Since 2005, Shirley J. Wilcher has directed the American Association for Affirmative Action, a professional organization that is based in Washington, D.C., and has 1,000 members. During the Clinton administration, she ran the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, a Labor Department agency that enforces a legal mandate that government contractors practice affirmative action.
Her experience in civil rights law extends back three decades to summer internships at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund when she was a student at Harvard Law School.
In a recent interview with America's Wire, Wilcher asserted a continuing need for affirmative action, criticized ill-defined diversity programs at some colleges and companies, urged federal investigations of employers that have stopped advertising jobs in minority-oriented publications and rejected proposals to limit affirmative action to native-born African-Americans or low-income members of minority groups. She also said the George W. Bush administration had prohibited civil rights officials from using the term "affirmative action." Here is an edited transcript of her remarks:
Q. Is affirmative action still needed?
A. "All you have to do was go to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] website to look at the number of [discrimination] charges that are being filed. Ninety-something thousand last year. Affirmative action's purpose is to prevent discrimination as well as to remedy past discrimination, the theory being that if a company is vigilant and it looks at its employment practices, including pay, that it will fix the problem and promote equal opportunity. We are not talking about 'preferences.' We are talking about opportunities. We still need affirmative action.
Some [employers] now are assuming that if you went to an Ivy League school and you are African-American, you were admitted through affirmative action and you're not as good. So you're still a victim if you graduated from Harvard or Penn or Yale. Somehow they can't quite believe you're good enough even though nobody [else] takes your exams.
Q. So what is the state of affirmative action today?
A. Clearly, there have been attacks on affirmative action so much that people are even afraid to even use the term anymore. We've even had debates within my group, the American Association for Affirmative Action—should we change the name? So far, the group view is we will not change the name because it has somehow fallen out of favor.
In private industry, they use the term 'diversity' now. [There are] a lot of diversity programs. But if they don't deal with the issue of opportunity in hiring and promotions, the representation of women and minorities in the workplace, you might as well call them "Kumbaya programs," as far as I'm concerned. "Let's celebrate Black History Month." Maybe they go out and give speeches about the importance of diversity and the bottom line. A lot of affirmative action/diversity programs make you feel good. Maybe they're good for morale, but they make no change, so therefore they make no difference.
Some of our members who used to report to the chancellor now report to the head of [human resources]. It creates conflicts of interest. You lack the independence you had when you could monitor every office. Our staffs are being cut. Some of them now have diversity jobs on top of what they did to [prepare] affirmative action plans and deal with equal opportunity complaints or discrimination complaints.
Q. Some companies have stopped advertising jobs in minority-owned publications because, the employers say, openings are posted on the employers' websites. Is that adequate or effective outreach to assemble a diverse pool of candidates?
A. It's not enough, because not everyone is going to go to their website. Unless you know about a job, why would you go to some company's website? When I was hired by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities [in 1990], I learned about that job from reading Black Issues in Higher Education [now Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, a biweekly magazine].
If they're federal contractors, they really do need to cast that net widely and advertise with the minority media. I don't think they're really touching the population they claim they want to reach. Frankly, maybe the federal agencies need to look into this.
Q. Some people have suggested narrowing affirmative action for blacks to those descended from Africans enslaved in this country, leaving out immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. Others, including President Barack Obama, have suggested that black children from prosperous families should be excluded from affirmative action in college admissions.
A. I don't support either concept. I wouldn't want a college or university to have students declare that they're a descendant of African slaves. It flies in the face of the reality that if you're perceived as African-American, undoubtedly, you're treated that way. It's the treatment that this turns on, or the potential treatment. It is not ancestry per se.
I do believe that colleges and universities need to do a better job of recruiting African-American students in the inner cities, instead of taking, to me, a kind of line of least resistance in simply admitting students from certain ethnic and national backgrounds.
I have no problem with colleges recruiting first-generation whites whose families never went to school. I do have a problem with excluding African-Americans because they're middle class or upper middle.
Q. What do you think of President Obama's record on affirmative action? Does his not talking much about it impact what the private sector does or doesn't do?
A. I think we understand why he doesn't—because of the flak he gets when he addresses any issue involving race. It's as though those who didn't even vote for him are fearful that he will be the president for one group instead of for everyone. So it puts him in a box, and that's unfortunate.
But judging his administration [should be determined] by what the civil rights agencies do—[the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in] the Department of Labor, [the Civil Rights Division in] the Justice Department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Frankly, [their leaders are] all my friends, colleagues who were in the civil rights community and very deeply believe in equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. I believe they're even using the term [affirmative action] again. You know, during the Bush administration, they weren't using the words. They couldn't use it. I'm not joking.
I think the [Obama] administration should be judged by what happens with the agencies and, from what I can see, they're in the business of enforcing the law. So I'm very encouraged.