Breaking Down Bias: Legal Mandates vs. Corporate Interests

By Williams, Jamillah Bowman | Washington Law Review, September 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Breaking Down Bias: Legal Mandates vs. Corporate Interests


Williams, Jamillah Bowman, Washington Law Review


INTRODUCTION

Despite the advances made since the civil rights era, racial and ethnic differences are still salient and politically divisive in the United States. Bias and discrimination continue to limit opportunities and outcomes for racial minorities in many arenas of life (e.g., employment, education, health care, lending, the justice system, and housing).1 We continue to see racial incidents on college campuses that spark student unrest.2 Violence and killings of unarmed black men, women, and children have become all-too-common as a result of racial profiling and untethered police biases.3 Employers deny job opportunities to qualified candidates because they have black skin or a "black sounding" name.4 The President of the United States campaigned on promises to build a wall around the U.S border, to prioritize the mass deportation of Mexican immigrants, and to ban "certain types" of Muslims from "terror countries."5

Some of these examples closely resemble traditional prejudice and racial animus, while others are subtle, unconscious, and institutionally based.6 Whatever the root cause of the bias, the consequences for racial minorities are real. The following questions remain: what are the best strategies to reduce bias and discriminatory outcomes? How do we change the behaviors of managers, police officers, politicians, doctors, and teachers?

In the 1960s, Congress passed monumental civil rights laws to address inclusion, but in decades since, focus has shifted away from the mandate of law and more toward voluntary efforts to realize diversity and its benefits. Now, organizational leaders increasingly rely on instrumental diversity rationales that focus on business and organizational success. For example:

. University leaders suggest a need to include racial minorities on college campuses because it will lead to a more dynamic educational environment and better learning outcomes for all students.7

. Police forces must be diverse because it will lead to better community engagement and more productive policing outcomes.8

. Corporations must actively recruit racial minorities for leadership positions because it will create more innovative strategies and position companies for high profits in a global economy.9

While these instrumental narratives seem compelling, are they truly persuasive and, more importantly, do they lead to pro-equity beliefs and behaviors? Or should we be emphasizing traditional legal requirements that are centered on principles of nondiscrimination?

This project explores how to break down racial bias, specifically in the employment discrimination context. Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 196410 (Title VII) with the primary goal of integrating the workforce and eliminating arbitrary bias against minorities and other groups that had been historically excluded.11 Shortly after the passage of Title VII, the legal environment for organizations shifted from strongly enforced civil rights and equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws to increased resistance and less stringent accountability. This change has been reflected in the greater difficulty of winning traditional discrimination cases and an increased number of reverse discrimination lawsuits.12 Despite opposition to race-conscious policies, legal pressure and business competition have continued to result in organizational initiatives and values that call for diversity and inclusion of traditionally underrepresented groups.13

Formal diversity strategies often feature both inclusive narratives expressing the value of diversity and specific organizational policies and practices. These efforts may involve inclusive vision statements, diversity training, affinity groups, and recruitment strategies that emphasize the inclusion of racial minorities, women, and other underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. These combined efforts aim to increase the presence of underrepresented groups while also promoting an inclusive work environment where all organizational members can thrive. …

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