By: Charise Richards
In the year 2013, cultural and racial diversity appear to be more of an expectation in the work environment of corporations than it was in the 1950’s and 60’s when racial tension in the United States was erupting into a new era of equality. Although there are still obvious challenges and barriers that prevent a more evenly represented and diverse workforce, it is clear that as a nation, we have are learning the difference between proposing change in corporations and actually enforcing legal measures to allow the vision to come to pass. Now looking forward, there are new debates regarding the origins of diversity initiatives. In particular, one argument suggests that the programs for equality were the government’s response to combat racial segregation during the time of Jim Crow laws in the United States. Another contrasting opinion hints that the diversity plans began because companies were compelled to embrace the variety of their consumers and surrounding population in their business locations in order to prosper. This essay will explain both push factors of government legislation and corporate policies that led to racial diversity in the labor force.
Before we begin, let’s review the differences between two terms that are often misused interchangeably in the discussion about creating more racial diversity in the corporate environment. The first term is affirmative action. The American Civil Liberties Union defines affirmative action “as any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, that permits the consideration of race, national origin, sex, or disability, along with other criteria, and which is adopted to provide opportunities to a class of qualified individuals who have either historically or actually been denied those opportunities and/or to prevent the recurrence of discrimination in the future.” Affirmative Action was used in various legislative orders following the Civil Rights Movement to propel corporations to have a more inclusive work force. The second term is “diversity initiative”. It is defined as “an organizations strategic response to diversity. The initiative looks at the internal and external needs of the organization in the area of diversity and responds with a strategically aligned approach (Washington State Human Resources Department)”. Based on the definitions, affirmative action refers to practices that create opportunity for a more inclusive environment that would otherwise not exist without the effort of including historically marginalized groups. On the other hand, the purpose of diversity initiatives is to create easily measurable business strategies that when implanted could improve the inclusive nature and culture of an organization.
Now that we understand the background and significance of the two terms let’s move on to assessing the different government initiatives taken in the past to address racial inequality in the work force. There were countless programs that were proposed in the past, but for the sake of this essay I will speak to four specific action plans that were taken by government officials in the 1940’s and 1960’s. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order 8802 that was intended to prevent employment discrimination from private employers with government defense contracts (EEOC.gov). Though this executive order contained no enforcement authority many consider it to be one of the government’s first approaches to racial inclusivity in the labor force. It was noteworthy that the government had acknowledged the injustice from certain corporations that would inhibit people of color from work especially during a time when the country needed as many workers as possible to contribute to the war efforts.
The next attempt by a leader was in 1948 when President Truman issued an executive order 9981 to desegregate the Armed Force. The order mandated that there be “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin (EEOC.gov).” Yet, similar to the earlier executive order there was no real action plan to ensure that the plan was carried out in the defense program and thus, the country’s military troops were not integrated until four years later in 1952 when the Korean War began.
However, in 1961, President Kennedy’s executive order 10925 set the tone for the importance of enforcing racial equality initiatives by government officials. The order was the first time that the government discussed the repercussions of corporations not cooperating with the legislation. There were two parts to the order. First, it “prohibited federal government contractors from discriminating on the account of race”. Second, the order established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC.gov). Unlike other presidential directives President Kennedy granted the committee the authority to impose sanctions for any violations of the order. He believed that the committee which he also referred to as his “enforcement authority” was a sign that job discrimination in the United States would permanently come to an end.
Three years later in 1964, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a new bill and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law. It was entitled the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in a wide variety of ways including public accommodations, governmental services and education. Title VII of the Act concentrated on the employment aspect of discrimination. Title VII prohibited discrimination in recruitment, hiring, wages, assignment, promotions, benefits, discipline, discharge, and layoffs. Furthermore, it forbids employment prejudice based on race, sex, color, religion, and national origin (EEOC.gov). All private employers, labor unions, labor management committees and employment agencies were considered a part of the practice. Lastly, Title VII created the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The task of the EEOC was to eliminate illegal employment discrimination. Similar to President Kennedy’s Committee, the EEOC had the authority penalize employers who did not oblige with the Civil Rights Act especially the specifications made in Title VII of the bill.
In the years to come, the EEOC became the symbol of prohibition in unauthorized employment discrimination particularly in regards to racial favoritism or intolerance. From the 1970’s to 2000 the commission experienced various stages of its expansion and ability to enforce the law. The three different stages are referred to as the era of enforcement, reassessment and revision of its authority (EEOC.gov). As with any group, the commission learned how to improve its efficiency with a variety of experiences dealing with corporations and individuals over the years and thus with each era it adjusted to its needs in order to be more effective with reducing the amount of racial prejudice in the labor force.
Moreover, other than federal influence some argue that there were corporations with early signs of racial diversity in their work place. Specifically, Ford Motor Company credits itself to be one of the earliest companies to have a diverse workforce that was representative of the communities in which it did its business. They reference the fact that in 1913, Henry Ford offered to pay $5 a day to attract thousands of immigrants and African Americans to his business. The wage was twice the amount of the typical daily wage at the time period so it was very attractive to different racial groups wanting to enter into the middle class (corporate.ford.com).
In the end, there have been federal and private corporation initiatives to increase racial diversity in the work force. Presently, with globalization and constant changes in the global market some scholars say that diversity in the work field is inevitable for a company’s survival. Contemporary government and corporate programs are now more inclusive of other aspects of diversity including sexual orientation and disabilities. Yet, it is clear that considering the history of the United States, racial diversity has the longest record of government and corporate focus. Also, with the influx and constant predictions of the impacts of immigration, having a sensitive and respectful culture for racial diversity in the work place will become more essential to the advancement and productivity of corporations.
- "What Is a Diversity Initiative?" What Is a Diversity Initiative? Washington State Human Resources, 2012. Web. 24 June 2013.
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