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August 05, 2004

Equilibrium vs Equality

I brought up the concept of 'cultural equilibrium' in my recent review of Affirmative Action. It's a tricky thing to establish formally but important nonetheless. The point of thinking of cultural equilibrium has to do with fine tuning the political demand and priority into a set of expectations that can be reasonably well-served by elected officials.

Affirmative Action is a good place to start thinking about equilibria. I do so because I was involved as a programmer in the Manpower Planning systems established by Xerox in the mid 80s, when Republicans like Bob Dole had regular meetings with blacks like Vernon Jordan in the context of the Business Roundtable. During those years, the Business Roundtable would contribute to the shaping of corporate management by awarding companies who had demonstrated leadership in integration.

Much of my perspective on Affirmative Action was shaped by the days when men like Vernon Jordan exemplified what it was all about. I don't know if I've written much about it here, but my experience at Xerox was quite instructive. Although there weren't large numbers, there were black managers at just about every level of that multinational corporation all the way up to Jordan who was on the board of directors. Other notable blackfolks at Xerox included the late Guy Dobbs, my personal role model and President of Xerox' Special Information Systems - the closest thing they had to a military wing. Just to give you an idea of what kind of man Dobbs was, I'll just say that I personally met one of the scientists on this page who was typical of the class of individual who worked at XSIS. Also notable was the black man (whose name I forget at the moment) who managed XVMS, the Xerox unit that essentially invented digital voice mail and of course A. Barry Rand who famously went on to become the CEO of Avis.

During my stint in Personnel Systems (back in the days before the concept of the IC, the precursor to today's IT), I wrote software code for several of the mangers, on of whom was the Affirmative Action Compliance Officer. Xerox' policy was based on the 'Balanced Workforce Model' of Affirmative Action. The short description of it is that it identified underpromotion, and overpromotion, by race and gender, established metrics and goals for promotion and RIF in a self-correcting model. It worked in the context of a grading system similar to the GS system used by the Federal Government and the Armed Forces. In my many years of (boohabian) discussion of race on the internet I have met few people who understood that Affirmative Action could be so logical, precise and fair. Once upon a time, the American Management Association used to run courses and certify managers in Succession Planning and Balanced Workforce. I don't think they do any longer.

The beauty of the BWF model was that you could immediately see how many individuals who were eligble for promotion to the next level by race and gender. And you could see the race and gender composition of the level into which they would be promoted. What we could very clearly see in the model back in 1986 was where the glass cielings were, by department all over the Group. (I didn't have access to the corporate wide model). This objective data, along with the subjective understanding personnel managers had, gave a very clear picture of what was possible and what was not. It was this encounter with the facts and the feelings that gave me my first true glimpse at the strengths and weaknesses of an Affirmative Action program, which was according to the Business Roundtable, the most successful in the nation. I should also mention that David Kearns, the CEO of Xerox at the time made it abundantly clear that he wanted black executives in his company - his program was a top down get your ass in gear directive. The best of all possible worlds.

What we discovered, among many other things was that women and minorities were not doing as well as one would hope in several of the technical areas of the company. At the lower and entry levels, there was a big spike in 'protected classes' who were eligible for promotion. But at the mid management level there were only a few who sat below the cieling. So while one could look at the overall mix of minorities and women and see a big gap, the future was bright. There was also a reversal of this in other departments. There were places where blacks in particular had made big strides into upper levels of management, but at the lower levels there were no young bucks queuing up. So they typical gripe you hear today about whites losing their grip on power was the case for these black managers.

The predicament of the 'endangered' black managers proved to be an interesting dilemma. Within the parameters of the system all had fought tooth and nail to establish, they found themselves on the bubble. So the controversy of the day became what to do on the margins. Xerox had proven itself to be operating in good faith by implementing BWF which illustrated the defacto racial discrimination proven by the glass cielings. But nothing could be done within the context of that system to get more blacks into this, the best of all systems. As a proportional representation argument looking strictly at the inside of the corporation, there was little that could be done to change the process. So black managers looked outside, and in doing so illustrated the problem of equilibrium vs equality (and equity).

Inside the company, BWF was policy. There were no secret glass cielings - we knew where they were. We objectively saw progress over time. The system worked and was at equilibrium.

