Winkfield F. Twyman Jr.
W. F. Twyman, Jr. is a former law professor who has written about race and relationships. He is a Harvard Law School graduate. He can be reached at .
Our thoughts about Black America need revision.
Conventional thought holds prejudice and discrimination accountable for what ails African-Americans. And there is much in the literature about conscious and unconscious racism to support the point. Others like Thomas Sowell and John T. McWhorter use culture as a lens for understanding the perception gap between Black and White Americans. Social dysfunction becomes the outcome of character pathology.
Whether racism or culture matters more has become the equivalent of the chicken and the egg argument. Both positions are defendable. Both vantage points explain part of the African-American experience. Neither thought can settle the debate.
A piece of the puzzle is missing.
To better understand Black America, one cannot start with the rage of a privileged class as seen by Ellis Crose, the stereotype vulnerability of college students described by Claude Steele or anti-intellectualism lamented by McWhorter. The axis upon which the great divide turns between White America and Black America is personality.
For a brief moment in time, relations between Whites and Blacks were fluid. From 1619 when the first slaves arrived in Jamestown until roughly 1660, the tumultuous times rewarded extroversion. Everyone faced disease and massacre at the hands of indigenous tribes. Survival required an ability to take risks, to dominate and to subdue the elements. Africans were outgoing with the best of them. Anthony Johnson, an arrival in the first shipload of slaves, gained his freedom when his indentured servitude ended. He went on to become prosperous as a planter. He established a plantation and would earn his place in American history for suing to hold an African servant in perpetual bondage. The colonial court agreed, thus establishing the precedent of slavery in the English New World.
The pressures of slavery molded slaves into introspection. Why did it happen?
American slavery was more than physical bondage. The peculiar institution required vigilance. In the outer world loomed dangers. To this day, presenters at academic conferences can throw out an isolated hate crime in a distant city and tap into the primal fear of race hatred. All black Americans can imagine themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. These fears can be traced back to slave patrols in the antebellum South, unpredictable enforcement of black codes, and the memory of Blacks having no rights that Whites were bound to respect. As a youngster, my mother warned that the Klan would get me if I did not behave. I behaved.
People looked inward. One of the best portrayals of inner life among slaves is Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese. An Italian-American, Genovese devoted years to understanding how an oppressed slave people protected their ego and sense of self. Genovese describes the rise of autonomous rituals and customs, creations known only to slaves and ignored for the most part by slave masters. Roll, Jordan, Roll affirms the resilience of the human spirit.
The rise of introspection saved a race.
At points of contact with the larger world, the outgoingness of Anthony Johnson became lost. Prejudice destroyed the opportunity to make genuine friends in the white community. The imbalance of white privilege remained ever-present for slaves. Relationships became soiled with a hesitancy, a double-consciousness of knowing one's place. If you watch "Roots," you can see this introversion at work. Kunta Kinte has an arrogance born of freedom. And yet he turns for guidance to Fiddler, a born slave who filters his actions so as to not disturb the racial order of things. Rev. T. D. Jakes once remarked that he found Africans difficult to understand because of their arrogance. His African companion replied that Africans were what African-Americans would be but for slavery.
That Fiddler and his descendants turned their energies inward is no surprise. Early efforts to worship in integrated settings were rebuffed by white congregations. Black leaders like Richard Allen created the African Methodist Episcopal Church where parishioners could worship free from slights. The same introspection arose in education. While some early black students like Alexander L. Twilight, Andrew Harris and John Mercer Langston thrived at white institutions before the Civil War, vicious acts of bigotry made the real headlines. Martin Delany and two other black students entered the Medical School of Harvard in the fall of 1850. They aspired to become doctors. White students met Delany and company with open revolt. Rather than face full-throated mutiny, the faculty expelled the black students. That the rise of black colleges would be welcomed after the Civil War is explained by fear of the larger white world. The same trends developed in the professions. When the American Bar Association erupted over the inadvertent admission of three black members in 1912, black attorneys took matters into their own hands. They concentrated on discovering their needs as a minority, thus giving rise to the National Bar Association. Every profession in America has a black adjunct association based upon the same premise.
