Think of it as 'Affirmative Action: The Sequel'

Quiet as it is kept, a few corporate jobs are earmarked for people of a particular race. We all know it, but most of us are smart enough not to let on that we know. Not me, of course. I just can't keep a secret.

The managing editor at a metropolitan newspaper once offered me a job as assistant city editor. I had talent, initiative, and the respect of my colleagues, he said admiringly. Then, he quickly got to his real problem. "We need a black on the metro desk," he confided. "We don't have one."

That sort of ruined our special moment together. "You have a job for a black assistant city editor and you wish to give it to me?" I said in disbelief. I could tell by his pained expression he was wondering if somebody had forgotten to send out the "stuff we all know but are too smart to talk about" memo.

My policy of taking actions that affirm my worth began on that day in that room. I turned the job down on the spot. "If ever you have an opening for a white assistant city editor, please let me know," I said. "That is the job I have earned."

Over the years, my career exploits have made me rethink my support of affirmative action and job set-aside programs. Let me be clear that I am not against fair employment, equal opportunity, or level playing fields. In fact, I insist on it. Personal experiences have taught me, however, that affirmative action programs at times set women and people of color up for failure rather than success.

"Reporters will see me as the 'black' editor, not as an editor," I later tried to explain to my boss. "When they have a black issue, reporters will come to me. When they have a community issue, they will seek out a white. When it is time to promote an editor, you will promote the white who has the broader role."

Affirmative action is based upon the premise that the protected classes of employees are disadvantaged, weak, or helpless. That is not the case, of course; more often I find they are simply underutilized and overlooked. In the late 1970s, when I worked in Memphis, Tenn., black reporters were assigned to cover all types of people, places, and things. Whites generally were not asked to cover the black community. When I questioned this policy, white editors actually told me that my colleagues lacked knowledge about the black community and some were simply afraid to go into black neighborhoods.

OK, if we agree with that premise, and I certainly did not, then which employees were being held back from new opportunities – the blacks or the whites?

Affirmative action programs provide jobs but no guarantees that workers will get the opportunity to perform. That means women and people of color in America have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness right up until the moment we step into the workplace. Once inside, companies grant us the right to file grievances and lawsuits. I, for one, would rather just be treated well.

We need workplaces where people feel free to bring their differences with them, and we need companies willing to study cultural differences in their plants and boardrooms and transform them into a global-market strategy.

Starting tomorrow, if we gave each worker a pledge to appreciate and develop his or her talents to the fullest extent, we could eliminate affirmative action policies and manuals, equal-opportunity compliance offices, and let's-get-along training. We could also downsize the legal team.

America's more than 83 million Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans now account for more than 30 percent of the US population and spend more than $1.2 trillion a year. In the 21st century, human capital is the most reliable indicator of our country's capacity for growth. Supervisors who can't manage multicultural staffs, blend together a diversity of cultural styles, and acknowledge their own biases are hurting the corporate bottom line.

Executives who do not allow every American to excel are holding back this country. They are giving strategic advantages to global competitors and downsizing our paychecks. The more insights corporations have into different values and cultures among their own employees, the easier it will be for them to create and sell the products global citizens want and need.

• Linda S. Wallace, president of LSW Communications, worked as a journalist for more than 25 years.

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