Talk about juxapostions: The birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the inauguration of Barack Obama. From being hosed in Selma, Alabama, to taking the oath of the Presidency.
We all applaud this progess. From a macro view, it gladens my heart. But I am an employment lawyer, and the micro view saddens me.
Why should this be? A President Obama reminds me that we too often look to who fills the top slot to guage if progress is being made. VP of Human Resources is black? Check. Operations Manager is Hispanic? Check. All is in order, right? Not really.
It is when the mid- to upper-level slots are fully integrated that we can claim progress. It is not when the Fire Chief is black but when the battilon chiefs are as well that we can claim full progress.
Trickle-down diversity is as suspect as trickle down economics.
I write this at the close of 2008. Next year, I will be 28 years old in lawyer years. I read all the employment cases and commentary. Here is what is interesting: They are either all about techniques (burdens of proof, jury instruction issues, defintions of a supervisor, etc.) or all about money (big-ticket verdicts, lifting the damage caps, proving mental anguish, etc.).
When I started, there was a single focus: Make sure people get treated as individuals. Let me repeat: Value a person on their merits and, as Dr.King reminded us, “the content of their character.” We have lost that focus.
Does discrimination still exisit? Yes. Forty plus years of the civil rights movement eradicated overt discrimination. Now, it is so subtle. Ever hold a minority to a higher standard because you thought they only got the job based on their status? That’s just as bad.
I do not mean to dampen spirits. So I will end with what Faust author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said about the progress of humans. He remarked that it was like the reeling of a drunken beggar on horseback — moving from side to side on the road but always moving forward.
That about sums up from where we started to where we are going. So, let’s all — each one — saddle up for the ride.
Listen to Michael’s podcast on this subject at www.law.com/regionals/tx/audio/maslanka_history.mp3.
Michael Maslanka is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison LLP’s Dallas, Texas, office. He has 20 years of experience in litigation and trial of employment law cases and has served as Adjunct Counsel to a Fortune 10 company where he provided multi-state counseling on employment matters. He has also served as a Field Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.
Mike is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and was selected as a “Texas Super Lawyer” by Texas Monthly and Law & Politics Magazine in 2003. He was also selected as one of the best lawyers in Dallas by “D” Magazine in 2003. Mike has served as the Chief Author and Editor of the Texas Employment Law Letter since 1990. He also authors the “Work Matters” column for Texas Lawyer.