Friday, January 23, 2009

Racism isn't a problem for Black people in America

This is a story from a NBMBAA conference in 1994.

The main speaker at the lunch that year was Lloyd Ward one of the first black people to reach the VP level at Pepsi. At the time, he was the President of Frito Lay's Central Division, an entity with sales of $1.3 billion. At that point, in his mid 50s, he had achieved the kind of career that most MBA students were aspiring to, so he was an eagerly anticipated speaker.

He opened his talk with the phrase "racism is not a problem for Black people in America."

At the National Black MBA Association, a statement like that is sure to get attention, and it certainly got mine. At first I thought he must be kidding, but I certainly paid very close attention to what he had to say.

He went on to tell a few anecdotes about how he had been treated badly based on his race. But he ended each one with that phrase - racism is not a problem for Black people in America. After the second one, I was getting pretty pissed and I was thinking this must be some Uncle Tom, house Negro wannabe. I was just about ready to make my loud exit in protest when he started his third story, and it really nailed me to my chair.

He explained how he was the first black plant manager in the South. When he arrived for his first day at work, he pulled his car into one of the parking spots reserved for management, and the security guard walked up to him, pointed his revolver at him and said "boy, you can't park here." With the gun pointed at his face, he asked the security guard "where would you like me to park." the guard told him where to park, and he followed the guard's instructions.

And then he said it again, "but I'm here to tell you that racism is not a problem for Black people in America, and here's why: because problems are things we are taught to solve, and racism is not something that Black people can solve." He went on to say that racism creates situations for Black folks, like being on the subway next to someone who has a cold. If the guy with the cold starts coughing in your direction, you can hand him a tissue, or ask that he cover his mouth, or move to another car, or whatever works. But he's the one with the sickness, not you. And you can't make him well, so there's no point in trying.

He circled back to the situation with guard calling him boy and pointing a .38 in his face. In that situation, he could have angrily pointed out that he was the new manager. But we all know that expressions of anger towards people holding guns are not usually a good way of making it home in one piece. So he did as he was told. But in his first official act as plant manager, he fired the security guard and made sure that his replacement would not be authorized to carry a gun.

Personally, I think that many of us Black folks have, to some degree or other, caught the virus that is racism, and need to do some self healing. I also think that providing some level of "assistance" to those of our White bretheren who wish to be helped, is in our best interest.

But in the end, I agree with his central thesis, that for Black folks, solving racism would be like trying to boil the ocean. And that our efforts are generally better used in fighting battles that either can be, or must be, won.

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