Before I get further into this, I want to emphasize that although things were good on balance, I don't want to give the impression that they weren't contentious. There were more than a few lawsuits and ugly loud discussions going on. There were entrenched positions on both sides and nothing was conceded without a fight. However there was a substantial critical mass of blacks in management that insured that nobody got away with murder. In the end cooler heads prevailed but all was not wine and roses. When I talk about Affirmative Action as a peaceful concession to a militant demand I mean just that. I don't want to overstate my position as a pawn in this game, but the Compliance Officer was very glad to see my BWF reports. I also want to give the context of the Black Manager's Office, so I posted that from the archives.

So the black employee organizations, having established a large beachhead in Xerox Corporation, like most black organizations were oriented towards giving a helping hand to those on the outside. They raised the question of community representation. Ultimately, the aim was to force the system to overproduce. You see inside the corporation, blacks were somewhere around 7% if I remember correctly. But that was far short of 12% of the American population. When blacks were running things in one of the large sales organizations under a cat named Bernard Kinsey, there were complete blocks of territories that were black controlled. The managers had the ability to recruit, hire, train, groom and promote blacks from the bottom to the top.

The experience of those managers proved a cultural sea change for Xerox, but it didn't change the rules of engagement for the Affirmative Action program. The Sales organization might have had its own independent way of hiring and firing, but they were not using the same rules as the general organization with its structured annual reviews and standardized pay scales. But what the sales organization did know, as they must, is the importance of marketing and networking. So they quickly discovered that their networks were very different than those of the general Personnel. Imagine if you could a corporation that hadn't heard of Hampton Institute. In the Old School, such a thought is unthinkable. And so at the urging of the black employee organizations the question of aggressive recruitment was brought forward.

Understanding the dynamic of overproduction and underproduction of Affirmative Action is crucial. The fact that we knew where the glass cielings were as well as the future prospects for minority representation did not alter the rate of hirings and firings. The system in place for the general corporation worked at one pace, and for the sales organization at another pace. The efforts of blacks in the corporation to influence blacks on the outside in order to prepare them (who wants slackers hired on your rep?) for entry level into the appropriate departments was a constant challenge. Affirmative Action on the inside was hard fought equilibrium, yet there were still many opportunities for improvement. Despite the desires on all sides to do what was on the table (BWF) and bargain against what was still off the table (Aggressive Recruitment) all the parties were subject to the fortunes of the corporation itself. If they had a bad quarter, or were losing money against the Yen (we saw a lot of that), or went through reorganizations, such events completely changed the rate of hiring and reduction in force.

It became abundantly clear to me that Affirmative Action was only going to work in an expanding economy, because when it came to hiring people, there wasn't much objection. But to even suggest that when it came to firing, whites would be fired first to hit the BWF target (even though it happened), people went ballistic. I began to appreciate Malcolm's position more and more. Affirmative Action is often little more than window dressing. Only when you control the business is real change made. Kinsey demonstrated that. College admissions was a walk in the park compared hiring and firing on the job, and even at this level, very few departments were going to reach parity for years. I had quantified the whole thing. And let's not even go there when it comes to blacks vs women and 'are Asians a minority' and blacks vs 'other' minorities.

So when I talk about the very limited ability for Affirmative Action to make a material dent in the lives of African Americans in the aggregate, I say so from the perspective of the insider. I and my colleagues were over in the Inglewood, CA school district teaching night classes in computer literacy. We had to look in those people's eyes and make promises about work over in El Segundo - us with two and three years of seniority. Each one teach one? It's more like teach 50 and hope one of them makes it. Not my cup of tea, especially considering what I'd seen of corporate politics.

That doesn't change the fact that there were and still are a lot folks who can absolutely benefit from the leg up. Nothing can take away from the value of the job in a great company like Xerox was and still very likely is. What I think many people don't realize is that 50 to 1 (maybe I exaggerate) ratio and all the blackfolks who are still waiting on promises we made, black and white, based on the productivity of Affirmative Action at companies like Xerox. It's hard for people to reconcile (or admit) that many of us who zipped through and excelled needed it and there are still those who need it just as badly.

