One issue that generates more heat than light among bankers is affirmative action.

Many hold that making great efforts to find, hire, and promote minority people is the least we can do to compensate for generations of neglect in this area.

Others say it is patently unfair to give a minority person preference over an equally or better-qualified rival just because of his or her sex or skin color.

And court decisions have been so mixed on the topic that employers trying honestly to do what is right are confused and troubled.

Why do I bring this up?

My wife, Beverly, and I just visited a brand-new museum in Washington called the Newseum, and I left with some strong insights for bankers.

The Newseum is an interactive museum of news that uses the latest technology to teach the history and importance of print and airwave journalism. Sponsored by a foundation funded by the Gannett News Service, it is truly objective-and informative in every way.

When we were there, as part of a continuing series of live press conferences, we met and listened to Deborah Mathis, a national correspondent of Gannett's.

Ms. Mathis has had quite a career. It started in high school-Little Rock's Central High, whose integration had required presidential intervention and federal troops. Ten years later Ms. Mathis was the first black editor of the school newspaper.

At the Newseum she was asked about affirmative action. Her answer was clear and simple, fortified by who she is and what she experienced.

"There is a basic difference between affirmative action and tokenism," she said.

"Tokenism involves priority just because someone is of a certain color skin. Affirmative action involves looking for people with this feature, but only accepting them if they meet all the other requirements of the job."

What is needed, she said, is "working harder to locate qualified people, rather than taking underqualified people."

Affirmative action, as Ms. Mathis describes it, should have the wholehearted support of the banking industry.

As she says, it is tokenism that hurts everyone. "How can a black hold his or her head up high if he or she feels the job was gained because of skin color alone, instead of talent?"

The famous Boston Fed study on loan discrimination showed that many bankers work harder to make white people's loan applications bankable than they do for blacks.

This helps explain why minority people may have a lower acceptance rate on their loan requests even when their income levels and credit history are similar.

For women, though, affirmative action has been a rousing success. Banks have opened their eyes to the talent being wasted. Women have become far, far more important in bank management as banks have actively sought them out.

All Ms. Mathis is urging is the same treatment for everyone else who has been discriminated against.

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