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Affirmative action has served its purpose and should be eliminated. Just ask the majority of voters in California who, with the sweeping passage of Proposition 209, effectively wiped out affirmative action practices throughout the state. And why not? The playing field has already been leveled, hasn’t it? Just work hard and you’ll get ahead–right?
But what then of the dirty little predicament over at Texaco, where several top executives–including since-retired Treasurer Robert W. Ulrich–were exposed on tape using racial slurs to refer to African American employees. (Texaco’s lawyers say an enhanced version of the tapes show no slurs were spoken.) The references were made as they plotted to destroy documents relating to a $540 million class-action lawsuit brought against Texaco on behalf of its 1,500 African American employees. The workers say they were systematically denied promotions and advancement opportunities because of their race.
After the tape went public, Texaco announced it would pay $115 million to about 1,400 current and former employees and give all African American workers a 10% raise. The agreement, which totals more than $176.1 million, is the largest settlement of a racial discrimination case in U.S history.
And while Texaco Chairman and CEO Peter I. Bijur offered a quick apology and suspended–with pay–the two executives involved who still work at Texaco, the incident drew swift responses from the NAACP, Operation Push and the Anti-Defamation League. Both the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Kweisi Mfume met with Bijur soon after the tape became public. Mfume requested that Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh investigate whether criminal or civil rights laws were violated The former Maryland congressman says the comments from Texaco employees are symptomatic of a larger intolerance that is often accepted in corporate America, and suggested that the NAACP might explore boycotts, stock divestiture campaigns or targeted picketing.
Jackson wasted little time calling for a national boycott against the oil giant as he urged Texaco stockholders to sell their shares in the company. Jackson says the boycott would continue until an equal- opportunity plan is established at Texaco by company officials. Following Jackson’s boycott announcement, Bijur denounced the effort, saying that “Boycotts, in my view, cause economic disruption.” That’s exactly the point, responded Mfume. “Short of economic reprisals, there is very little that will make it clear to corporate America that continued incidents that are racist will not be tolerated.”
But if the Texaco situation is the rule rather than the exception, what does this mean for the future prospects of advancement for African Americans attempting to climb the corporate ladder? To dismiss Texaco as an aberration would be a costly mistake, says Gilbert F. Casellas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “It’s a much more common practice than the American public is willing to believe. But only when you catch someone on tape are people willing to believe that discrimination goes on to a large degree.”
The EEOC has thousands of pending investigations and lawsuits regarding civil right violations in the workplace. According to Casellas, in