By Thomas More Holland, Esquire
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” has caused many of us to reflect on the progress our nation has made in the years since the March. Some of these memories—the increase in the number of blacks who graduate high school and in the number of blacks who hold management positions—are inspiring. However, you don’t have to travel very far to see that this nation still has a long road ahead toward creating equality between the races.
It is easy for most of us to overlook these memories—both the good and the bad. At times, anniversaries such as this cause us to stop and reflect on the current climate of discrimination in our society and in our workforce. I recently had one of those moments. In June, I heard a speech by Judge Marjorie O. Rendell at the Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. Memorial Public Interest Lecture. This lecture honored the legacy of Judge Higginbotham, the first African-American judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who, much like Martin Luther King Jr., advocated for the end of inequality.
In her speech, Judge. Rendell quoted Judge Higginbotham: “Antidiscrimination laws simply forbid employers from discriminating. They do not encourage employers to take proactive steps to recruit, hire, and retain qualified women and minorities to ensure the possibility of pluralism in the work force for present and for the future.” Judge Higginbotham saw aspects of our society and workforce that are simply overlooked by many of us every day. This statement struck me; as I sat listening to the rest of Judge Rendell’s speech I could not help but think: Are our anti-discrimination laws effective? Are our hiring practices and firing practices fair?
While civil rights advocacy and affirmative action legislation are not foreign concepts in Philadelphia, many of the attempts at progress have not eliminated discrimination, which still exists today. The population of Pennsylvania is 11.4% black, and 83.5% white (2012); African Americans account for 44.3% of Philadelphia’s population.1 However, across the state, the African American unemployment rate is 13%, compared with the white unemployment rate of 6.8%. It follows that a 13% African American unemployment rate affects the City of Philadelphia far more than it does other areas of the state.
The goal behind affirmative action is to have the diversity of our workplace match that of the general population. So ideally, we want a black or African-American workforce of 11.4% in Pennsylvania and 44.3% in Philadelphia. This is not the case. Is the divide the result of discrimination, or is the result of other factors? While that is a difficult question to answer, it is important to fight discrimination regardless of the cause. That’s why I fight so hard to protect my clients’ rights in employment discrimination cases.