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The New Civil War

But this may take too rosy a view of American management. As we are constantly hearing, all too few executives—almost all of them white—have been willing to rethink their approaches to investing in productivity and long-term profits. Indeed, in a few respects, the gap between black and white cultures may be narrowing. The Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of white students have been falling for upward of twenty years. (The recent rises come from a greater use of coaching courses.)

A partial explanation of my own, based on my own observations of students, is that the mental processes of white youths have been affected less by watching television than by the music they listen to. Since much of that music’s beat and sensuality has origins in black culture, I sometimes wonder if we are witnessing some kind of convergence between America’s two major races. After all, the complaints of Chicago employers quoted earlier about black workers are increasingly being applied as well to whites they have hired. At the same time, Asians in the United States and across the Pacific have been meeting the kinds of educational and organizational standards once associated with white culture. In a similar way, even Hispanics new to this country tend to outperform blacks on tests like the SAT. And where Hispanic applicants are available, many employers prefer them to blacks for entry-level jobs on grounds of work attitudes and reliability.


Earlier this year, The New York Times carried an obituary notice for James E. Hair, who had been one of several black seamen in World War II whom the US Navy finally allowed to become officer candidates. Still, these candidates were put into a separate segregated class and given a shorter period of instruction. So they studied overtime on their own, and ended up with the highest scores ever recorded at the Great Lakes Training Station. They showed, to put it simply, that they could excel by “white” standards; indeed, under restrictions which were very much the opposite of preferential treatment.

Now, almost half a century later, the major successes of black Americans are still found in athletics and entertaining, careers which many whites regard as calling more for “expressive” talents than for intellectual or organizational skills. In fact, John Thompson of Georgetown is not only a superb basketball coach but also presides over a complex administrative organization that, among other things, sees to it that his players apply themselves to their studies. Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, and Keenan Ivory Wayans all run production companies in which they have trained highly competent black executives and technicians. (The military may be a special case, since it is sensitive to politics and does not have to turn a profit. Yet more than a few black officers have out-performed their white colleagues.)

Lois Benjamin’s The Black Elite offers many insights—especially for white readers—into the obstacles black Americans face if they seek careers in what are essentially white organizations. Benjamin is a sociologist at Hampton University in Virginia. Her book is based on intensive interviews with one hundred men and women in professional and executive positions, who saw her as someone to whom they could speak openly, not least because she understood their nuances and allusions. Benjamin’s chapter headings capture much of the book’s contents: “Being Black Is to Be on Perennial Probation,” “Self-Advancement versus Group-Advancement,” “Being Black Is to Wear the Mask,” “Using Biculturality as a Weapon Against Racism,” “Being a Race Ambassador,” “The Token Black Elite.” In addition to doing their jobs well, they must endure the extra tension of wondering how and when—not whether—their race figures in how they are assessed. When they say they must do even better than whites, they mean not simply technical competence, but the daily burden of representing an entire race. They talk of the strain of always having to appear cheerful and grateful to be there, all the while repressing any resentments that might be associated with race. In her cool and quiet account, Benjamin illuminates realities of race that most whites never have to think about.

One reality is that many blacks with good jobs feel they must find time to relax with other blacks, where one can “hang loose” without having to worry whether they are doing “the white thing.” Or, as a black city manager put it to Lois Benjamin, “We have luncheon meetings every couple of weeks, where we just shoot the shit and talk the stuff.” Yet white colleagues tend to construe such commingling—or simply being seen chatting with a black friend—as resistance to fitting in. Benjamin is especially good at showing how well-intentioned overtures by whites can be almost as unsettling as overt hostility. She also quotes responses from men and women who have benefited from affirmative action. They seem untouched by the concerns of Stephen Carter and Shelby Steele that blacks who receive preference wonder how they rate on merit. None, at least in the interviews, saw himself as undeserving, nor had any of them shown hesitations about accepting appointments or promotions. If anything, they felt they had worked harder and had to surmount more obstacles than had their white colleagues.