Today, I cannot imagine that the political will of Americans to deal with the complexity of Affirmative Action is sustainable. They look at a guy like me with two car garage and 6 computers in the house and say Hell No. But the guys I grew up with never got their shot. There's a lot of truth-telling that people still don't want to do, like admit the truth that the first generation was cherry-picked and that we ignored the Second World. Like admit the truth that there was often demand without supply. Like admit the truth that only when blacks were 30% of an organization did real, lasting and sustained change happen. Like admit the truth that a less than effective status quo was often a hell of a lot better than a fighting for more. Like admit that there are still millions of blacks and others who need Affirmative Action just as much as 30 years ago. Like admit the fact that Asians often played both sides of the game. Like admit the fact that blacks often bogarded the whole process and judged it based on narrow self-interest. Like admit the fact that white women often bogarded the whole process and got away with it.

Still on the whole this struggle has made American corporations inestimably more robust and has made our society a great deal better equipped to handle upheaval. Not so much of the reasons often quoted in Diversity arguments, but because in the end we had to make it all happen inside the context of the shared goals of the business. I think blacks and whites have learned the most, having been the most entrenched and bitter rivals and that is why our concerns still dominate the thinking and dialog on these matters.

Equality is impossible. Equilibrium changes dynamically. Equity builds over time. Equity becomes inertia, and soon somebody else is knocking at the door.

I've got a little off the point of 'cultural equilibrium'; let me try to close. The first generation of Affirmative Action beneficiaries, engaged as they were in struggles to integrate bore a lot of the burden for their bretheren on the outside. We were the ones who decided to answer our office phones with discernable accents, just to make the point that we were still black enough to check your shit. We were the ones who dared put "What's up with that?" into the white collar lexicon. We were the black men who patiently explained that shaving every day was not an option. I'd say we invented Casual Friday. But the point is now we have changed the texture of what goes in corporate America that we've made it harder to see what's so good about continuing Affirmative Action's unfinished business. Don't get me wrong, I don't expect to be in any way implying that we've stereotypically made corporations less uptight - we've broadened the ways and means of communicating and truly diversified management practices.. I cannot be exhaustive by any stretch or even think of a broad categorization of the changes attributable to inclusion. But the change is real. Look at any corporate website, the black face is there, the woman's face is there. It looks like a fait accompli. We are at a cultural equilibrium - BMW commercials play hiphop in the background. Cadillac commercials play jazz.

Equality is an illusive goal. We are engaged in a struggle for it. The question is whether our perceptions about what we think we can do are in line with the material supply and demand. How tenuous is the balance we have achieved or failed to achieve? What factors affect that percieved balance, and is that balance even real? How much slack is in the system? What incentives do people have to contribute? Is conflict always destructive? What do we upset on the way to a greater goal? How soon can we get there? How many people can get there? How long will it take? What are the overall limiting factors? How much can we deal with overproduction or underproduction? Since I started my career in Decision Support putting numbers (but not quotas or timetables) on the most contentious of issues, I am particularly aware when black vs white comparisons evade other factors in what demands a multidimensional analysis complete with correlations, trends and moments. Now I hope I've passed on some of that complexity to you.

Posted by mbowen at August 5, 2004 08:06 AM

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Equilibrium vs Equality from Vision Circle
We are at a new social equilibrium, where reactionaries and bigots can only get so far and where progressives and defenders are equally frustrated. The days of getting broad coalitions in support or opposition to matters of race seem to be winding down. [Read More]

Tracked on August 5, 2004 11:27 AM

Crime and Equilibria from Vision Circle
I got this story about the improper use of data in Texas criminal cases from Prometheus. Thanks. So what we have here is a clear instance of significant malfeasance (or rather what looks to be a clear instance of malfeasance).... [Read More]

Tracked on August 5, 2004 08:26 PM

MICHAEL BOWEN COMMENTARY: Equilibrium vs. Equality from Booker Rising
Continuing his analysis of affirmative action, Cobb draws from his personal experiences in the corporate world to discuss "tricky" but "important" cultural equilibrium in the workplace. "The point of thinking of cultural equilibrium has to do with fi... [Read More]

Tracked on August 6, 2004 01:28 PM


I've got a little off the point of 'cultural equilibrium'...

you weren't kidding. woo! dude. bruh. your posts can get quite convoluted. which, to be fair, is easy to do when you're dealing with such complex issues. but i'm hoping you can try again and sum up the argument in just 2 paragraphs. you need to dumb your stuff down a bit, make it more plain for those of us with foreheads (and attention spans) much much shorter than yern.

