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Commentary: Robert Reich talks about equal opportunity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2009 - In early January, Robert Reich, one of Obama's economic advisers and Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, made some controversial remarks regarding infrastructure-related jobs.

Transcript and video of the comments can be readily found online, but Reich basically expressed concern that "jobs not simply go to high skilled people who are already professionals or to white male construction workers." He also said that other groups that have needs include "the long-term unemployed, minorities, women, people who are not necessarily construction workers or high-skilled professionals."

The only commentary on Reich's statements I have found has been from conservative or right-leaning news sources. Obama supporters have not addressed the comments, but I could not stay silent for two reasons: 1) I think Reich's statements touch on the important need for a diverse workforce, and 2) while they were not the most well-chosen words, they have been grossly misinterpreted.

To back up a moment, my hunch is that if Reich were a person of color, we would have seen a great deal more coverage. Claims would have been made, similar to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that Barack Obama surrounds himself with radicals.

I don't think the media knew what to make of a White man, with Washington experience, asserting that we need to make sure all people have access to the infusion of money about to occur. Given the anti-affirmative action climate of the past eight years or more, there has not been much room for such claims. In that vein, I wonder if more people questioned Reich's comments but were unwilling to do so for fear of seeming "insensitive."

Interpretations of Reich's comments have ranged from "Whites need not apply," to making the assumption that Obama desires to disadvantage White male construction workers, to claiming that he prefers unskilled workers build our bridges. All of these claims are misinterpretations of Reich's actual words.

He states jobs should not simply go to white male construction workers - not that they would not be considered. The next sentence is somewhat vague, and in my opinion fueled the negative reactions and anti-affirmative action sentiment. When talking about these provocative issues, it is essential that the speaker be clear about how variables such as race, class and skill will be considered.

Taken as a whole, Reich seems to be saying that all U.S. workers are hurting, and we need to be aware of the fact that we cannot simply help those at the top of the heap (i.e. White, highly skilled workers). Given the collective outrage when corporate CEOs received "golden parachutes" while thousands of average employees were laid off, I think most would agree with such action. However, reactions become mixed when you insert race.

Reich did not state we should give unqualified workers a job simply because they were women or people of color or have been unemployed for a long period. He was suggesting that we be intentional about dispersing funds and opportunities and take into consideration all factors when hiring.

One could say this effectively disadvantages the White male. However, it is not favoring one group over another (essentially doing the same thing in reverse); it is merely opening the door fully so that all can be considered. Yes, it increases competition, but why is that a problem if we are fighting for the most qualified to get the job?

Equal access is not synonymous with preferential treatment. After WW II, we had a golden opportunity to provide access. The GI bill and shift in FHA practices fueled the birth of the suburbs allowing soldiers coming home to own property and build wealth. However, we limited access based on race.

Black soldiers were denied access to the suburbs even though they, too, had served in the war and fought for our country. Loans were not as readily available in places where Blacks could own, and property values were not stable, nor appreciating.

You might argue that those practices are in the past, yet see the affects of them today. The ending point for one generation is the starting line for the next. For example, home equity is part of the accumulation of wealth and a common vehicle for funding children's education.

To rectify that situation, we would have needed to allow Blacks access to the homes, not give them homes simply because they were Black. Effectively, that would have meant some White families might not have gotten a specific home in a particular neighborhood. However, it would not have been because of race. It would have been based on factors such as credit history and income. The only way you could argue that such a practice would have disadvantaged Whites is if you assume that Whites had a right to the homes over Blacks. On what grounds could one make such a claim?

When Reich suggests that we consider increasing access to all Americans rather than simply Whites, he is not disadvantaging Whites, he is attempting to offer equal opportunity, which is important because it has a snowball effect for generations to come. We cannot guarantee what people do with the access, but it is our pledge to offer it. At least in this regard, let us learn from our mistakes and not repeat history.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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