Virginia Has a Talent Pipeline Problem, Not a Systemic Racism Problem

by James A. Bacon

Among Virginia’s 57,000 classified state employees, black workers are under-represented in leadership positions, writes the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

“Inequity had a 401-year head start here. It’s easy to say we’re not moving quickly enough, and I agree,” said Chief Diversity Officer Janice Underwood in an interview with the  RTD. “Racism has been institutionalized, and we now have to do that with diversity and inclusion.”

Underwood is the prime mover behind the ONE Virginia plan that will put Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives into place across state government. The RTD describes how the Northam administration hopes to “institutionalize” DE&I plans with the force of law so they have staying power even after Underwood and her mentor Governor Ralph Northam are gone.

Sadly, Underwood totally misdiagnoses the problem. Blacks are not under-represented in state government leadership positions because of “structural racism” as conventionally understood, they are under-represented because insufficient numbers have the educational credentials needed to rise in state government. That is the underlying problem, and ONE Virginia’s DE&I initiatives won’t change that.

Blacks comprise 20% of Virginia’s population but 29% of state employees, the RTD informs us.

Whoah, what? Blacks are almost 50% over-represented in the state workforce?  That would not lead an ordinary person to conclude that the Commonwealth is plagued with structural racism. Indeed, it would suggest that blacks consider state government to be an attractive place to work.

But never fear, racial bean counters can always dig up a statistical disparity somewhere. Underwood says that workers must be allowed to “equitably” advance in their careers. The percentage of blacks in leadership positions in state government is only 16%. Voila! There’s your under-representation and structural racism.

But is that disparity a sign of “racism” or a sign that an insufficient number of African-Americans have the educational credentials required to climb to qualify for jobs in higher levels of management? According to the Virginia Department of Health, 41.6% of non-Hispanic whites have B.A. degrees compared to only 23.6% of blacks. If management positions require a B.A. degree, then the pool of qualified white applicants for leadership positions will be far bigger than the pool of qualified black applicants.

One could argue that educational credentialism is a form of structural racism. An increasing number of jobs across the economy require minimal educational credentials. Many observers lament “credential creep” and “credential inflation” in which jobs that once required a high school degree now require a bachelor’s degree, and jobs that once required a bachelor’s degree now require a master’s degree. This trend puts minorities at a disadvantage by discounting skills acquired through on-the-job experience. The problem is real but it doesn’t fit the narrative that ascribes the slow pace of black progress today to the lingering effects of slavery, segregation and white racism.

If the ONE Virginia plan addressed credentialism, it might actually do black people some good. But it doesn’t. The plan focuses on tinkering with hiring and recruitment processes, changing the culture, increasing “multicultural competencies,” and training employees in DE&I doctrine about the evils of white privilege and white fragility.

An even bigger problem hindering the progression of African-Americans into upper management ranks is the talent pipeline issue. Blacks are under-represented among PhDs and master’s degree holders because they are under-represented among B.A. degree holders. They are under-represented among B.A. degree holders because they are under-represented among high school graduates. They are under-represented among high school graduates because of a host of complex reasons that can ultimately be traced back to the fact that too many blacks are raised in poor, single-parent households and attend under-performing schools. The ONE Virginia plan addresses none of those issues.

ONE Virginia may well enhance the career prospects of Janice Underwood — with this tangible accomplishment on her resume, she undoubtedly will be a hot commodity on the job market when she leaves state government — but the initiative will do little to help African Americans generally. The main effect of ONE Virginia will be to create a lot of bureaucratic activity.

I am reminded of an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, which describes how Chinese bureaucrats have responded to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s exhortations to address rural poverty. Local administrators are spending far more time filling out forms, holding meetings, frequenting online chat rooms, and otherwise documenting their compliance than actually visiting villagers.

If human nature is any guide, ONE Virginia will consume state employees with the same kind of empty formalism. Underlying issues like credentialism will be ignored, and black government employees will not progress one iota closer to equity.