Introversion should not be confused with segregation. Segregation is an enforced exclusion under color of law. It is a legal condition created by law. Introversion is a personality trait, a preferred way of interacting with the outside, larger world. Three hundred fifty years of slavery, black codes, segregation, discrimination and prejudice have formed a decided introversion in black culture and consciousness. And this introversion, more so than drugs or poverty or single-parent households or unemployment or incarceration, explains why Black America sees a different America from White America.
Introversion carried advantages. Focusing most of the community's attention inward became a means of survival when Reconstruction collapsed. Only the black community would care enough to nurture and sustain black colleges before the 1960s. To this day, the spiritual life of the community remains anchored in the black church, a historic role that produced leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Benjamin L. Mays, and Dr. Mordecai Johnson. Spirituals and gospels, the mainstay of the black church, speak to the collective unconscious that unites those who know prejudice and the double-consciousness of race. The introversion of the black community is at its apex on Sunday mornings. Even upper-middle class professionals whose lives are integrated from 9 to 5 come together as a people to worship.
But there is a downside to withdrawing.
Most Americans are extroverts. Most White Americans are extroverted. Outgoingness and domination are valued. As a result, White Americans don't get the tendency to withdraw. White Americans see the "black table" at colleges and think segregation, not solitude. The absence of Black Americans from white barbershops does not register. Even in the upper classes of well-educated White Americans, the parallel universe of black service organizations, fraternities, sororities and social clubs is an alien creation. The inner life of Black America remains as distant as the slave world was to slave masters.
The Civil Rights Movement and integration did not change the black American personality. Yes, there were exceptions where groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims adopted an in-your-face stance. But by and large, most Black Americans were more eager to make their way in the system, if possible. Years of turning inward guaranteed that Black America would be more taciturn than forthright, more reticent than revealing.
As a result, Black America is less open to outside influences than other groups. This can be seen in the low rate of interracial marriage. This can be seen in the levels of hyper-segregation that distinguish Black Americans from other groups. Even upper-middle class Black professionals like those that populate Prince George's County, Maryland, are more comfortable in the company of others like themselves than in whiter, affluent places like Potomac, Maryland or suburban Virginia. The same dynamic can be found in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia.
There is nothing disabling about flocking together per se. One might argue that private choices should be celebrated.
The real problem is that an introverted nation needs to know how to succeed in a predominantly extroverted world. And that is the lasting injury to Black America. Black America doesn't speak loudly and clearly when it needs to. Of course, there are exceptions but one doesn't see this when careers are on the line, when contracting dollars are on the table, when poor choices are being made.
For example, the ability to navigate office politics is essential for one's career growth. But academic excellence does not equal relationship excellence. There are disturbing accounts every day of Ivy League educated Americans, Black Americans, who needlessly falter and fail in the workplace. My classmate Paul M. Barrett has written about the sad story of another classmate, Lawrence Mungin. Mungin did all of the right things. He studied hard. He remained focused on his studies. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. And yet he discovered that self-reliance, the self-reliance that saw him through Harvard, served him poorly in the workplace. He had no friends. He relied on the system to treat him fairly. As his career stalled, Mungin was left out of informal networks where he might have gained valuable social intelligence. Instead, he stayed in his office and worked hard. When his career came crashing down, he could not believe that he had played by the rules and lost. But that is the danger for an introvert in the workplace. Self-reliance without relationships is a prescription for disaster.
How did Condoleezza Rice's career catch on fire? What did powerful men see in the young Colin Powell? Who facilitated the rise of multi-millionaire Reginald Lewis, a leveraged buyout entrepreneur? What lessons can we learn from the experience of Kenneth Frazier, a lawyer that was ready to give up a promising career until a conversation with a partner set him straight?
Racism exists, but relationships matter more.
Consider the career twists and turns of Frazier, general counsel of Merck & Co., Inc., the nation's second-largest pharmaceutical company. The son of a janitor with a third-grade education, Frazier grew up in a segregated community where his father expected Frazier to be successful. Frazier learned those lessons well and powered through culture shock at predominantly white Pennsylvania State University and Harvard Law School. After joining an Old Money Philadelphia law firm, Frazier fell into the relationship gap.
