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You are here: a history and future of Affirmative Action from 1961 to 2021 to 2081

Whatever seems like a fine way to do business now will look socially antiquated sooner or later. From our 2021 perch, we may cringe now at scenes of Mad Men excluding women with wanton bro-ish behavior or shaming gay colleagues into masquerading as straight at the holiday party. These things still happen. But today’s “normal” might be the next cringe-worthy TV episode when we look back from the 2080s. Except it won’t be Mad Men… it’ll be Mars Men and we’ll watch it through a 3D holopad.

Let’s chow down on a 2020s sandwich on 1960s/2080s bread. Why? Because the term “affirmative action” was coined by President Kennedy in 1961, 60 years ago. It was misrepresented then and is still misunderstood today. Quota? Nope. Exclusionary? Nope. Racist or sexist? Nope. Whatever your opinion of him, Kennedy was hardly a radical. Using the phrase “affirmative” was a nod to what we now call “inclusion and belonging,” though that lexicon wasn’t popularized until much later.

The idea of “inclusion” -- as in the intentional welcoming of humans into social structures -- is a tenet of American thought: “bring us your hungry, your tired, your poor.” Like the proverbial lazy parent, Big Daddy USA says one thing and does another, talking a good game about welcoming others while enslaving humans, holding children in inhumane conditions, and having over half a mill of homeless folks on any given night. For a country that struggles to enact its foundational philosophies, Affirmative Action is like a compass. It doesn't tell us what to do or where to go but helps us find the way home.

It’s an unusual phrase. What does Affirmative Action mean?

Affirmative. Toward what works.

Action. Talk is cheap.

Affirmative Action has been vilified as some sort of anti-Asian or anti-White or anti-male boogeyman. It’s seen as the enemy of merit and skill. But all that’s just a phantom of fear.

Affirmative Action is just a term that means allowing us--companies, schools, governments--to look at the whole context when dealing with human beings. We should call it “you have permission to consider nuanced and precise metrics when making decisions about hiring, promotion, compensation, admissions, scholarships, contracts, etc.” But that phrasing is a bit clunky. Maybe “Accurate Talent Assessment” is less of a mouthful? Or “Smart Human Metrics”? Regardless of the phrasing, Affirmative Action is not a mandate to do or not do anything.

Let’s quell your fears.

The boogeyman of state control is just that--a spectre that haunts well-meaning free-market proponents who ought to be thrilled: Affirmative Action is an increase in opportunity; it’s permission to assess colleagues through an impeccably precise lens. Affirmative Action actually frees businesses from hiring and promotion practices that prioritize preconceptions over ability.

Wouldn’t you rather be able to assess accurately?

There are a slew of rebuttals. I’ll cover race after merit. Enter the symphony of retorts, delays, and pushback:

The wind section begins, soft and unassuming. “We like diversity. We have a mentorship program. But why can’t business be in charge? Surely it’s better to let us do it on our own terms.”

I hear you. I like control too. But there’s almost no evidence in history of voluntary change working on a large scale. There are cases when individual CEOs repeatedly walk their talk but that change is incremental and usually does not outlast individuals. If sentiment to change were the only ingredient in this soup, dinner would have been served generations ago. Unfortunately, individual case studies are situational and don’t transfer or scale.

The horns come in, a bit more piquant but still upbeat. “We’re all for inclusion, but why do we have to make it about race?”

No need for an extended soliloquy here. One word: data. It doesn’t matter how good we want to look if the mirror shows us that no, our outfit is not cute. BIPOC people--and it bears repeating, BIPOC women--are hyper-taxed and hypo-resourced at extreme rates as compared to counterparts across every demographic marker we might think up.

Now the drums come in, giving some weight. “We’re all about women in leadership. We even have transparent pay scales and maternity leave. Don’t women just choose family overwork? We support a woman’s right to choose to stay home and therefore get lower compensation and fewer promotions.”

Do you have paternity leave? Studies show that even the most involved parents set their at-home work patterns from the first few months of a new baby, so if dad isn’t at home, he’ll likely not even notice that he’s not contributing as much as mom. Plus, let’s be honest, the whole argument leaves out gay parents. And for the old folks like me, Gen Z is so over gender binary identity that by the time they’re interviewing for Sr. VP of Intergalactic Travel, we’ll have to do better than “she wanted to stay home with Junior.” Talk about antiquated approaches to leadership.

