The Supreme Court’s ruling supporting Michigan’s ban on using race as a basis for admission to its public universities is staggeringly blind to the blatant and subtle ways that assumed and embedded ideas about race impacts the day-to-day lives of African Americans, especially black men, in the US. New Yorkers don’t have far to see this. Randomly visit the restaurants on the Upper East Side. Occasionally you will see a willowy black female working to greet people, but almost never do you see a black male working in these places. Visit a friend who works at one of the young hip tech firms with the open plan offices, and you will see what a financial services Human Resource person I know calls “the new diversity.” However, it includes almost no black American. Or if you happen to visit someone who works in a money management or investment banking firm, you may see at best one or two African Americans.
My friends and I ask ourselves: How is this still possible in this day and age? How is it that we see this but the people in the corporations do not? Why does the Supreme Court think that racial issues that impact these hiring decisions won’t affect decision made in college admission offices? What are we missing in other group’s perception of us that results in these non-diverse environments? Have President Obama’s election and its post-racial interpretation simply given people the comfortable belief they “don’t see color” anymore?
The truth is that most Americans do see color and are more color conscious than they want to admit. The reasons really haven’t changed much during my lifetime. They include the persistent segregation of housing patterns in US cities and suburbs that inhibits regular, day-to-day interaction other than during commutes; the conservative (even atavistic) tendencies of many of the gatekeepers to opportunities; a strange tendency to believe that the few black people they do know “are not like the others;” anda free-floating quiet anxiety, maybe even fear. All of these factors accumulate, simmer, and manifest in small, unconscious ways—increasingly called microaggressions by college students and others. They are evensubtlety recognized, adapted and accepted by some new immigrants as a normal part oflife in America. The result for African Americansis a repeating, ever-morphing struggle for opportunities in life, education, and career.
When African American do get into decision-making or management positions, especially within a corporation or other such organization, we can’t help but be aware that there are more complexities involved in the way that others are perceiving us. This complicates a strategy that I see employed by other ethnic groups in these setting: helping their friends and colleagues to get jobs in the same organization. Instead some of us become reluctant to hire other African Americans knowing that they are likely to be accused of favoritism, a lack of objectivity. Does this happen with other ethnic groups, my friends and I wonder, who hire associates similar to themselves?How do the members of the Supreme Court go about hiring their associates? Is there anyplace in America that’s a pure meritocracy where race, ethnicity, and skin color do not factor into decisions for a company’s culture? When I hear a recruiter and manager today say he or she is looking for people with “the right DNA” for their organization’s culture, I wonder if they hear what I hear or see what I see.