America’s civil rights landscape has undergone such a dramatic change in the last dozen years that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), long the chief challenger of hiring bias against African Americans, now champions the rights of whites more often than blacks.
This profound shift in priorities at the EEOC suggests that its civil rights enforcement efforts have become what Ronald Walters, a noted political scientist, calls “an American project” in that they benefit all citizens.
“Underneath the rhetoric of equality since the 1960s has been the assumption that this was just for blacks or minorities,” Walters said during an interview from his University of Maryland office this week.
But over the last dozen years, Walters added, “so many other Americans have found their way to the EEOC” that the agency now serves primarily the white majority.
The EEOC, established in 1965, is charged with enforcing federal laws against workplace discrimination, either through lawsuits or mediation.
While there is evidence that African Americans have given up on the EEOC - the number of complaints from blacks has stagnated - Walters views the EEOC’s tilt as a positive development.
“Most Americans have the image that the EEOC is an agency run for blacks,” he said. “But while blacks were the clear reference point for many of the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s, the laws are working for everyone.”
The transformation of the EEOC has gone relatively unnoticed in the nation’s current struggle to resolve its twin dilemmas: how to end racial discrimination while also ending anti-bias programs, which are increasingly blamed for reverse bias against whites.
Indeed, at a congressional hearing Tuesday to chart the future of the federal government’s premier civil rights agency, not one of the eight witnesses made note of the fact that the EEOC now devotes more resources to whites than any other group in America.
In fact, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the lead-off witness, used the hearing to castigate the EEOC for using “testers” - job interviewers with identical qualifications but of different race, gender, age or disability - to detect job barriers. Gingrich called the practice “entrapment.”
Much of the attention to the EEOC in recent years has involved the backlog of discrimination complaints to the agency. The backlog was at the top of the congressional agenda again Tuesday, with EEOC Acting Chairman Paul Igasaki boasting that where it once exceeded 110,000, it now totals 64,100.
But almost no attention has been paid to the reason for the backlog, which, it turns out, also explains the transformation of the EEOC. In the 1990s, it has undertaken additional responsibilities for enforcing anti-bias laws that primarily benefit whites on the basis of sex, age and disabilities.
Igasaki, in his congressional testimony, referred briefly to these new responsibilities, noting that the EEOC’s annual budgets in recent years - it totals $242 million this year - “have not kept pace” with the increasing workload at the EEOC.
Race-based complaints of job discrimination still constitute the largest single activity at the EEOC. They totaled 31,656 in fiscal year 1994, the latest period for which official statistics are available. It represented a decline of 0.1 percent from the previous fiscal year.
But job bias complaints based on gender, age and disability totaled 64,290 for the same period, with the largest percentage increases coming in the areas of disability, 23.5 percent, and gender, 8.1 percent. Roughly 70 percent of the age and disability complaints were filed by whites, while virtually all of the gender complaints came from whites.