If blacks find race-based constraints in almost every sphere of employment, they are most evident in profit-seeking businesses. As a result most who have middle-class aspirations end up in public or nonprofit employment, with an emphasis on work in education and social service. Of the sixty-three men and thirty-seven women Benjamin talked with, only nine held positions in private firms. (Another four own businesses of their own.) Of course, white executives take the position that they are oblivious to color, in policy and practice, and seek only the best talent they can find. If they are reminded that they have hired few blacks, they will insist it is because hardly any have applied, or live close enough to their facilities, or have the necessary qualifications. What is seldom addressed is how far race might figure as one of those qualifications.

If business executives tend to be ideologically conservative and personally awkward when it comes to racial relations, at least equally important is their fear that black employees will not command the confidence of subordinates, customers, or colleagues. As one sales manager told Benjamin, his company’s top managers feel “their client base will not accept a Black expert on any topic.” Or they worry whether blacks can simulate the socializing felt to be necessary for clinching a deal. As a result, Benjamin says, blacks are seldom considered “for upward mobility or the fast-track positions.” Those who become vice-presidents are usually assigned amorphous duties like “corporate affairs” or “corporate programs” or “social responsibility,” where they work on “special projects” and “community liaison.” Pepsi-Cola even has a black vice-presidency for corporate diversity.”

Business Week‘s most recent list of the top executives in America’s one thousand largest corporations lists only one black chairman: Erroll Davis, the head of a Wisconsin utility company, which ranked 720th in sales and 603rd in assets, and who received a comparatively modest salary of $269,000.2 In all, about a dozen of the leading firms—among them Xerox, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Chrysler, United Airlines, and American Express—have black vice-presidents in key positions in which they supervise white subordinates. While they are not “token,” it is instructive that all the companies have limited themselves to a single black at that level. That any of them will ever rise to their company’s top job is highly unlikely. Still, the barriers are not entirely racial. No more than a handful of the firms cited by Business Week have Jewish chairmen; indeed, there are relatively few Irish or Italian names on the list.


A recurring theme in Christopher Jencks’s Rethinking Social Policy is the subordination American society imposes on descendants of slaves. “Blacks did not volunteer to become Americans,” he reminds us. Yet, in a cruel irony, they remain consigned to a lower stratum because they were brought here against their will. From the early days of Reconstruction, and persisting into the present, “they had good reason to doubt that they would be accepted as Americans even if they did learn to mimic” white ways. Why is it that a nation that in all its official rhetoric prides itself on its fairness and opportunity has never opened its doors sufficiently so black men and women might attain full citizenship? One answer, as was intimated earlier, is that being “black” in America still bears the mark of slavery. True, textbooks now celebrate the strength and stamina it took to survive centuries of bondage. At the same time, contempt for people who were subjected to slavery remains implanted in white minds: only a distinctly inferior species could be bought and sold and punished like so much livestock. While they may hate themselves for holding the idea, white Americans continue to see blacks as an inferior strain. Even now, as in the past, immigrants only hours ashore feel they are allowed—indeed encouraged—to assert their superiority to black Americans.3

On occasion, Jencks extends what he said about white employers to the white population as a whole. “Many whites,” he says, “are prepared to treat blacks as equals if they ‘act white.’ ” This view helps to explain the general approval of Colin Powell, who gives few outward signs of his racial patrimony. Thus the onus lies on black Americans to set aside their own culture so that they can be absorbed into the dominant stream. Yet even if they do, the odds against acceptance are high. Most of those who were asked by Lois Benjamin whether they were willing to adapt to white cultural standards would only shake their heads and reply that they have been doing just that for many years, with very little to show for it.

Jencks’s observations recall those of an earlier commentator. When Alexis de Tocqueville made his visit to the United States in 1831 and 1832, most black Americans—between 85 and 90 percent—were still held in slavery. Since he saw that so blatant a servitude could not last, he mainly speculated on the future relations of the races. Tocqueville’s predictions were so powerful that most of them can stand on their own today. He forecast, for example, that the ending of slavery would “increase the repugnance of the white population for the blacks.” While in bondage, blacks were—in white eyes—in their natural place. With Emancipation would come claims of constitutional equality, although they were soon thwarted by Jim Crow laws.

