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The Equal Employment Opportunity Omission

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On June 2, 1965, under a mandate established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. Congress created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws related to employment. The expectation was that African Americans would be prime beneficiaries of the EEOC. There was no assumption that the EEOC, on its own, could reverse deep-rooted employment discrimination against blacks. But in the late 1960s there was optimism that, in combination with equal educational opportunity and the strong demand for unionized workers in the well-paid manufacturing jobs that marked the post-World War II decades, the EEOC could help to ensure that an ever-increasing number of blacks would ascend to the American middle class.

African Americans as a group are better educated than they were in the 1960s, and, as discriminatory norms and practices have lessened, large numbers of college-educated blacks have experienced upward employment mobility into professional, technical, and administrative occupations. But the promise of a large-scale ascendancy of blacks to middle-class status, characterized by secure and well-paid employment, has not been fulfilled. Our basic thesis is that, in combination with the institutions of racism which remain widespread in American society, the erosion of secure and well-paid employment opportunities is a major reason for the persistence since the 1980s of African Americans as disproportionately disadvantaged. Our contribution to the larger debate on the economics of race is to focus on the role of corporate resource allocation as the prime determinant of the quantity and quality of employment opportunities in the economy. The decline of middle-class employment opportunities has adversely affected the majority of the U.S. labor force of all races, ethnicities, and genders. African Americans, however, have been more vulnerable than other demographic groups to this decline.

U.S. institutions of corporate governance vest power over major resource-allocation decisions in the hands of senior executives, supported by their hand-picked corporate boards. Given the enormous size of the major business corporations and their centrality to economic activity, the resource-allocation decisions made by senior executives of major U.S. corporations profoundly influence the operation and performance of the economy as a whole—including the availability, or not, of secure and well-paid employment opportunities. The failure to include an analysis of corporate resource allocation and how it has changed over the past half century in the policy debate on income inequality is what we call the “equal employment opportunity omission.”