Why you should care
Because when it comes to everything from international politics to football, sometimes the best way to remain competitive is to level the playing field.
With the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 approaching on July 2, it’s a good time to reflect on how messy and multifaceted the drive toward greater equality can be, especially for a nation with as many viewpoints and entrenched interests as America. As the U.S. has marched slowly toward its founding principle that “all men are created equal,” it has often received a big assist from another frequently invoked American trait: competitive self-interest.
At some point, the prejudice, convention or fear that binds a business, sports team or nation to the status quo yields in the face of the obvious competitive advantage: putting your best team on the field. Unfortunately that point typically arrives rather late in the game.
Even today, unequal treatment and bias continue to distort countless competitive landscapes.
For starters, can you guess who made the following impassioned argument for expanding civil rights to millions of African Americans?
“Why must we vigorously defend them (civil rights)? First, because it is right and just. And second, because we cannot compete successfully against communism if we fail to utilize completely the minds and energies of all our citizens.”
The speaker is Republican Vice President Richard Nixon in a television commercial for his 1960 presidential campaign. By then, U.S. leaders had long been aware that racial segregation was a stain on America’s global reputation and — thanks to Soviet propaganda — was hurting them in the Cold War struggle to win the hearts and minds of emerging nations in the third world.
A Cold War competition argument for civil rights similar to Nixon’s had been made by NAACP lawyers before the Supreme Court several years earlier in their successful case for desegregating public schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Legal scholar Derrick Bell, the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, argued that such appeals to broader competitive harms, part of a phenomenon he labeled “interest convergence,” played a key role in Brown.
By the time Nixon made his own case in 1960, the competitive benefits of civil rights had a broad enough appeal to make it a relatively low-risk gambit for a presidential candidate hoping to make inroads with black voters without alienating white ones. And white Americans were receptive to the claim in part because the competitive benefits of inclusiveness had already become glaringly obvious in another arena: sports.
Seventeen years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey initiated “Baseball’s Great Experiment.” Rickey’s desire to desegregate baseball arose from a number of convictions, from the moral to the economic, but he usually chose to emphasize the latter when making his case for signing a black ballplayer. “No matter what the skin color or language. Win the game,” Rickey beseeched the Dodgers ownership. “Get the championship and the check that goes with it.”
…until the 1960s, championships eluded the Red Sox because they were committed to bigoted management.
Teams that did not share Rickey’s integrationist views would suffer in baseball’s changed competitive landscape in the years ahead. The famous “curse” that allegedly kept the Boston Red Sox from winning a title between 1918 and 2004 was, according to (New York) political scientist and baseball enthusiast Neil J. Sullivan, partly self-inflicted. “[A]t least until the 1960s, championships eluded the Red Sox because they were committed to bigoted management,” says Sullivan. The Red Sox were “not doomed … but blind to their own interests.”
A similar blindness afflicted the University of Alabama’s storied college football program. At least until legendary coach Bear Bryant figured out how to make the competitive benefits of integration more tangible for the state’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace. The all-white Crimson Tide had won three national titles in the early 1960s but by 1969 had fallen to a mediocre 6-5 record with Bryant besieged by accusations of racism for his failure to recruit black players.
[LGBT equality] is a civil rights issue, but it’s also a business issue.
— Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs
So Bryant cunningly scheduled Alabama’s home opener in 1970 with the integrated — and stacked — powerhouse USC Trojans, which had won a national title in 1967 under O.J. Simpson. USC embarrassed Alabama 42-21, and by 1973, one-third of Alabama’s starters were black and the school had won its next national title.
Competition-based claims for equality remain prevalent today — and extend well beyond race. For instance, leaders ranging from Apple CEO Tim Cook to Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein have argued to end workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans.
“[T]his issue is a civil rights issue,” says Blankfein, “but it’s also a business issue.”
Supporting LGBT equality not only boosts the recruitment and retention of a group that represents 5–10 percent of working Americans, but it also appeals to the friends and family of those individuals, a group that makes up at least 60 percent of the population according to a recent CNN survey.
And the business opportunities from expanding individual opportunity do not stop there. Even today, unequal treatment and bias continue to distort countless competitive landscapes, offering an advantage to any firm, team or group willing to embrace inclusiveness.
If you are a scientific research lab (or ministry or one of numerous other workplaces), you would likely benefit from hiring more women. If you are a university, you should think about admitting more Asian students and attracting more conservative professors. If you are a finance, consulting or law firm, why not consider employing more non-Ivy League graduates?
Despite the potential for competitive benefits, however, life will always be a zero-sum game, and progress on equality will inevitably come at someone’s expense.
“We just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a very long time,” President Lyndon Johnson observed to aide Bill Moyers after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act finally passed. From the standpoint of winning Southern elections, the Democratic Party may have lost a large competitive advantage half a century ago, but in the broader scheme of things, the historic move is pretty hard to beat.