Grounded in the earth, a tree is unencumbered only by its ability to sprout branches in all directions. But a tree cannot deny or become separated from its roots, else it will die. Now, if only the root causes of racial inequality were so obvious to our branches of government.
In the span of a week, the judicial and legislative branches issued divergent opinions about what institutions cannot and should do to achieve diversity goals. In striking down racial quotas in public school districts in two states (Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County (Ky.) Board of Education), the U.S. Supreme Court denied the root causes of the inequalities that persist in our nation’s public school systems for racial and ethnic minorities—namely poverty, lack of access to adequately funded schools and institutionalized racism. The court’s ruling did not outlaw diversity initiatives, only said they must be “colorblind.”
But then, the following week, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee branched out in a different direction. It approved a resolution that challenges the financial services industry to recruit more minorities and women into its executive ranks, where they scarcely exist. The resolution also called for educational institutions to take steps to diversify their student bodies.
By now, most Americans know about the judicial branch’s turnabout on public school integration policies, reversing the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that ended the practice of separate but equal schools 50 years ago. Lesser known is the view held by members of Congress, one that acknowledges that race-based solutions are still necessary to solve race-based problems. By extending its mandate to educational institutions, the House committee members validated the notion that racial parity will not be achieved in business without first being mastered at the institutions that educate our future workforce.
So, how could two branches of our nation’s government stand so far apart on diversity? How can the same Constitution require that public schools achieve it by being colorblind and businesses by being color-conscious?
The achievement gap between whites and minorities does not begin at the recruiter’s table; it starts the moment children of color set foot in underfunded schools in communities with high unemployment rates and few or no role models. Black and Hispanic students are far less likely to finish high school than whites, who comprised 7 percent of dropouts in 2004, compared to 12 percent of Blacks and 24 percent of Hispanics. The Black college student graduation rate remains abysmally low at 43 percent, compared to 63 percent for whites. In the last five years, the college graduation rate for Black males increased by just 1 percentage point and now stands at 36 percent.
Corporations court their leaders of tomorrow from among the M.B.A. graduates at the nation’s top business schools. But in 2004, Blacks made up only 7 percent of that talent pool. Many of those who are recruited do not stay, driven out by clashes with corporate cultures, subtle bias and unequal access to plum assignments and career-enhancement tools.
Despite these and other obvious racial imbalances, Black America, by and large, stands alone in its view that education remains separate and unequal. In a Gallup poll following the court’s June 28 ruling asking Americans if they believed that Blacks had as good a chance to get a good education as whites, 80 percent of whites and 73 percent of Hispanics said they believe Black children do have as good a chance, compared to 49 percent of Blacks.
Such opinion polls are revealing. They also threaten the sustainability of diversity as a constitutionally supported goal. In writing the majority opinion for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Fine, let’s do it. But how far down to the root of the problem are we willing to dig to solve it? If the nation is serious about diversity that is meaningful and measurable, then it’s time to start digging.
Barbara Thomas is the president and chief executive officer of the National Black MBA Association (www.nbmbaa.org ). Established in 1970, NBMBAA has more than 40 chapters, a membership base of more than 6,000 and represents more than 100,000 Black M.B.A.’s nationwide.
Barbara L. Thomas