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:
America’s Wire: Is affirmative action still needed?
Shirley J. Wilcher: “All you have to do was go to the EEOC website to look at the number of 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 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 takes your exams.
AW: So what is the state of affirmative action today?
SJW: 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. 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 . 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 affirmative action plans and deal with equal opportunity complaints or discrimination complaints.
AW: 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?
SJW: 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 , I learned about that job from reading Black Issues in Higher Education .
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.
AW: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?
SJW: 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.