Race in the Workplace:
For Black men, Success Resolves Few Problems
By Joan E. Rigdon and Carol Hymowitz
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1992, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
Black executives who have acquired M.B.A.'s, corporate titles and
comfortable incomes seem to have it made. Yet they find themselves
divided between two worlds.
They walk a tightrope in corporate America, where they're expected to
blend with a culture that never fully accepts them. Poorer blacks
sometimes accuse them of selling out, but they know they can never
entirely leave the ghetto behind. Away from work, they face much of the
same racism and some of the violence as those who haven't risen in the
Even in their business suits, they are assumed to be bellhops and sales
clerks. Finding a cab driver who will stop for them is almost impossible;
and at shopping malls, clerks trail them, fearing they will shoplift. The
social interactions at work generally disappear outside the office, where
co-workers often literally don't recognize them on the street when they're
not in corporate uniform. Moreover, they're often harassed by police who
say they fit the "profile" of drug dealers and thieves.
A. Bruce Crawley, a former bank executive and now an entrepreneur,
was driving home in his Mercedes at 1 a.m. through a white Philadelphia
neighborhood when police ordered him out of his car. When he stepped
forward to ask why he had been stopped, one officer leapt out of the
cruiser and reached for his gun.
"I stopped in my tracks," says Mr. Crawley. "It was 1 a.m. and there
were no witnesses, and I did not want to become a statistic." The officers
told him they thought they saw him run a yellow light and let him go.
Such experiences have tarnished the acceptance blacks expected to gain
from entry into the middle class. Certainly, the black middle class has
grown: In 1990, blacks comprised 5.2% of managers in companies with
at least 100 employees, up from 3.7% in 1978 and 0.9% in 1966.
Among professionals, they comprised 5.2% of the total, up from 4% in
1978 and 1.7% in 1966.
Yet, no matter how much they earn or how many people report to them,
they're still labeled violent, incompetent and lazy. Fifty-six percent of
nonblacks believe that African-Americans are more violent than whites,
53% believe they're less intelligent and 62% think they are more likely to
"prefer to live off welfare," according to a 1990 survey by the University
of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Black men not only fight labels, they also face unnerving realities. They
are nearly eight times as likely to be homicide victims than white men.
Nearly 25% of black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are or have
been behind bars. According to the 21st Century Commission on
African-American males, their unemployment rate is about twice that of
white men; even black men with college degrees are three times more
likely to be unemployed than white counterparts.
Those who have achieved success have won out in "a Darwinian selection
process" that favors "an extremely thick hide," says Craig Polite, a partner
in human resources at Mitchell-Titus & Co. and co-author of "Children of
the Dream: The Psychology of Black Success." "There's a constant,
repetitive proving yourself, and not a whole lot of margin for error."
Mr. Crawley, 46 years old, learned that during his 22-year tenure at First
Pennsylvania Corp., now a unit of CoreStates Financial Corp. As
assistant advertising director, he designed a program that helped attract
$73 million in deposits -- $23 million over the bank's goal. But his pride
turned to anger, he says, when he discovered his boss was taking all the
Mr. Crawley met with the bank's president, James F. Bodine, to seek a
promotion to advertising director. He claimed credit for his program and
noted that he had more experience and superior training than his boss.
"You know, it seems to me, no matter what I do, there's some grand plan
to hold me back," Mr. Crawley recalls saying. Mr. Bodine, while insisting
that wasn't so, made a slip of the tongue: "There's no grand plan to hold
Mr. Bodine, who has since served as secretary of commerce for the state
of Pennsylvania and is now secretary of the Urban Affairs Coalition in
Philadelphia, as well as the sole white board member of black-owned
United Bank of Philadelphia, recalls the conversation. "I was thinking,
here's a very talented guy, but here's a guy who's difficult because of his
blackness," Mr. Bodine says, explaining that the bank's senior
management perceived Mr. Crawley as an antagonistic spokesman for
"There's good reason for anger to be in Bruce. There's good reason for
anger to be in every black," says Mr. Bodine, who says he had no power
to make a promotion decision in that case.
Mr. Crawley did win the title he sought, and he won subsequent
promotions to bank vice president and senior vice president. But each
move was delayed, he says, because top executives "weren't
comfortable" with him.
Colleagues advised him to be more congenial if he wanted to become a
senior executive. "I would hold up to them examples of senior managers
who were aggressive and hard-charging," Mr. Crawley says. "I did not
want to sit in a corner and smile. That was not the strategy they used" to
succeed. Their lack of acceptance led him to quit the bank three years
ago to start his own public-relations firm.
Some black executives say they never know when white colleagues will
suddenly attack or humiliate them. One former General Motors Corp.
manager, who declines to be identified, recalls how a white colleague he
considered a friend one day asked him to shine his shoes: "He said in
front of others in the department, `Why don't you get in here and shine
my shoes and be a good boy like another black colleague?'"
The antagonist quickly apologized and, a week later, conceded that he
had been "way out of line." "I didn't hold a grudge," the manager says
now. "But I never forgot it. If a person feels that way, I have to be
mindful of what he'll do next."
Black executives are often mistaken for entry-level employees by
customers and clients. Larry Drake, a vice president at PepsiCo Inc.'s
Kentucky Fried Chicken unit, says outsiders ignore him in favor of white
subordinates -- until he is introduced as the boss. Mr. Crawley says he
was once questioned over and over about his title by a disbelieving
salesman. "You're advertising director? Of the whole bank?" the salesman
asked. "You don't just do minority advertising?"
The same feeling pervaded company cocktail parties, where Mr. Crawley
sought acceptance by the inner circle. Business talk would quickly turn to
basketball and Bill Cosby as soon as he approached. "They're stretching
to find something they think they have in common with you. They don't
think they feel the same kinds of things you feel."
This white attitude puts black executives constantly on stage and on
guard. "I have to watch everything I say," says Noland Joiner, a senior
consultant at Arthur Andersen & Co.'s consulting unit. "If I relax too
much I'm not serious, but if I try to make strong corporate moves I'm
knifing people. There's a little voice in the back of your head telling you
people are looking at you differently because you're black -- and that
hurts our performance."
The stress takes its toll. Isiaah Crawford, a psychology professor at
Loyola University, Chicago, says stress-related ailments are common
among black managers he has treated.
There's also the assumption that black men in stores are either clerks or
shoplifters. On a recent rainy day in Boston, when Harry Johnson was
wearing a dripping-wet raincoat in a hardware store, a customer asked
him for assistance. "I am 55 years old. It's not as if I'm some fuzzyfaced
kid who looks like he's a clerk," says Mr. Johnson, director of
communications at Polaroid Corp.
While adult blacks have learned to protect themselves, they fear for their
children. Carol Swain, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs
at Princeton University, says her two sons, ages 18 and 20, have been
picked up and questioned by local police at least nine times in two years.
Although her sons have never been charged with any crime, "I live in
terror each time they leave home," says Ms. Swain. "And I see anger in
my sons that I never saw before. If the police continue to harass them, I
fear they'll explode."
Patricia G. Davis contributed to this article.
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