Both Sides of the Aisle Back Bob Johnson’s ‘Rooney Rule’—and That’s a Good Thing

A Rooney Rule for business could be a bipartisan affirmative action compromise.

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Robert Johnson, founder of BET, in 2007

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

These days, a conservative expressing public support for Obamacare is considered controversial. But a conservative expressing support for the idea that racial inequality still plays a significant-enough role in society that we need policy remedies to address it? That may be considered politically suicidal.

But Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone black Republican in the U.S. Senate, has recently weighed in on an issue that has divided Americans in recent years, and endorsed a potential compromise solution for addressing racial inequities in hiring and promotion. And he’s been able to convince some conservative colleagues to join him, potentially marking a major turning point in the affirmative action debate.

Last week Scott introduced Senate Res. 511. While the bill overview states that it is “a resolution establishing best business practices to fully utilize the potential of the United States,” the actual text of the bill goes much further, making it clear that this could be one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in recent years.

Specifically, the bill seeks to create a version of football’s Rooney Rule in corporate America. Named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule was implemented in the NFL in 2003 and requires all league teams to interview minorities for leadership positions on their teams, including head coaching jobs. The result is that more diverse candidates are considered for the roles, without there technically being affirmative action requirements in hiring. You might call it “affirmative action lite”—something particularly noteworthy as recent court cases on affirmative action in higher education have stoked divisions over the issue.

Bob Johnson, the founder of BET and one of the first black billionaires on the planet, has been pushing for what he calls the RLJ Rule (named for his initials), which would apply the Rooney Rule’s approach to the corporate world, and Scott’s bill endorses language Johnson proposed.

Noting that “according to Crist-Kolder Associates as cited in the Wall Street Journal, at the top 668 companies in the United States, only 27 Chief Financial Officers are African-American, Hispanic, or of Asian descent,” the bill “encourages companies to voluntarily establish a best practices policy to identify minority candidates and minority vendors by implementing a plan to interview a minimum of 2 qualified minority candidates for managerial openings at the director level and above and to interview at least 2 qualified minority businesses before approving a vendor contract.”

Among the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill is Sen. Mark Pryor, who mentioned the Rooney Rule to me as a potential guideline for the federal government when I interviewed him regarding record-high black unemployment last year.

In addition to Sen. Scott, the proposed bill has found another surprising ally in Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul has had a complicated public image when it comes to policy discussions related to race. On the one hand, he recently drew applause from civil rights activists for supporting restoration of voting rights for nonviolent convicted felons, an issue disproportionately affecting minorities. On the other hand, he infamously waffled on his feelings about the Civil Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the pursuit of equal rights in America.

Paul’s libertarian bent is credited with making him critical of government intervention in business interests, something that may sound like a principled political stand to some, but not to those of us who have benefited from government intervention on issues such as civil rights.

This is what makes conservative support of the Rooney Rule both surprising and refreshing. At a time in which Congress is more divided and gridlocked than ever before, the fact that a potential bipartisan solution may have been found to one of America’s most divisive issues—the role of race as a barrier to economic advancement—is extraordinary.

President Barack Obama’s election was certainly a watershed moment for black Americans, and for America. But while, for some, his election signaled an end to America’s long-standing racial woes, for others his election simply signaled that fewer people would feel the need to admit that such woes still exist. The fact that conservative senators are supporting the RLJ Rule is a testament to the fact that even they understand that as far as our nation may have come on race, we still have further to go on racial inequality.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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