The Xerox memo and the birth of affirmative action

The year was 1968.  Assassinations, anti-war protests, riots, and social turmoil dominated the headlines.  In response to the civil unrest in our cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission.  Fifty years ago, on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation, the commission released its report.  The commission's most famous conclusion – "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal" – has echoed throughout the subsequent decades.

Another less publicized but extremely influential document was also issued that year.  On May 2, 1968, Xerox CEO Joseph C. Wilson and Xerox president C. Peter McCollough sent a memo to all Xerox hiring managers directing them to hire under-qualified and outright unqualified minorities in response to the Civil Rights Movement and the riots that consumed American cities beginning in 1964.  While I believe they acted in a sincere (though misguided) effort to help, it was arguably a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.  And this type of policy predictably creates a wedge within society that is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Recently, Harvard University was sued by Asian students alleging discrimination in the admissions process.  Google is being sued by a former YouTube employment recruiter over a directive to, in effect, exclude Asian and white men in the hiring process.  The roots of these situations can be traced back to the 1968 Xerox memo.  The allegations against Google, coincidentally, mirror the language of Joseph Wilson's directive.  This is nothing new; these initiatives have been around for fifty years, as evidenced by the memo.  Organizations go to great lengths to keep these policies from publication for obvious reasons.  Unfortunately, this worsens the problem of providing equal opportunity once these allegations come to light.  A core of resistance forms among those who feel slighted.  If the goal is to bring people together, these policies will not advance that cause.

Instead of making allies of white males (and particularly first-generation white male college graduates), it needlessly alienates them.  In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, President Johnson famously said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."  With over 50 years of hindsight, I suggest that Johnson was wrong.  The proper remedy is to bring people up to the starting line with everyone else, and then others will be motivated to assist them to improve their qualifications without favor or penalty.

To penalize ethnic whites (southern and eastern Europeans, Irish, Jews, Catholics, and others) as inherently having "white privilege" is both intellectually dishonest and historically inaccurate.  Italian and Jewish Americans were lynched in the American South in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In fact, 11 Italian Americans were lynched by a mob of thousands in New Orleans in 1891.  If that's "privilege," I would hate to see an example of oppression.

A better approach would be to emphasize the common humanity among people of all races, ethnicities, and religions.  The path forward shouldn't be to lower standards and qualifications, but to keep them consistent so everyone knows the mark that needs to be met.  We must work to prepare people of all backgrounds for the workforce of the 21st century.  When we all enter the race at the same starting line, we can reduce the resentment and hostility that stands in the way of actual equal opportunity.  Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow was practiced widely.  After 1964, preference-based affirmative action came into vogue.  In the 21st century, it's time to try a different approach.

Michael A. Bertolone, M.S. is a freelance writer on workplace issues.

The year was 1968.  Assassinations, anti-war protests, riots, and social turmoil dominated the headlines.  In response to the civil unrest in our cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission.  Fifty years ago, on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation, the commission released its report.  The commission's most famous conclusion – "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal" – has echoed throughout the subsequent decades.

Another less publicized but extremely influential document was also issued that year.  On May 2, 1968, Xerox CEO Joseph C. Wilson and Xerox president C. Peter McCollough sent a memo to all Xerox hiring managers directing them to hire under-qualified and outright unqualified minorities in response to the Civil Rights Movement and the riots that consumed American cities beginning in 1964.  While I believe they acted in a sincere (though misguided) effort to help, it was arguably a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.  And this type of policy predictably creates a wedge within society that is unnecessary and counterproductive.

Recently, Harvard University was sued by Asian students alleging discrimination in the admissions process.  Google is being sued by a former YouTube employment recruiter over a directive to, in effect, exclude Asian and white men in the hiring process.  The roots of these situations can be traced back to the 1968 Xerox memo.  The allegations against Google, coincidentally, mirror the language of Joseph Wilson's directive.  This is nothing new; these initiatives have been around for fifty years, as evidenced by the memo.  Organizations go to great lengths to keep these policies from publication for obvious reasons.  Unfortunately, this worsens the problem of providing equal opportunity once these allegations come to light.  A core of resistance forms among those who feel slighted.  If the goal is to bring people together, these policies will not advance that cause.

Instead of making allies of white males (and particularly first-generation white male college graduates), it needlessly alienates them.  In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, President Johnson famously said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."  With over 50 years of hindsight, I suggest that Johnson was wrong.  The proper remedy is to bring people up to the starting line with everyone else, and then others will be motivated to assist them to improve their qualifications without favor or penalty.

To penalize ethnic whites (southern and eastern Europeans, Irish, Jews, Catholics, and others) as inherently having "white privilege" is both intellectually dishonest and historically inaccurate.  Italian and Jewish Americans were lynched in the American South in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In fact, 11 Italian Americans were lynched by a mob of thousands in New Orleans in 1891.  If that's "privilege," I would hate to see an example of oppression.

A better approach would be to emphasize the common humanity among people of all races, ethnicities, and religions.  The path forward shouldn't be to lower standards and qualifications, but to keep them consistent so everyone knows the mark that needs to be met.  We must work to prepare people of all backgrounds for the workforce of the 21st century.  When we all enter the race at the same starting line, we can reduce the resentment and hostility that stands in the way of actual equal opportunity.  Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow was practiced widely.  After 1964, preference-based affirmative action came into vogue.  In the 21st century, it's time to try a different approach.

Michael A. Bertolone, M.S. is a freelance writer on workplace issues.