Advocates of racial/ethnic affirmative action quotas typically travel under the benign-sounding banner of "diversity," so long as it doesn't involve a diversity of opinion. President Obama's executive order last Thursday, August 18 requiring federal departments and agencies to increase hiring and promotion of nonwhite minorities is yet another example. The mandate, Executive Order 13583, is titled, "A Coordinated Government-Wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce." One notices words such as "efficiency" and "accountability" didn't make the cut. That's because over its four decades, "diversity" from the start has been about the allocation of economic rewards through force and guilt. The result most likely will be a federal bureaucracy committed more fully to racial payback.
There is a certain poetic justice here. In May, I wrote a lengthy article for National Legal and Policy Center, "New Report Shows Federal Race Preferences More Entrenched," centering on a then-new report issued by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) documenting the continued growth in federal affirmative action regulations. A previous CRS review, released in 1995, which was the last time Congress gave serious consideration to undoing these rules, revealed the existence of 172 such requirements. That figure had grown to 276 by this spring. Rules governing such program categories as Agriculture, Defense, and Health & Human Services more than ever stipulate that agencies and/or their beneficiaries demonstrate preference toward nonwhites and/or women in hiring, contracts, grants and other benchmark. Affirmative action, in other words, never went way. More to the point, the natural opponents of affirmative action, white "conservatives," did go away; they shied away from challenging its core assumptions.
Affirmative action - or "diversity" - should be seen as a form of what economists call "rent-seeking behavior." That is, it enables certain people to realize benefits through State intervention that would be less obtainable through the market. Supporters claim that blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other "disadvantaged" classes of persons need enforceable mechanisms to compensate for a legacy of blocked opportunity. By establishing mandatory goals and timetables, whether in percentages or absolute numbers, they argue, our society can ensure more equitable group outcomes. Contractual liberty for firms and individuals, as this logic has it, must be subordinate to social equality.
If mandatory affirmative action is at odds with the principles of a free society, why do so few supporters of freedom challenge it? A good short answer is this: Fear. They are fearful of being publicly stigmatized as racist (if white) or backstabbers (if nonwhite). To be known as an enemy of diversity in today's multiculturalism-obsessed America, as a career move, is tantamount to being banished to Siberia. Few want to see their income or social standing go up in smoke over some stray comment, let alone sustained argument, about race that even appears at odds with pronouncements by anointed nonwhite leaders. And formal organizations generally have to play along. My NLPC article this spring argued as much:
Affirmative action operates on a presumption of collective grievance. Even if individuals within a privileged class - e.g., whites - haven't disparaged the rights of nonwhites, they still owe their good fortune to past acts of discrimination imposed by their class. All white success, in this view, in some measure is a legacy of injustice. Affirmative action has succeeded over the years because members of putatively privileged groups, especially white males, have been made to feel a strong sense of guilt. Under this new regime of rights, an employer, contractor or college can't simply be race-neutral in its decisions; it also must take proactive steps to boost its percentage or numerical representation of underserved groups to a level authorities deem appropriate.
The Obama administration, from the President on down, operates on such a presumption. Thus, the long-awaited new executive order was less a question of "if" than of "when." Since federal agencies mandate Diversity, it is only logical, from the administration's standpoint, that they be staffed more heavily by Diversity's natural supporters: nonwhites.
President Obama's Executive Order 13583 is divided into four sections. The first, "Policy," treats the need for racial/ethnic diversity as given:
Our Nation derives strength from the diversity of its population and from its commitment to equal opportunity for all. We are at our best when we draw on the talents of all parts of our society, and our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse perspectives are brought to bear to overcome our greatest challenges.
A commitment to equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion is critical for the Federal Government as an employer. By law, the Federal Government's recruitment policies should "endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society." (5 U.S.C. 2301(b)(1)). As the Nation's largest employer, the Federal Government has a special obligation to lead by example. Attaining a diverse, qualified work force is one of the cornerstones of the merit-based civil service...
Wherever possible, the Federal Government must also seek to consolidate compliance efforts established through related or overlapping statutory mandates, directions from Executives Orders, and regulatory requirements. By this order, I am directing executive departments and agencies to develop and implement a more comprehensive, integrated and strategic focus on diversity and inclusion as a key component of their human resource strategies. This approach should include a continuing effort to identify
and adopt best practices, implemented in an integrated manner, to promote and remove barriers to equal employment opportunity, consistent with merit system principles and applicable law.
Let's cut through the circumlocution: President Obama is telling every federal agency to raise its percentage of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other racial minorities or heads will roll. The possibility that the result of this ultimatum would be a less efficient and more politicized federal work force apparently is not a subject fit for discussion.
The second part of the executive order, "Government-Wide Diversity and Inclusion and Strategic Plan," lays out a framework for action. While the order does not create a new agency, it would bring together top officials for establishing broad initiatives. These officials would consist of the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in coordination with the President's Management Council (PMC) and the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The group would be responsible for creating a government-wide plan within 90 days, to be followed by agency-specific plans within 120 days. Evaluation benchmarks would include recruitment, training and promotion.
This is the latest in a series of presidential executive orders proposing a strong dose of affirmative action for the federal bureaucracy. On October 12, 2000, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13171 directed at executive departments and agencies to recruit and advance the careers of Hispanics. Clinton also issued Executive Order 13078 (March 13, 1998) and Executive Order 13163 (July 26, 2000), increasing preference for hiring persons with disabilities. And President Obama on November 9, 2009 issued Executive Order 13518 requiring the establishment of a Veterans Employment Initiative.
