© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Diversity Sounds Nice, But Limitations Exist In Elite Jobs


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, for years, people asked Elaine Vilorio, what are you? And her answer was always the same - Latina not black. But recently, she came out as black in an online essay and she'll tell us why in just a few minutes.

But first, talking about diversity in the workplace. The recession has hit people of color disproportionately hard. And it's forced a lot of working-class families out of their homes and their jobs. But the downturn also hurt minorities in elite careers. Joining us now are Nelson Schwartz - he wrote about this issue for the New York Times - and Lisa Tatum - she's an attorney and the first African-American to be elected to lead the state Bar of Texas. Welcome to the program, both of you.

LISA TATUM: Thank you.

NELSON SCHWARTZ: Good to be here.

HEADLEE: Nelson, let me begin with you. What exactly did you find in your reporting and was it confined to one region of the country or one race? Was it just about blacks or just about Latinos?

SCHWARTZ: Well, we focused on African-Americans and we looked - we told the story of a Texas law firm, in particular, but we also looked across the country, particularly at law, but at some other professions, too.

We mentioned, you know, the statistics for medicine and for architecture, for, you know, other elite professions and the story really is the same, which is there was a lot of progress, which has kind of petered out in recent years, especially since the recession.

HEADLEE: And what accounts for that? I mean, that argues that diversity hiring and retaining of diverse minority employees requires effort.

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think it does. I mean, I think it does require law firms to try to really mentor and attract minority candidates. And you know, a lot of people were let go, black and white, during the recession and I think, you know, the priorities changed somewhat and some firms began to look at diversity efforts kind of as a luxury they couldn't afford.

HEADLEE: So Lisa Tatum, Nelson Schwartz is talking about diversity recruiting programs, diversity hiring programs that have disappeared in many places because of the recession. You begin serving as president of the State Bar of Texas later this month. What have you seen in your own state?

TATUM: Well, exactly what Nelson has been talking about is exactly what's been happening. There had been an increase in our population of minority attorneys in the state of Texas. We began with, in about '93, about 8 percent of the population and by 2016, we're anticipating that the minority attorney population might be as high as 20. But what we are seeing is in the retention area and the promotion area on the track to partnership, that those numbers are again dwindling.

HEADLEE: Well, Nelson, let me take this back to you, then. If it's the case that we're losing - excuse me - a lot of diversity hiring programs, which is what both you and Lisa are talking about, why is that? Is that just because the recession was bringing profit margins down and simply anything that didn't add to the bottom line was cut?

SCHWARTZ: I think that's true in part. I think also, as people got cut, more junior people, sort of in the bottom and middle of the pipeline, got eliminated. One thing that was interesting, you know, that I found was that one firm has more African-American partners than it did a few years ago but substantially fewer in, sort of, the associate track. And that's really a worry for the future.

HEADLEE: Why is that a worry for the future?

SCHWARTZ: Because that's the next generation of partners, the next generation of, you know, elite doctors, whoever, you know, whatever profession. If you don't have people coming in now, you're not going to have people at the elite ranks 10, 20 years from now.

HEADLEE: And Lisa, you added to this at least for Nelson's piece. You said that there is something called an Obama effect at play here. What does that mean?

TATUM: Well, you know, as we've been seeing the progress of diversity programs and we're seeing the increase in numbers of minority involvement in these more executive positions and leadership roles, you find that folks feel that they have had to put forth an effort.

And there're some folks who feel that, well, we've been pushing, we've been promoting, it's succeeding. Look, we have President Obama, we've got an African-American president. What more needs to be done? Does this discussion need to continue? Do these efforts need to continue? For some folks, that perception is, we've arrived. And they feel that there's nothing else that needs to be done.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about racial diversity in professions like medicine, law, and business. And I'm speaking with Nelson Schwartz of the New York Times and also, Lisa Tatum, who is president-elect of the State Bar in Texas.

So Nelson, what about these - the success stories of very high-profile black and Latino professionals, not only Barack Obama, as Lisa was mentioning, but also, for example, Senator Marco Rubio or, of course, there's Xerox CEO, Ursula Burns. How does that help this push for diversity hiring and retention?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think Lisa draws, you know, a great parallel in talking about the president. I mean, there are people at the very, very top who are barrier-breakers, like President Obama, like Lisa herself in Texas, like the new president of the Houston Bar Association, also an African-American. The Houston Bar Association, you know, 50 years ago, 60 years ago would not admit African-Americans.

So obviously, there's been huge progress at the very, very top in terms of these barriers. The problem is, do you have the critical mass that you really need? And that's where things have been kind of stuck. There's about 5 percent of doctors and dentists who are African-American and that's been the same since about 1990 even though, you know, more people are going to college and that kind of thing. We have very slow progress in these elite fields.