i see ultimate, ideal social equality as basically proportional representation in all spheres for all cultures. i'm not sure what "cultural equilibrium" means but, whatever it is, i'm pretty sure it's not something that should be measured by multi-targeted advertising. hell, Black folk gots real money now (aggregately speaking), and they ain't too proud not to take it. sure, Black folk have mainstream-acceptable hipness now (and have for some years), but i don't think it necessarily means 'they' in general, take Black culture to be their 'equal.' that might be better reflected in the degree of resistance to AA.

at first i thought you were saying that you need a disproportionately higher level of minorities in place before an "equality equilibrium" i'll call it, settles in and can be self-sustaining. but i don't think that's what you meant, is it?

fwiw, i used to be a xerox account exec in a previous life. did well, too, winning president's club twice. dunno if all that AA stuff was pursued as aggressively up here, tho there was this tall, dashing black man they parachuted in from california to be our president-ceo for a while.

Posted by: memer at August 5, 2004 02:34 AM

The Xerox story was just too compelling to leave alone. I really wanted to do a DenBestian post.

What I'm saying about equilibrium is that there are situations around the status quo which may not represent true equality but they are the best that can be done under the circumstances - that supply and demand are in balance and/or that systems are incapable of greater accomodation. Such systems establish limits to reform/change/progress *independent* of the chauvinisms and self-interests of the players on either side.

What I am suggesting is that such equilibria are not often recognized for what they are. People expecting equality come up with arbitrary standards which have no bearing on the ability of systems to be changed. The Xerox example is supposed to illustrate the difference between proportional representation vs balanced workforce.

In essence, balanced workforce was as broad and fair a program as could be established and managed at Xerox, and yet it fell short of the expectations of blacks who knew more could be done via aggressive recruiting. You simply couldn't shove more minority participation down Xerox' throat.

In parallel I believe this to be the case with elective and party politics. The Democratic Party is incapable of delivering more to African American constituents. It is full up to the brim with black interests and no further momentum can be gathered. However the Republican party is ripe for the picking, and there is much that can be done for the black interest there. Conversely, I believe the Democratic party can't teach blacks anything more whereas the secrets of the Republicans still hold promise.

The vaunted cultural equilibrium is basically this: Is Corporate America integrated? The answer is yes. Do we need more Affirmative Action to integrate it more? The answer is no. This is not my opinion, this is public opinion. I don't believe you can change public opinion to be more positive about Affirmative Action for the purposes of integration. The public consensus is that the cure is worse than the disease. And yet Affirmative Action persists. I think it is unlikely to reach the Supreme Court again and that the Amicus Brief in Grutter represents what Corporate America will maintain from here forward.

The raw stuff of integration as I experienced at Xerox is no longer what I percieve to be the case. Now the arguments about 'diversity' and 'stigma' dominate the conversation. I don't think there are CEOs like Kearns who would stand up and say "I want a black group vice president". Rather I presume that the assumption is made that such appropriately qualified blacks will rise of their own accord. Consequently, I don't believe that software models of succession plans and BWF are eyeballing the facts. Basically, I believe that the rigor is gone and that the success of the Diversity argument has made the hardball nose-counting go away.

Subsquently, I believe that Corporate America might 'feel' better for minorities, but they may not in fact be as numerically strong as they might be if Affirmative Action programs were as acceptable today as they were 20 years ago. Understand that 20 years ago it was OK for the CEO to say, I want this black PhD in physics to get a boost, or I want these young black MBAs to get a boost. Now unless you are dirt poor, nobody thinks you should get a boost. In every conversation about Affirmative Action we hear the gratuitous comparison between somebody in the black middle class and some white hillbilly, er uhm excuse me 'Appalachian'.

Essentially, the playing field may not be level, but nobody wants to drive the bulldozer, and many people have forgotten how.

Posted by: Cobb at August 5, 2004 08:56 AM

damn! now that's some good shit. still not sure i understand (or agree with) 100% of it but at least i feel like i have a shot if i swirl it around a little longer and give your brainy sediment a chance to dissolve in my mush-for-brains.

thanks, muchly cobbster. i'll be back ;-)

Posted by: memer at August 5, 2004 10:05 AM