Opening the Door of Equal Opportunity
When the book A White-Collar Profession: African-American Certified Public Accountants since 1991 was reviewed in the March 2003 CPA Journal, I picked up a copy because, as a U.S. history aficionado with a strong interest in race relations, I was interested in the topic. The book’s message is both troubling and important, and I encourage all NYSSCPA members to read this concise but illuminating volume. I hope that it can serve as a starting point for a discussion on what role the NYSSCPA can play in fostering diversity in the profession.
My purpose here is not to review the book again, but to discuss how, on the whole, the profession’s track record in reaching out to the African-American community has been spotty. The book uses carefully researched history, first-person narratives, and thoughtful analysis devoid of rhetoric to draw interesting conclusions and present strong evidence about a pattern of behavior that has resulted in African-Americans being almost entirely excluded from the CPA profession’s ranks, not to mention its leadership. The NYSSCPA is proud to have had an African-American president, Bert N. Mitchell (1987/88), who conducted a groundbreaking 1965 survey of accounting professionals which found that, of the 100,000 CPAs in the country at the time, fewer than 150 were African-American. This number has improved, but it still falls behind the African-American participation in other professions.
That African-American representation is considerably lower in the accounting profession than in the legal and medical professions is in some ways surprising, given the lengthier educational requirements for those professions. In America, accounting has traditionally been a profession that was a door of opportunity for first-generation immigrants or first-generation college graduates. Accounting was a good place for intelligent, hard-working people from Jewish, Irish, and Italian families, but it has not been as receptive to African-Americans—or Latinos or Asian-Americans, for that matter. The book investigates why this has happened to African-Americans, but it also stimulates thinking about the profession’s relationship with all persons of color.
A White-Collar Profession says equality hasn’t happened for the African-American population because the white establishment recognized that the black community needed their own doctors and lawyers, but they didn’t want them to have their own accountants—didn’t want them in the business community. Pioneering African-Americans that earned accounting degrees weren’t able to become certified because they couldn’t complete the experience requirement. White firms wouldn’t hire African-American accountants—ostensibly because their clients objected to having African-Americans serving their accounts, but the stories of ostracism and open hostility encountered at CPA firms recounted in A White-Collar Profession probably give a truer indication of the actual reason.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s focused public attention on racial discrimination throughout the Untied States, and the accounting profession was no different. Public and regulatory scrutiny led to a surge in minority hiring at accounting firms in the late ‘60s (an AICPA survey found that the number of African-Americans employed at the country’s largest firms more than tripled from 1969 to 1970). Although great progress was made during this optimistic period, the late ‘70s and ‘80s found the movement on the whole stalled.
A Continuing Effort
In the past decade, there has been a growing recognition by corporations that a diverse workforce can be a valuable asset. A White-Collar Profession says the situation has been reversed: The accounting profession is now being pushed by its clients to hire more African-Americans. Although there is no easy solution to creating a diverse profession, past experience has shown that even the smallest efforts can go a long way. Pioneering African-American CPAs have done much to reach out to the next generation, and African-American CPA firms and associations like the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) have made a difference. At an organizational level, the NYSSCPA has programs directed toward providing educational opportunities for young and potential African-American CPAs. In last month’s column, I discussed the success we’ve had with the COAP program, but more can be done. On September 3, the NYSSCPA will hold a high-level meeting to come up with more ideas on how to reach out to minorities. If you have ideas, or have success stories to relate from your personal experience, please share them with me at email@example.com.
This column comes at an opportune time to take stock of the progress that has been made in race relations in the United States while looking forward to the work that remains to be done. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that was responsible for ending segregation in public schools. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court’s momentous decisions with regard to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies indicated that the court currently believes it will take another quarter-century before racial equality is reached in the United States. The CPA profession should do its part to make that day arrive earlier.
Publisher, The CPA Journal
Executive Director, NYSSCPA
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