Even so, blacks were still seen as threatening: as possible economic and sexual competitors but more ominously as a primitive presence, haunting white sensibilities and undermining the security believed to be the birthright of a superior stock. Blacks literally represent a part of Africa transported to America, brought here to be used but never to be absorbed. In contrast, successive waves of Europeans, and now Hispanics and Asians, have been seen as having sufficiently developed cultures to make them assimilable. However, Africa was and is regarded as the primal continent, from which other races only emerged after they had journeyed outward and away from their place of origin. This is why, Tocqueville observed, other Americans “scarcely acknowledge the common features of humanity in this stranger.”

For this reason, persons of African ancestry have been seen as incapable of becoming “Americans.” (Other industrial countries have been equally guarded about integrating blacks and whites; but then none of them imported several million slaves to become permanent residents.) Anxieties over “racial mixing” go well beyond citizenship and residence. They turn most vivid with fears about the designs that black men are thought to have on white women: in the form of rape, or by revealing an allure white men cannot match. The more recent fears that white teenagers are being lured from their families by black manners and music are in the same vein.


Many if not most whites would be greatly relieved if blacks took it upon themselves to emigrate. Or, short of that, if they would decide to remain in designated neighborhoods of their own, where they would teach their own children and take responsibility for local order. In other words, voluntary self-segregation, out of white sight and mind.

Tocqueville also foresaw what would have to wait until more than a century after he wrote: that black citizens would come to “revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights.” Until the great migrations northward during and after World War II, most of the black population lived in the South, where even modest protests could bring Draconian responses. While legal advances were to come later in the form of civil rights—voting, public facilities, suits against job discrimination—they have brought only marginal changes in the lives that most black Americans lead. So, as Tocqueville wrote, when blacks realize that “they cannot become the equals of whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies.” While whites worry about vengeful acts of violence, childbearing, and public expense, and an underclass that seems impervious to constitutional controls, they know that race has locked the nation in an ongoing civil war.

If Tocqueville felt free to generalize about the Americans he met, he transcribed few actual quotations. In Race: How Black and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, as with his other books, Studs Terkel encourages people to talk for themselves. He has a talent—one I have always envied—for underplaying his presence while the tape recorder runs. His current selection of about eighty men and women is equally divided racially, with most living in or near Chicago, which Terkel calls “America’s metaphor.” He opens with a pained remark from John Hope Franklin, lamenting “this crude and barbaric outburst of racism that we’ve seen in the last several years…. The feelings that once were covert because people were ashamed of them are now expressed overtly.”

However, overt racism seldom surfaces in Terkel’s interviews. Almost all of his white respondents have lived or worked alongside blacks; most of them come across as tolerant and sensitive to signs of prejudice. We hear from fair-minded nurses and ministers, even police officers; but not from householders who fled to the suburbs or citydwellers who have dug in their heels. Even the frankest admissions contain a measure of self-blame. Thus a federal employee:

My feelings are really mixed today and I don’t know why…. We’re talking here about the race of black pople. I have to be honest with you. Twenty-five years ago I was very sympathetic. Today I’m still sympathetic but I’m not a hundred percent sympathetic. That sounds terrible.

A young carpenter may not mince words, but he cannot be said to lack self-awareness:

I hate to admit it, but I wouldn’t write off a white guy, who gets away with things, as quick as I’d write off a black guy…. I realize some of the bigotries I have. But no one can tell me there aren’t people who act like niggers.

If these and the rest of Terkel’s whites are a representative sample, there should be hope for better race relations. Perhaps this is the message Terkel wants to convey. So it is something of a shock to find Kenneth Clark’s summing-up toward the end of the book: “I look upon my life as a series of glorious defeats…. I am not sanguine about any kind of solid decency and justice in the area of race in America. The best we can settle for is appearance.” Which is to say that the state of the races rests less with what whites say than with how blacks assess the treatment they receive.


Importing Slaves July 16, 1992

  1. 2

    The Corporate Elite,” Business Week, November 25, 1991.

  2. 3

    David Roediger shows how the Irish in particular discovered that blacks could be “despised with impunity.” The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1991), p. 148.

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