Institutional Racism, Part III: Racism or Preference? the Role of `Soft Skills' in Hiring
Leigh, Wilhelmina A., Nation's Cities Weekly
This week, Wilhelmina A. Leigh, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., talks about the complexity of identifying and dismantling institutional racism in the labor market. She reviews ongoing work by the Joint Center to understand the impact of "soft skills" (non-technical skills) in employers' hiring decisions, especially of African Americans and other people of color. Leigh has done work on health policy, housing policy, and labor market issues. Previously, she worked at the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Urban Institute, and the National Urban League. Her publications include an edited volume in the series The Black Worker in the 21st Century and Soft Skills Training: An Annotated Guide to Selected Programs.
Lessons from the 1960s
Back in the 1960s, I was an undergraduate student at an overwhelmingly white institution, in an overwhelmingly white city, in an overwhelmingly white part of the country. I and a handful of other black students in that same situation spent a lot of our time labeling the people and the places and the things around us as "racist"--e.g., "That was a `racist' faculty member; that was a `racist' city; That was a `racist' economics department."
Our activity achieved several things. First, we made some changes in the way the university operated and some of that has stuck. But we also learned quite a bit about what this animal, "racism," is, and I'm going to share some of those thoughts with you and explain how I think they might apply in some of the situations that you're dealing with in trying to address racism in the workforce.
The first thing we learned was that the only thing you can properly call racist is a person. A building is not racist; a department is not racist; and the city park is not racist by itself. It's only racist because people animate it in such a way that it operates as if it is racist.
I am not suggesting that we should all go on witch hunts and try to find the racist who is causing the workforce development system in your city to not operate the way you might like.
Rather, I am making that point so that we are clear: we need to look for behaviors that are either overt or covert. These may be behaviors that are either written down in laws, regulations, rules, policies and practices (overt). Or they may be behaviors that are not written down in laws, regulations, rules, policies and practices (covert), but that cause an institution to operate in such a way that its outcome can be characterized as racist.
`Racist' or Expression of Preference?
Second, we learned that it is sometimes very difficult to separate what is a racist action or racist behavior from what is simply the expression of preferences in the marketplace. Since the United States is a market-driven economic system and all markets--be it the market for shoes, labor or dresses--allow people to express their preferences, it becomes necessary to focus on that and figure out how to separate the two.
For instance, if you think about the market for shoes, and let's say that the only color shoes that are sold are either green or pink. And everybody who buys shoes does not like pink. They like green. So all the pink shoes stay in the stores and all the green shoes go home with people. Now is that racist? Are we discriminating against the pink shoes, or is this simply an expression of preference? It's necessary, but difficult, to figure out what's really going on.
Finally, we learned back in the 60's that even though we thought we were going to "huff and puff and blow down the house" of racism, it did not happen in the 1960s. And it hasn't happened since. Racism was alive and well before then, and it's alive and well now.
The Changing Face of Racism
What has happened is that racism has undergone a lot of changes. …