Federal officials and lawmakers are positively enthusiastic about the new mandate, Executive Order 13583, especially given that much of its focus is on race. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry stated, "Rather than create a new structure, the president has built upon an existing structure at the very highest level that will get attention and scrutiny." Berry, speaking this past Monday in Boston at the annual conference of Blacks in Government (BIG), termed the executive order "a great leap forward." OPM Deputy Director Christine Griffin puts it this way: "We are trying to say that this is something that should be folded into and a part of everything you do." Black Congressman Danny Davis, D-Ill., proclaimed: "Agencies will pay attention to an executive order. I know it's been a snail's pace, and I'm quick to agree with those who say we have not moved fast enough."
Heads of pro-diversity federal employee organizations are even more strident. Jorge Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Executives, in a recent e-mail, demanded "an action-oriented agenda" to boost Hispanic representation in the Senior Executive Service. "No more councils. No more reports. No more statistics. No more paralysis!" William Brown, president of the African American Executive Association, called President Obama's executive order "a call to arms...for agencies to get serious."
Diversity enthusiasts often cite data to support their sense of entitlement. But the numbers appear to undermine than augment their case. According to the Office of Personnel Management, federal employees in fiscal year 2010 consisted of: 66.2 percent non-Hispanic white; 17.7 percent black; 8.0 percent Hispanic; 5.6 percent Asian and Pacific Islander; and 1.8 percent American Indian. In other words, 33.8 percent of federal employees were members of a minority group. Now here is a telling statistic from the 2010 Census: Non-Hispanic whites constituted 63.8 percent of the U.S. population, down from 69.5 percent in 2000. Thus, 36.2 percent of all persons last year belonged to a minority. The minority-group federal work force reasonably mirrors the composition of the population as a whole. Blacks, if anything, are overrepresented.
Affirmative action/diversity supporters counter that minorities are well below par at senior-level pay grades. The Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program Report for fiscal 2010 shows that blacks comprised 6.7 percent of senior-level positions and Hispanics accounted for 4.1 percent. Women, regardless of race, constituted 31.2 percent. Those numbers don't reflect the demographic makeup nationwide. But in and of themselves, they reveal little. Let's go over a few inconvenient reality checks on egalitarian zeal.
First, most senior-level federal employees are career hires, not political appointees. In other words, they owe their job protection to civil service rules. And if agency heads have an incentive to convert a senior employee's status, it is most likely in the direction of civil service, so as to guard against termination by an incoming administration (a practice known in Washington as "burrowing"). These facts of life act as brakes against racial/ethnic diversity enthusiasm. For even in the Age of Obama, white career civil servants can't simply be pushed out of their jobs to make way for less experienced nonwhites - the uproar would be deafening, if only out of self-interest. The hiring of nonwhites and women, insofar as it fulfills affirmative action requirements, typically occurs only after slots become vacant, whether through job change or retirement. Attrition, by its nature, is a slow process. One does not simply demand action and cry "foul" when desired results don't quickly materialize. Even assuming that boosting the presence of nonwhite minorities is somehow desirable, it would take several years, and more likely at least a decade, even to approach diversity goals.
Second, senior-level federal positions typically require a highly specialized set of skills requiring a graduate or other advanced degree, plus a sizable number of years of work experience at progressive levels of responsibility. Anyone who ever has applied for even a middle-level federal job knows the bar is set high. Affirmative action won't necessarily deliver results. Example: formal education. Blacks and Hispanics as a whole have lower levels of higher education attainment. Whereas about 28 percent of all adults age 25 or older in the U.S. held at least a bachelor's degree in 2009, this figure was only 17 percent for blacks and 13 percent for Hispanics. Even if graduation rates across the races could be equalized overnight, it still would take years to achieve diversity goals. A job applicant, however qualified on paper, as a matter of course doesn't simply jump into a high-level federal post at age 25 or even 30.
Third, background checks are required for virtually every professional-level position within the federal government. And they have become more thorough in the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, especially in agencies that deal with national security. A job applicant can expect to have his or her professional and personal life thoroughly vetted by investigators. Here is a partial listing of the information that federal job-seekers can expect to be gathered: criminal record, bankruptcies, credit reports, education transcripts, military record, sex offender lists, employment records, employment references, character references, family member interviews, drug test records, property ownership and state licensing board records. This doesn't even include the extensive paperwork that must be completed before an investigation begins. The comprehensive nature of background checks assures that even a lot of good applicants get weeded out. Much black "underrepresentation" can be attributed to the prospect of a criminal background check alone. As Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald has noted in scrupulous detail, blacks, though comprising only an eighth of the U.S. population, account for far higher percentages of arrests for violent crimes. It would be dangerous folly to bend the rules here just to achieve desired statistical outcomes.
Affirmative-action bean counters aren't pondering these and other factors (e.g., the limited English-speaking proficiency of many foreign-born and even U.S.-born Hispanics). To the contrary, they are cautioning that the executive order is merely "a first step." With Barack Obama as president and Eric Holder as attorney general, these enthusiasts see their long-awaited moment at hand. These activists are obsessed with boosting the nonwhite portion of the federal bureaucracy, especially in supervisory positions, where hiring is done. Nonwhites, once hired, would be virtually impossible to fire. The result would be a government far more accountable to racial/ethnic politicians and shakedown artists than to the general public.
Such a mindset is contrary to the public interest because it diminishes the importance of merit as the primary basis for hiring, retention and promotion. Character traits that make for good employees - competence, flexibility, punctuality, integrity and intellect - would matter less. But the diversity obsession is counterproductive for another reason: It assumes government is an employer of the first resort. In this view, a given federal agency owes an applicant a job because that person belongs to a favored race or ethnic group. Common sense would hold that the result will be an enlarged and less accountable government. That's something few can afford at a time of record-high deficits. But President Obama is a man who knows his political constituents. And he knows they're high on Diversity.