Obama’s presidency renders absurd the argument that blacks are barred from playing at the highest levels. But do isolated victories add up to systemic change?
By Ellis Cose
From the magazine issue dated Feb 2, 2009
In “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” published in 1993, I argued that many successful black Americans were seething about what they saw as the nation’s broken promise of equal opportunity. My book editor found the thesis so shocking that, after reading the manuscript, he asked, “Is this really true?” Its truth was quickly validated by a number of academics, including Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes (“Living With Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience,” 1994) and Sharon Collins (“Black Corporate Executives: The Making and Breaking of a Black Middle Class,” 1996). It was also confirmed by hundreds of professionals who approached me to attest that “Rage” was their story.
Now Barack Obama sits in the highest office of the land, and a series of high-powered African-Americans have soared to the uppermost realms of their professions. The idea of a glass ceiling is almost laughable. Serious thinkers are searching for a new vocabulary to explain an America where skin color is an unreliable marker of status.
While researching “Rage,” I repeatedly heard various versions of the same complaint: regardless of what I do, and how hard I work, I can never make it to the top. White hotshots were allowed to do $50 million deals on the backs of envelopes, but blacks only got crumbs, lamented Wallace Ford, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School.
Ford was then New York City’s commissioner for business services. He is now president and chief operating officer of GoodWorks International, a global business and government consultancy, and he acknowledges that things have changed. There has been “a very real opening up of opportunities … Disparities are still there, but not as pronounced,” he says.
Collins’s big insight a decade and a half ago was that corporate blacks were getting titles but not real power. “You can let somebody in and still keep them powerless,” said Collins, a University of Illinois sociologist. In updating her research, she has discovered those executives still “don’t feel so optimistic.”
But even the most ardent pessimist has to admit that things have changed dramatically. The most obvious example is the Obama presidency. But that presidency is the culmination of something that has been building for years. Black politicians have moved ever closer to the levers of ultimate power—including into the governorships of New York and Massachusetts. And a small, but visible, group of African-Americans has moved to the top of the corporate heap. Once there, they have been allowed to succeed—or fail—in pretty much the same way as the white guys. Stanley O’Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch, is the most spectacular flameout. And even he walked away with a compensation package said to total more than $160 million. Success and failure on that scale was all but unimaginable for a black man a decade and a half ago. Now, with the presidency, nothing seems off the table.
Still, in the eyes of Collins, Obama is “an anomaly … This guy is perfect. But how many of him exist?” Even if he is an anomaly, though, the fact of his presidency renders absurd the argument that blacks are barred from playing at the highest level. Many are celebrating that, as was made clear by the millions who converged on Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. I spent part of that day in the U Street corridor, an area pretty much destroyed in 1968 by riots following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. U Street is now a bustling commercial strip with trendy eateries such as Creme Cafe and Lounge, where Glory Edim, a 26-year-old marketing coordinator, dabbed away tears as she watched Obama’s speech. “I never thought this would happen,” said Edim, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. “It allows me to believe that whatever I want to achieve in this world, I can.”
Ted Shaw, the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, shares Edim’s awe: ” People like myself have to acknowledge that there were things we may not have thought were possible because we were trapped in our assumptions … And I’m happy I was wrong.”
As excited as he is about the dawning of this new age, Shaw rejects the notion that America has become post-racial, as does almost everyone in the civil-rights community. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that,” says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Henderson sees some “individual isolated victories,” and he worries those may become “the new defining standard of race in America.” But at what point do those isolated victories add up to something more?
Once the mandated segregation of Jim Crow ended, it was inevitable that more and more blacks would rise to prominence. “At some point, the exceptions become significant,” says john powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. (He doesn’t capitalize his name in tribute to e. e. cummings and the political spirit of the 1960s.) If anyone is equipped to navigate the murky racial waters of this new age, it would seem to be Benjamin Jealous, the new (and youngest ever) president of the NAACP. Jealous celebrated his 36th birthday two days before Obama’s inauguration. Like Obama, Jealous is biracial. He is also the product of an elite education: a Rhodes scholar with degrees from Columbia and Oxford. And he is a former community organizer.
Jealous is happy about Obama’s presidency, but not convinced it means much for ordinary black folks. “We celebrate him on Jan. 20 as the first black president. As of Jan. 21, he’s the 44th president.” His point is that Obama will get no special dispensation because of his race. Jealous will push him, like any other president, to make equal opportunity a reality.
Jealous also thinks too much has been made of the success of a few black superstars. “There are 500 companies in the Fortune 500. Last time I checked, three of those were headed by black men,” he says. And the rise of a hypersuccessful black elite does not mean much for those still suffering. Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, says: “It’s like saying that because some poor white person made it, there’s no poverty issue … You can’t expect every poor white person to do that.” The black high-fliers, enviable as they may be, also face something of a dilemma. Part of the price of their mainstream success is that they not voice any racial grievances, says Bill Fletcher, director of field services and education for the American Federation of Government Employees.
The practical consequence is that racial problems become easier to ignore. So even though black college-graduation rates remain low, and subprime lending practices disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos, and prisons are exploding with black inmates, the outsize success of a few African-Americans makes such problems more difficult to talk about. Another consequence is that successful blacks are encouraged, in effect, to abandon their less-privileged brethren. Jealous finds that unsettling. “If we drew lines between privileged blacks and other blacks,” he says, “we would draw a line though the middle of my family.”
Even as America embraces the reality of increased opportunities for some, it must acknowledge that options for others remain bleak. But it cannot do so with rhetoric that whites find offputting. This leads powell to what he calls “targeted universalism”—making arguments in a way that is racially inclusive rather than polarizing. That means acknowledging that any social problem affects more than just blacks; and that remedies, including affirmative action, have to look at a much broader array of factors than race.
The quest for such universally acceptable language will not be easy. Even in the Obama era, racial demands will not disappear. A few days before the inauguration, Washington witnessed another drama rich in racial significance as Roland Burris, Obama’s designated Senate successor, was rejected by—and eventually admitted to—the Senate. Congressman Bobby Rush, one of Burris’s most vocal backers, told me that the idea of the Senate with no blacks was unacceptable. He had no qualms about making a racial argument for Burris’s inclusion. America, says Rush, has not yet “earned” the right to declare itself post-racial. Nonetheless, America, in the last decade and a half, has come much further than many thought it could. The rage I wrote about has not vanished, but it has been greatly tempered with more than a modicum of hope.