by Naomi Ishisaka
As people of color, we have all heard someone say: “We want to hire more people of color, but we just can’t find any qualified applicants” or even “We tried diversity recruitment but it didn’t work.”
Employment discrimination has long been one of the key avenues used to prevent people of color from achieving social mobility. Employment discrimination has left a legacy of economic and social inequality, such as evidenced by the wealth gap. According to Federal Reserve statistics, in 2001 people of color had a median net worth of $17,900 – a decrease of 4.5 percent from 1998 – compared with white people, who had a median net worth of $120,900 – an increase of 17 percent over the same period.
There are a number of reasons why people of color are not hired for open positions. Lack of access to education and job training is one area;, lack of awareness on the part of recruiters of where to find people of color is another. In addition, a candidate pool often includes several five white applicants and one applicant of color, making the odds long that the candidate of color will be chosen. In addition, other more insidious obstacles also exist. Some cCompanies, such as Abercrombie & Fitch, and others have had overtly discriminatory hiring practices, others discriminate behind closed doors.
In Seattle, the recent open seat for the City Council – a body where only two council members are people of color — posed an interesting twist on this phenomenon. In applying for the open seat, 98 people put their hats in. After the first cut, 12 of the 14 candidates were people of color. At the second cut, five of six applicants were women of color. The five women of color were all strong in their own right, with long histories of political activism, community leadership and even a former councilmemberwoman between among them. This would seem good odds in a political climate where people of color often have neither the resources nor the political connections to compete against well-backed and well-connected insiders. When the process began and there were 98 candidates, six of the women of color – allies in social justice activism – had met over dinner together to encourage each other, be a supports for each other and to refuse to be pitted against one another. Allies before the process, they believed they should be allies during and after the process as well. This group took a non-competitive and novel approach to what could have been an adversarial and mean-spirited process. They had no idea five of the six of them would make it to the end.
Yet Aas the process drew to a close, the mainstream media picked up the story. They reported that the group excluded Sally Clark, a white woman. Despite the fact that the previous round’s highest vote-getter was Sharon Maeda, the cCouncil picked Clark for the position. While the Council they did not come out and say it, the media reported that the cCouncil disapproved of the women of color having dinner together and were was uncomfortable with the “exclusion” of Clark. The decision was unanimous.
For many people of color, this episode is just another example of business as usual in politics and hiring. If the women had been group has consisted of a few white male politicos having lunch at the Columbia Tower Club, there would probably have been no adverse reaction.
Unfortunately the message this process sends to potential candidates of color is that you may be exceptionally qualified, you may have all the characteristics the position requires, but if you are a person of color with the audacity to ally with likeminded people, you will be punished.
It also sends the message that employment discrimination, in different and subtle ways, is alive and well in 2006.