Just a decade ago, a white customer refused to shake Walter Dukes' hand.
"The guy turned his back to me and walked off," said Mr. Dukes, who is black. "I just put my hand down and continued to talk, and finally he realized that I was the engineer on the job."
Mr. Dukes hasn't forgotten this slight on his way to becoming Georgia Power's regional manager for Augusta. While he was able to move up the corporate ladder, the ascension to top management is a difficult climb for most minorities.
On the eve for the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, statistics indicate minorities haven't reached equality with regard to management positions in the private-sector workplace.
Nationally, minorities account for almost 25 percent of the population and nearly 30 percent of the entire workforce, but only 15 percent of management officials, according to federal statistics.
In the Augusta-Aiken metro area, minorities account for 38.3 percent of the population and 41 percent of the workforce. However, just 17.5 percent of the area's management occupations are occupied by minorities, federal data show. Those numbers prove minorities are well-represented in the workforce, but not in upper-level jobs.
"Even as ethnic and racial minorities have entered the workplace in greater numbers, they are still having a problem working their way up the ladder," said Hillary Shelton, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Washington bureau.
Civil rights legislation created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies to enforce anti-discrimination laws and promote minority hiring. But the government has no concrete standard for determining whether equality is reached.
Labor statistics show that minorities overwhelmingly fill lower-paid and lower-skilled jobs throughout the area. More than 51 percent of the area's craft workers, operatives, laborers and service workers are minorities, according to a 2002 survey by the EEOC.
Whites, by comparison, make up almost 70 percent of the area's professionals, technicians and salespeople.
Much of this gap has to do with age and education, said Doug Bachtel, a professor of housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia. Employers are more likely to hire people with higher education and more experience.
According to statistics calculated by Mr. Bachtel, about 85 percent of whites in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties have high school diplomas, compared with less than 72 percent for blacks, the area's largest minority group. Less than 13 percent of blacks have college degrees, compared with about 27 percent of whites. The median age for all whites in those counties is 36.6, but only 29.1 for blacks.
"This isn't to say discrimination isn't going on. It is. It's not the driving force," Mr. Bachtel said. "Minorities won't qualify for management positions because they're too young and don't have the education."
Mr. Shelton said that's not true, at least nationally.
"There are plenty of qualified racial and ethnic minorities to fill those (management) positions that are overlooked," he said.
Robert Chaplin, who moved to Augusta last year when he became the regional manager for Atlanta Gas Light, said his race has often been an issue in his career, resulting in delayed promotions.
"It's just the little things," said Mr. Chaplin, who is black. He mentioned that he was regularly not told of important meetings or deadlines.
He overcame this by working hard and adapting to the situation. Still, he said, many minorities aren't promoted because they don't know the right people.
In many cases, managers are more inclined to promote people they are familiar with, whether through church, school or work, Mr. Chaplin said.
Ann Reesman, a general counsel for the Equal Employment Advisory Council, an organization devoted to helping companies understand changing employment laws, said major companies have been increasingly proactive in recruiting minority employees.
"I think you're certainly seeing minorities move into middle and upper management," she said. "Employers can't afford to overlook good talent."
Dell Oliver, the vice president for nursing at Doctors Hospital, said talent, a warm personality and excellent people skills enabled her to work her way up.
"I may be naive, but I don't think people have judged me based on race," said Ms. Oliver, who is black.
But race is still an issue in many workplaces. The EEOC receives close to 80,000 discrimination claims each year.
"There is always work to be done," EEOC spokesman James Ryan said. "As long as people have reason to file discrimination claims, the work will never be done."
Civil Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law after a growing backlash by police against nonviolent protests. Images of black protesters in the South being bitten by dogs and sprayed with fire hoses were becoming common on television and in newspapers. Those images stirred the American public to call for change.
President Kennedy responded and in 1963 called for a congressional act that would bring equality to the races. A year later, on July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation into law. The act was designed to bring equality to the workplace, school yard, voting booths and other public accommodations.
The most effective component of the bill was Title VII, known as the Equal Employment Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion in hiring, wages, promotions, layoffs and about every other aspect of employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed a year later to enforce Title VII.