Profile: Shirley Wilcher

Interim executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action.

Published March 18, 2007

Occupation: Interim executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action.

Experience: President of Wilcher Global, a Maryland consulting firm that helps organizations reach diversity goals. She served as deputy secretary for contract compliance from 1994-2001 at the U.S. Department of Labor, where she worked to revise the regulations to minimize the paperwork associated with affirmative action. Her work in civil rights began with a legal clerkship with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1978. She also served as staff attorney at the National Women's Law Center.

What was the genesis of diversity? The march to diversity began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by President Lyndon Johnson's executive order the following year calling for affirmative action. President Kennedy had in 1961 called on federal contractors to include blacks. Gender was added to the mix in 1967. In fact, this year is its 40th anniversary. The Nixon administration added (provisions) for the disabled and veterans.

When did the term come into vogue? In the 1990s, diversity began to be used to cover a broader spectrum. It expanded beyond race and gender and was used as a management tool and embraced by corporations. Some saw affirmative action as something you do to comply with an order. Affirmative action often was relegated or compartmentalized. Diversity has been elevated to a much broader role and plays to celebrating differences. Affirmative action is the flip side of discrimination.

The role of language in this battle is absolutely fascinating and effective. In the last 10 or more years, the words "affirmative action," also the word "liberal," have been cast in such a negative light that people don't even use the words in many instances anymore. I think "diversity" has replaced "affirmative action."

Do we still need affirmative action? Definitely. Affirmative action is still necessary. While we are facing this 21st century battle for civil rights, we have to acknowledge that the demographics are such that this battle is counterproductive. It's like trying to put a finger in the dam. Things are changing, and we have to embrace this increase in diversity. If we don't, this nation will suffer. Who is going to be the future work force? How are we going to be internationally competitive ... if we don't deal with the issues of equity in elementary and secondary education? Not to mention higher education.