Can Bob Johnson Solve the Black Unemployment Crisis?
The BET founder says his "RLJ Rule" is the jobs remedy
Earlier this month, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson unveiled a plan called the “RLJ Rule,” which he says can help get African-Americans back to work again. The rule would require Fortune 1000 companies to interview at least two black candidates before making a senior-level hire, and consult two black-owned businesses before making contracting decisions.
But could the “RLJ Rule” actually work in making a significant positive impact on the black unemployment crisis? The rule is patterned similar to the NFL “Rooney Rule” created in 2003 by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, which requires every NFL company to interview at least one person of color when making head coach and front-office executive hiring decisions. Since implemented, there have been multiple black head coaches and senior level hires in NFL franchises, and five black head coaches competing in the Superbowl, and two -- Tony Dungy and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin -- who’ve won championships.
But working to win a trophy and getting jobless people back to working isn’t the same ballgame. Johnson is positioning himself as Rooney -- and says he’s successfully used the rule in his own businesses -- but there are higher stakes here given we’re talking about people’s lives, not rings and stats.
One thing Johnson is correct about is that President Obama’s solutions for unemployment -- though none directly targeted at African Americans -- aren’t working. And his American Jobs Act, which failed a Senate vote, is in danger of missing the mark on black hiring if it could ever pass. Tax cuts might provide some stimulation for businesses to hire new workers, but don’t necessarily motivate them to hire people outside of their social circles and comfort zones -- a “perpetuation of privilege and disadvantage,” as Johnson put it to Blackvoices.com.
Obama attempted to indirectly address black unemployment through the Small Business Lending Fund. As reported by Loop 21 back in July, the White House offered the SBLF as part of the stimulus act, giving the Treasury $30 billion to lend mostly to community banks for loans to small businesses. The thinking was that since African Americans and Latinos represent a significant percentage of small business owners, and minorities are most likely to hire minorities, that this would be effective in spurring local businesses to employ more people of color.
Back then the White House told Loop 21 that “a few years are needed before the efficacy of these [SBLF] programs can be assessed.”
Just three months later, though, the entire SBLF program is out of business, having only dispersed $4 billion of the $30 billion available, and two-thirds of the applicants rejected for the funding due to a lot of bureaucratic fumbling.
With small business hiring staggered now, that leads us back to Johnson’s rule, which like the Rooney Rule focuses on black hiring at the senior executive level. By Johnson’s business logic, hiring will start when more black VPs are hired on Wall Street -- a message that thousands of people outside of Wall St. offices right now are surely not trying to hear.
As a billionaire executive himself, though, we can trust Johnson when he said to Blackvoices.com, “Right now, when jobs at that vice president and above level come up, the senior VP or president goes out to dinner, maybe the golf course, and mentions, ‘We are looking for a VP of this or that, … Before you know it, someone mentions a name, the job is filled and nobody feels they have done anything wrong.”
There is far more truth in that quote than corporate America would like to admit. Ultimately, what it comes down to in our shrinking work economy for a job-seeking African American holding either a high school diploma or an MBA is access.
Unemployed African Americans are increasingly dependent on only a few businesses that are capitalized to do hiring, which is far from a perfect prospect. Businesses aren’t required to drop the nation’s record high black unemployment levels, nor will tax cuts incentivize them to do so. Right now, the code words used by businesses looking for workers are that candidates must have the “right skill sets.” We know right away that excludes the long-term unemployed, too many of whom are black, because the longer out of the workforce, the bigger chance of losing valuable work skills.
Which is why a rule like Johnson’s, as imperfect as it is, might still be needed to force employers to look at those candidates who would normally be looked or picked over.
The imperfections can't be neglected, though. Johnson’s rule suffers from the same drawback as the “Rooney Rule” in that it feeds the top exclusively, and does nothing but hope for the best for entry-level work. It is a “trickle down” theory, and as Kirwan Institute executive director John Powell told Black Voices, “trickle down, as we can all see, does not work.”
That’s not even the worst blemish of Johnson’s proposal. What makes his idea hardest to accept is that it has no teeth. If the “RLJ Rule” were adopted, say employers interviewed black candidates but still hired the guy they know from the golf course? Or worse, what if employers decided not to interview black candidates at all? Since there’s no penalty, there’s no way to enforce this.
So then we’re back to the same issue that many of Obama’s job policies depend on: The goodwill of those with resources to do the right thing, or at least lend a helping hand to the black employment cause. How’s that been working lately?