office. Indeed, Chicago is the site of a Postal Service pilot program to increase Latino representation.

In his last years with the Postal Service, Roy chaired the local affirmative-action effort. He tried to recruit Latinos. But he thinks this new effort is designed to suppress black representation and that it will succeed.

“The hair stands up on the back of my neck,” said Roy. “You look at the many blacks who died marching behind Martin Luther King and then other people just arrive and say, ‘This country’s mine.’ ”

To those people, Roy says: “No you don’t. You have to earn it.”


Written by jonathantilove

August 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm

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