Blacks Still Losing Race To Corporate Top


In a January feature story on big shot corporate black executives, Newsweek strongly hints that more blacks than ever have cracked the corporate glass ceiling. It trumpets the ascension of Kenneth I. Chenault, E. Stanley O’Neal, and Richard D. Parsons as CEOs of American Express, Merrill Lynch, and AOL Time Warner as testament that black overachievers can buck the good ole’ white boy network and become shot-callers at powerhouse conglomerates. This is good, maybe even necessary, motivational spiel, but the nasty, and brutal discrimination battles that blacks have waged in recent years against Texaco, Coca Cola, American Airlines, Seven Up/RC Bottling, Hyundai Semiconductor in Oregon, Toyota Motors and countless other companies is bitter proof that the corporate racial glass ceiling has barely been scratched. Black employees at many corporations charge that they are given the worst assignments, paid less, and have fewer chances for promotions than their white counterparts.

Corporate executives swear that they don’t discriminate. They, as nearly every major image conscious corporation in America, routinely issue flowery press releases, brochures, assorted handouts and annual stockholder reports that tout their commitment to employee diversity. On paper, they appear to be in compliance with Federal Equal Opportunity guidelines, have a well-established program for hiring, training, and the promotion of minorities. They have black faces in visible corporate management positions, and point to a dependable core of name blacks such as Vernon Jordan, and Colin Powell (before Bush snatched him), that they spread around their boardrooms.

The racial back pats that corporations give themselves are not total puffery. Blacks are not barred or discouraged from participating in company social functions. Some are included in their company’s discussions of important business decisions. Some even join the country clubs where much of America’s corporate business is discussed and deal making is done. Few corporate officials would dare tell white managerial candidates that they can’t hire them because they must hire a (less qualified) woman or a minority. Many corporations don’t repeat the phony line that they can’t find a qualified black and have some sort of minority recruiting program.

But the number of blacks that crack the corporate glass ceiling tells a story less of corporate progress than corporate stagnation. Once you get past Parsons, O’Neal, and Chenault one would be hard-pressed to name, or find, more than a handful of black CEOs at the Fortune 1000 corporations. According to the 1999 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s private employment survey, the overwhelming majority of corporate senior officials and managers are white males. Black managers are grossly underrepresented in top management echelons, and as the parade of lawsuits indicate, are still paid less, and are promoted much more slowly, if at all, than whites.

At many companies blacks are still regarded by their corporate peers as pariahs. They tell horrid stories of white corporate managers and employees who openly grumble that blacks are: lazy, undisciplined, and poorly organized, incompetent, less skilled, affirmative action hires, possess bad attitudes, are outspoken, and rebellious, and quick to blame management, or white employees for their problems and failures.

These stereotypes are reinforced by an insular corporate culture in which mostly white, male managers are responsible for implementing company policy and directives. They write the reports, make the performance evaluations, organize training sessions, are responsible for mentoring, and make crucial job assignments. They demand strict conformity to middle-class (i.e. white) norms in the company. They feel threatened by and adopt US-vs. -Them bunker mentality toward anyone who doesn’t share those interests. This attitude bolsters the belief of many blacks that they are held to a different standard of accountability than whites, and must constantly prove they can be team players, or are permanently branded as racial agitators and corporate malcontents.

Even blacks such as Parsons, O’Neal and Chenault who prick the glass ceiling find that they’ve become honchos of corporations that are gasping for breath–American Express, or reconfiguring–AOL Time Warner, or are massively downsizing–Merrill-Lynch, and they must weld the employee ax. Merrill, for instance, has dumped 9000 employees since October, and American Express dumped 6,500 in December. (This on top of the nearly 8,000 AE ousted earlier in the year). Since minorities and women, are relative late entrants into major corporations and are saddled with the legacy of being the last hired, first fired when hard times hit corporate America, almost certainly they made up a considerable number of the employees shown the door.

The bitter truth is that it still takes lawsuits, boycott threats, selective buying campaigns and calls for stock divestment by blacks to compel many corporations to hire and promote more blacks. While Parsons, O’Neal, and Chenault won their race to the corporate top, many other blacks are still falling over the corporate sides.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press)

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