HEADLEE: And Lisa, why is that a concern for people in your business? I mean, let's say that you're a person who doesn't accept the basic premise that simply having a certain proportion of minorities in your firm is good on its face. So why worry about that? What makes these diversity hiring programs important?

TATUM: Well, the diversity programs are significant because of the contribution that gets brought on a business level, for one. There are clients that these organizations have, that firms have and they want to see diversity and things that are reflective of the communities that they serve, that they sell their products in, that they're out involved in in terms of community outreach.

So if you don't have individuals who are reflective of your clients and of what your clients' expectations are, that's problematic. In addition, there's been studies that have shown that diversity is a great way to increase the creativity, the knowledge base, the leading and the drawing of backgrounds to solve problems. So those are just a few of the things that are important that have an impact, even on the bottom line.

HEADLEE: And Nelson, yet we have this seemingly counterintuitive statistic. The National Center for Education found that the number of people of color receiving advanced degrees actually went up from 1999 to 2010 during the same period that you're looking at. What's the disconnect here between the number of people in elite professions and the number of people getting elite degrees?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I think it really depends on the field. I mean, the issue is that where we have real growth and, you know, real demand for the highest paid jobs in our economy like law and medicine, we really want to see people of all backgrounds have access to that pipeline. And I mean, that's where the growth is, that's where the unemployment rate is lowest and we really need to make sure there's access for people of all minority backgrounds and colors.

And you know, it's a real issue now with the Supreme Court because the affirmative action case that's before them and I think there's a fear that if the Supreme Court rules against affirmative action again, you're going to be closing off that pipeline for the future.

HEADLEE: Lisa, is it only government intervention? I mean, the Supreme Court would obviously interfere with that if they decided against it. So let's say that there can be no government intervention in diversity hiring. What else could solve this problem?

TATUM: Private involvement could certainly solve the problem. A lot of the firms are private entities and it ought to be driven by that. And all of the areas that we're talking about in terms of these different practices and opportunities for private entities and it ought to be driven by that. All of the areas that we're talking about in terms of these different practices and opportunities for excellence really do need to have that as a channel.

HEADLEE: And so Nelson, going back to what Lisa said earlier in terms of the business case for diversity, does that mean the market could solve this problem? I mean, there's so many things they say, let the market solve that. Could the market solve this?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I mean, there definitely is, as Lisa mentioned, a business case for diversity. And there's a lot of pressure, say, on law firms coming from clients, say, a Walmart or a big company that says, we sell and do business with people of all backgrounds and we want to, you know, have them represented in the courtroom or, you know, wherever we do business.

So there is that and many African-American attorneys I spoke to said that actually has played an important role in pushing even sort of clubby, you know, very white-shoe, old-school type firms to kind of improve their own diversity efforts, because of pressure from clients. So that is one countervailing force, even if the government pulls back.

HEADLEE: Okay, so Lisa Tatum, you're about to take over as president of the State Bar of Texas. What advice, knowing the challenges that African-Americans or other minorities have in getting into the law profession or other elite careers, what - how could someone get over them? What advice would you have?

TATUM: There are a lot of opportunities. One of the personal favorites for me is mentoring and you find someone who looks like you and doesn't look like you to help in that advancement. But the State Bar of Texas also has made diversity part of its mission. And there are some resources that are available through our organization and I know that some of these types of programs are available to other lawyers across the country. One of them is that we start at the very early ages. We have our own pipeline project for fourth and fifth graders.

We have additional programs through TYLA, our Texas Young Lawyers Association, and that helps with law student resources. We have a program to get folks through transitioning into practice from law school. And in addition to that, as Nelson was mentioning with the private sector and the Walmarts and the other big clients, we have a Texas Minority Counsel Program that helps connecting minority lawyers with corporate counsel, with corporations, and with government in order to help connect and facilitate job opportunities, hiring opportunities, contracting opportunities. We also have a leadership SBOT program to try to make sure that minority lawyers have an opportunity and access to leadership within the state bar.

HEADLEE: Well, that is a long list. Lisa Tatum, attorney and president-elect of the State Bar of Texas says there's plenty of opportunities out there, kind enough to join us from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. And Nelson Schwartz, reporter for the New York Times. He joined us from NPR in New York. Thank you so much to both of you.

TATUM: Thank you.

SCHWARTZ: Great to be here.

HEADLEE: Just ahead, Chef Roble Ali has cooked for the likes of Vanessa Williams, Michael Jackson, and even President Obama, and the kitchen skills are all in his family.

ROBLE ALI: My grandfather was, like, the coolest dude you ever met. Like, he was just so fly, like, the way he dressed, the car he drove. He was just, like, a really cool guy. And he also cooked, so I'm like, hey, I want to be like him.

HEADLEE: Chef Roble Ali offers a taste of his cooking style and a sample of the crazy requests he gets in his catering business. That's all in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.