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.

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18 responses to “Virginia Has a Talent Pipeline Problem, Not a Systemic Racism Problem”

  1. Irene Leech Avatar
    Irene Leech

    I’m not sure it’s as simple as you think. Have you talked with Black Virginians about why they’ve made the choices they have? About what experiences they’ve had?

    A lot of people would tell you there’s no structural problem holding women back in Virginia, but as I look around, I see few women at the top, whether it’s state government, academia or business. During my career, I’ve seen multiple ways women have been held back from leadership, and I don’t think we can point to a single factor as the cause. While some things have improved and I believe the generation of women behind me will have more opportunities, there’s more to do.

    I suspect a lot of Black Virginians could help us better understand what is needed to make the playing field level for all. I hope this blog will make them begin to be revealed.

    1. “Systemic racism” is a useless concept. It is not descriptive of anything. It does not specify the mechanisms by which blacks might be disadvantaged. It provides no propositions that can be verified or falsified. By contrast, in this post, I pointed to the very real phenomenon of credentialism. Although credentialism was not motivated by racism, it does have the effect of disadvantaging demographic groups (including whites) with less education. I would encourage black Virginians to focus on eliminating credentialism as a way to level the playing field. That would accomplish a lot more than making state employees waste hours in “training” sessions that teach them about white privilege and white fragility.

      1. SteelTownAgitator Avatar

        It’s not a useless concept, Jim. It’s just an oversimplified term for what is a very real phenomenon that ties back to the Jim Crow era, when attempts in the Black community to build wealth and power were undermined in a very systemic way that has crippled subsequent generations. You allude to it in your article. Malcolm X put it another way:

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Jim and others like him seem to not accept that things done years, decades ago, still affect blacks today. The question really is what “systemic” means and whether it is active and ongoing or a continuing legacy of wrongs done in the past or both. Different views of this.

          And we can see how that view can also not accept the current efforts towards diversity and equity.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I suspect that at such time when women begin filling all strata of employment to the nearly 40% level, then race will no longer be an issue either.

      I suspect the causes of most problems tend look like me.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Having worked in state government for my entire career, I can say that the most accurate statement Jim made was, “The main effect of ONE Virginia will be to create a lot of bureaucratic activity.” If one reads the legislation, it is apparent that it actually does nothing but require a lot of bureaucratic churning. There are numerous other requirements for agencies to develop plans that sound important, but get put on a shelf and ignored. For example, every two years or so, agencies are required to develop or update their strategic plan. It is useless, but requires a lot of staff time. This statutorily-required plan will meet the same fate.

    Steve identified another factor that probably leads to under representation of minorities in state leadership ranks–salaries. Well-educated and skilled minorities are in high demand and can command higher salaries in the private sector than in state government.

    I don’t like to be cynical, but the chief effect of this legislation will be to allow people to feel good about themselves, but will do little to accomplish the goal set out.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      I love being cynical and the chief effect of this will be seen (or at least sought) in future elections.

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Local, state and federal governments probably have far better EEO stats than most other employers, and minority hiring and promotion have been bipartisan goals for about 50 years now. It was a goal at the Office of Attorney General when I was involved in the hiring 20+ years ago, and as stated, the issue then was 1) getting the pool of applicants with the credentials and some experience and then 2) losing many of them to better paying competitors, often local governments in those days. No way we could match the private Main Street firms at opening salaries.

    You also should have mentioned that the crushing cost of higher ed has a huge disparate impact on minority and low income students, something the Left seems blind to. That may be the biggest problem of all, really, that and the poor local schools feeding into colleges.

    1. Totally agree with you about the crushing cost of higher education. That disadvantages all lower-income groups, including poor whites.

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “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”

    Which IS probably why they are underrepresented. In a pool of any given population the black to white count would be 8 to 2 but if weighted for BA degrees, it will be more like 9 to 1 so, of course, blacks are going to loose ground compared to their distribution in the general population. You are right to focus on the root cause in the long run (not commenting on whether you correctly identified the root cause) but the corrective actions to address them will take quite sometime to address the discrepancy. In the meantime selecting blacks preferentially for the pool of… say interview candidates… to make them more like a 7 to 3 proportion would seem like a reasonable quick(er) fix.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Well, ya kinda hafta figure that they ain’t filling by quota and are doing their best to draw from the talent pool. There may be some good comes from trying to squeeze blood from the turnip. They’ll have to raise offers to minority candidates, which means all candidates, and results in better employees.

    Example. Audio engineers. At one time, they were the bottom of the barrel. Then, they started getting big bucks because of demand in the 60s, which drew brighter students, which created better systems, which found use in wider fields, which paid more money, and so on, rinse, repeat.

    1. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      What the heck is an audio engineer and how many does the state (excuse me, commonwealth) need?

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        It’s an example of the cycle of money buying the best and the best chasing money, John.

        If the State wants the best traffic engineers they’re going to need to compete. The days of people taking less money out of a sense of service are over. The altruistic keeps catching the shaft.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Is that the same as an acoustic engineer? 😉

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Doh! Yes.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            anything to do with “wireless” 🙂

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    We keep talking about the issues of less educational attainment by blacks, i.e. less college grad applicants – but don’t really want to find out why that is but as long as there are less applicants, that seems to suffice as a reason.

    Systemic racism is about WHY that is. No?

    How do black folks end up with less of their kids competing for College to start with?

  7. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    State government Black leadership numbers will soon be taking a hit. As corporations scramble to fill their own ranks with Black leadership they will poach from state government – who refuses to keep pace with the salaries in the corporate world… especially when we see counties giving up to 10% raises vs the state proposed (they have pulled them back before due to budget woes that didn’t manifest) 5%…. actions like that cause people with other options to exercise those options.

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