The drums roll, leading to the crescendo opposition. Symbol crash: “Yes the past has been horrible but affirming inclusion in our company doesn’t fix the past.”

No additional problems you say? Starting when? Acute and fatal problems that disproportionately impact people of color, ethnic minorities, women, alter-abled people, gay people, etc. are in breaking headlines this afternoon! Assuming that generations of direct and indirect suppression will halt overnight because we want it to is not a strategy.

For the sake of argument… Let’s pretend that problems are “over.” A utopic future begins in 3...2...1…

Utopia has arrived and your company’s strategy is to carry on with business as usual? Wouldn’t you want to be front and center of the greatest shift to ever occur in recorded human existence? Utopia, brought to you by [your company name here]!

We may not be directly responsible for what happened “before” but we are responsible for understanding social trajectories in order to create a better world.

The 60s until the 2020s... Well-meaning people like the idea of including more women and people of color. Invitations are made. Promises are announced. Trainings, mentorships, and even money is disbursed. There are power changes, but slow and controlled in contrast to the rate of population change. Some hiring happens, but promotion, recognition, and compensation... not so much.

At the beginning of the talent pipeline, there's a huge emphasis on technical skills, but "culture fit" is determined through the perception of "soft," relational skills. It should come as no surprise that the same pre-conceptions law enforcement subconsciously "reads" onto Black people in public places haunts those same people in office buildings: in some cases, “focused” is seen as “unsociable” and “productive debate” is seen as “disagreeable.”

But what’s even more striking is that misconceptions about Black and Brown talent don’t change much as professionals ascend the proverbial ladder. An MBA from Harvard is one of the most recognized brands across the globe, but Black women with that very credential aren’t enjoying much more success than their counterparts. (The Wall Street Journal’s Oct. 1, 2020 podcast, “Why are there still so few Black CEOs.”)

We’re stuck in a catch-22: To be the “best person for the job” is assessed based on the same signals and markers of value we used before we started wondering why there aren’t more women and people of color in positions of power. We’re using the same tools while trying to do new things.

OK, but we have to have some way to assess. Why not build a new one? Indeed, I--and many people smarter than I--are working on that. Stay tuned!

So what can we expect from now until 2081?

In 2021 there’s a fixation on skills rather than school credentials. Skills-based hiring, promotion, and compensation will likely last at least until 2035. That’ll be enough time to have data from 3-ish university classes or 4-ish MBA cohorts. We are now awash in a sea of credentialed women and 15 years from now we’ll be up to our eyeballs in mentorship.

My guess is, by 2050 we’ll have a global 2-caste system, digitals and earthers. Digitals will associate with interconnectedness and disruption of antiquated institutions. “Wrong side of the tracks” will mean offline and exotic vacations will be off-grid or on biodynamic farms. Bodies will be the tabula rasa for wearables.

By 2080 we’ll have commercial space travel. And there will be racism and sexism and homophobia and able-ism “off-planet,” too. Because changing collective consciousness is slower than technology.

Instead of debating if racism and sexism exist, we will debate about post-earth and post-human. The further we get from the gravitational pull of inter-nationalism and move toward inter-planetarism, the more we’ll make the mistake of “human” being a euphemism for “man” and “diversity” being a euphemism for non-white.

We’ll likely have race-, ethnic-, and gender-diversified CEOs and heads of state. Because there’s a theater to that and the symbology is the easy part. We crave symbols that we’re doing better, that we’ve transcended the errors of our ancestors. But the overall inclusionary and exclusionary hiring, promotion, and compensation trends for the populace will remain more or less constant to today’s numbers.

Maybe we’ll get unconscious bias tests the way we get flu shots (though, as COVID has shown, that might not mean as much as we’d like). We’ll wear, embed, or live inside our tech and swim in a sea of skills acquisition, which will include saying the right thing or spending the right amount of time working out. Virtue signaling will be a game-ified, highly praised activity with animated badges!

There will be a prejudice toward action. But will it be meaningful action or just a bunch of pokemon, collect 'em all stand-in for Affirmative Action? Action is one step better than talk, but if it’s just surface, it’s not Affirmative at all.

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