views updated






In response to a television reporter who stated that “racial progress takes time,” James Baldwin offered this telling response: “It has taken my mother’s time, my father’s time, my brothers and my sisters’ time, my nieces and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”(McBride 1999, p. 8).

Tokenism is a problem that continues to pervade American culture. It refers to the practice or policy of admitting an extremely small number of members of racial (e.g., African American), ethnic (e.g., Latino) or gender (i.e., women) groups to work, educational, or social activities to give the impression of being inclusive, when in actuality these groups are not welcomed. In the workplace the practice has been relied on to show compliance with laws, rules, and regulations requiring institutions to hire people of color or women. This article addresses tokenism as it applies to African Americans in the workplace.


Racism and its protracted history in American society gave rise to the concept of tokenism. To the extent that employers, both private and public, could keep African Americans out of the workforce, they did so, and with impunity. Prior to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no federal laws compelled employers to refrain from discriminating against people on the basis of such characteristics of race, color, religion, national origin, or gender. Thus, African Americans and other groups were explicitly and intentionally excluded from participation in private- and public-sector workforces. Parenthetically, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1871, intended to enforce the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, were aimed at prohibiting discrimination in the workplace. However, as with other initiatives of the Reconstruction era, these laws were never enforced.

With enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, private employers were no longer able explicitly to refuse to hire or promote African Americans. Of course, passage of the law did not result in the immediate end of discriminatory practices. On the contrary, employers developed ways to continue their exclusionary practices. One notable example can be found in the U.S. Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power (1971). The Duke Power Company operated a power-generating facility in Draper, North Carolina. It was organized into five departments. The lowest-paying jobs were in the labor department, where even the highest-paying job paid less than the lowest-paying jobs in the other four departments. In 1964, there were sixteen African Americans working at the power plant, and they were all segregated into the labor department. In short, Duke Power openly discriminated on the basis of race in hiring and in job placement. On July 2, 1965, the day the Civil Rights Act took effect, the company instituted new requirements for getting jobs in all departments other than labor. A high school diploma was now required, which effectively kept all the African Americans in the labor department. Later the company required employees to pass two aptitude tests to transfer to any department outside labor. Willie Griggs filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the practices. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which rendered a decision in favor of Griggs, stating that Title VII prohibits not only overt discrimination but also practices that may seem neutral but are discriminatory in operation.

The Griggs decision was landmark in that it proscribed not just overt discrimination but also subtle or covert practices that seem innocuous but are discriminatory in their impact. The fear of potential lawsuits—which can be very costly to employers—forced companies to begin hiring African Americans, albeit in small numbers. In turn, tokenism was spawned. Organizations at least in the private sector now had a legal imperative that made it necessary to demonstrate that they did not engage in discriminatory practices. Hiring one or even two African Americans would give the appearance of inclusion and hence compliance with antidiscrimination laws such as Title VII and later affirmative action polices. Tokenism, in effect, was symbolic and perfunctory. Government employers would follow suit in 1972, when Title VII was extended to public-sector workforces with passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. Such agencies as police and fire departments, which continue to be dominated by white males even in the early twenty-first century, were forced to show at least a semblance of compliance with the law, and would hire the token African-American police officer or firefighter.


Early on, some argued that tokenism was an important first step for African Americans to gain a foothold in the workplace. It would, it was maintained, open the doors for others, thus representing some progress. Many others, however, maintained that tokenism perpetuated the victim status of African Americans and represented an absolute failure of public policies and programs aimed at ending discriminatory practices.

Only a nominal few benefit from tokenism, and organizations hire the token not for what she or he can contribute to the institution but to give the outward appearance of inclusion. Malcolm X put it this way in a speech he delivered to the Afro-American Broadcasting Company in Detroit in 1965: “Tokenism benefits only a few. It never benefits the masses, and the masses are the ones who have the problem, not the few. That one who benefits from tokenism, he doesn’t want to be around us anyway—that’s why he picks up on the token” (Malcolm X 1965).

Tokenism has proven to be demeaning, demoralizing, and debilitating. Research has illustrated that it leads to a loss of black identity, multiple demands on being African American, a sense of isolation, and pressure to show greater competence (Jackson, Thoits, and Taylor 1995). Kanter (1977), who has written extensively about the effects of tokenism on women, points out that tokens are always under greater scrutiny than others and are forced constantly to prove themselves. They also internalize a sense of inferiority because they perceive their job evaluations as being based not on achievements but on their “blackness.” Jackson, Thoits, and Taylor (1995) also point out that tokens are always reminded of their “differences” through jokes, banter, and “loyalty tests.” While tokens feel pressure to blend in, they are invariably relegated to a degrading stereotyped, caricatured role.

In effect, tokens face increased vulnerability and stress, which ultimately diminish their work performance as well as their overall physical and psychological well-being (Morash, Haarr, and Kwak 2006). And, equally as devastating, is the myth that has arisen from tokenism: that standards are lowered when African Americans are hired. This perverse belief has no grounding in empirical reality. It is a falsehood that has been perpetuated by those who have opposed affirmative action and other efforts aimed at diversifying the workplace (Riccucci 2002). This duplicity, in turn, propagated the fallacious, incendiary concept of “reverse discrimination.”

Tokenism can never be a viable policy or practice. It only compounds the problems of exclusion, marginalization, inferiority, and low morale. Yet, in various forms, it persists.


American society continues to be plagued by discriminatory practices. Although public and private institutions are more diverse in the twenty-first century than they were in the early 1960s, discrimination persists. It may be the case, however, that tokenism has become less of a problem at least in the lower echelons of private and government workforces, because to the extent progress has been made in diversifying the workplace, it has been at the lower levels. However, the upper levels of public- and private-sector workforces continue to be dominated by males who are white and of European ancestry. It is in these upper, higher-paying jobs that tokenism continues to exist. Organizations disingenuously dot the landscape of the highest rungs of hierarchical structures with African Americans to illustrate that they are making an effort to diversity the upper, more powerful levels of the organization.

Among the Fortune 500 companies—the top 500 public corporations in America as measured by gross revenue—African Americans continue to represent the token on corporate boards. A study by James and Wooten (2005) showed that only 8 percent of the total 5,572 board seats of Fortune 500 companies consist of African Americans. Moreover, as of 2007, there were only seven African-American chief executive officers among all the Fortune 500 companies.

Until every organization and corporate board structure is fully diversified at every level and layer, we can continue to ask, as James Baldwin did many years ago, “How much time do you want for your progress?”

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Acts


Griggs v. Duke Power Company, 401 U.S. 424 (1971).

Jackson, Pamela Braboy, Peggy A. Thoits, and Howard F. Taylor. 1995. “Composition of the Workplace and Psychological Well-Being: The Effects of Tokenism on America’s Black Elite.” Social Forces 74 (2): 543–557.

James, Erika Hayes, and Lynn Perry Wooten. 2005. The 2004 Census of African-Americans on Board of Directors of Fortune 500 Companies. Washington, DC: Executive Leadership Council.

Kanter, Rosabeth M. 1977. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books.

McBride, Dwight, ed. 1999. James Baldwin Now. New York: New York Press.

Malcolm X. 1965. Speech. Delivered in Detroit, Michigan, February 14. Available from

Morash, Merry, Robin Haarr, and Dae-Hoon Kwak. 2006. “Multilevel Influences on Police Stress.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 22 (1): 26–43.

Riccucci, Norma M. 2002. Managing Diversity in Public Sector Workforces. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Norma M. Riccucci