What do I mean?
As Vivian Chen writes in Master of the Game, "Frazier initially kept to himself and focused on his work. [He] thought he could be successful by [his] skills alone." Frazier had learned how to study well in college and law school. But his experiences as a gifted son of a black janitor left him unaware that relationships powered careers. While his father instilled the lesson that success was possible in the face of racism, academic excellence was not relationship excellence. Frazier was on a fast track to nowhere.
When Frazier received a middling evaluation in his second year, his spirit was broken. Frazier had always been better than average for as long as he could remember in school. He began the blame game. He blamed the accuracy of the evaluation. He blamed the invisible hand of racism. He decided that he would leave under his own power before the inevitable happened. He found a new job in a government office where he assumed African-Americans would get a better deal.
Before closing the door on his firm, Drinker Biddle & Reath, Frazier talked with Melvin Breaux, a partner and the firm's only other black lawyer. The talk changed Frazier's life, according to Chen.
Breaux showed Frazier no pity. He challenged Frazier about his reason for leaving the firm. He lectured Frazier that race was no bar to his success at Drinker. Other lawyers ranging from Irish Catholics to Jews and other minorities had learned to develop relationships with Old Money WASPs. Why did Frazier believe he was special?
Then Breaux administered the coup de grace. Frazier had hurt himself by refusing social invitations and keeping to himself in his office. Frazier had to play the game. Relationships mattered because people needed to feel vested in your future. Without relationships, no one would vouch for you and carry the torch for you. You had to make people want to be with you. That meant partners and clients.
Frazier took Breaux's words to heart. He said no to the government job and stayed at the firm. He began to accept social invitations. He cultivated relationships with senior partners, many from Old Society backgrounds. And in time, Frazier grew from a second-year "blame the Man" associate to a fourth-year associate who "felt partnership was in the bag." Frazier would make partner, with ease, and develop excellent relations with partners and clients alike. One thing led to another and Frazier became the point man for Merck, a longtime client of the firm. That relationship led to a job offer from Merck that Frazier parlayed into the company's top legal post within seven years.
But for that fateful tough love from Breaux, Frazier might be an unsung attorney in a forgettable government job today.
The career of another African-American lawyer bears witness to the power of relationships. Reginald Lewis was born and raised in East Baltimore, a segregated working class neighborhood. But he never feared operating out of his comfort zone. When he purchased the McCall Pattern Company for $22.5 million, he set to work establishing good relations with Earle Angstadt, a tall, blond, blue eyed, well-tailored CEO in firm command of the social graces. Lewis met Angstadt for the first time at the Harvard Club. Even though Angstadt had been with McCall for 14 years and was 17 years Lewis' senior, Lewis saw value in retaining Angstadt as part of his team. Lewis looked beyond race and focused on shareholder return and paying down debt. When Lewis sold McCall three years later for $65 million, he made Angstadt a wealthy man in the process.
Lewis used the same finesse to purchase Beatrice International for $937 million. Operating at a level of finance where isolating himself would have been lethal, Lewis accepted a social invitation to attend the Drexel Bond Conference in L.A. in 1985. The invitation came from none other than Michael Milken. Milken got to know Lewis at the conference as well as Bruce Brown, a key research staffer close to Milken. Lewis made it his business to stay in touch with Brown, so when Lewis needed financing for the deal of a lifetime, Brown took his call. And not only did Brown take his call but Brown placed Lewis in touch with Milken. Milken knew Lewis from the Bond Conference and later conversations. Milken liked Lewis and, as a result, committed himself and the firm to Lewis' purchase of Beatrice International. Milken made the deal happen.
Without this relationship between Lewis, a child of East Coast segregated schools, and Milken, a Jewish investment banker on the west coast, Lewis would never have acquired Beatrice International Foods, a global giant with 64 companies in 31 countries. Lewis died in 1993 with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes to be in excess of $400 million.
These lessons apply outside the worlds of law and finance as well.
While a Major assigned to Major General Charles M. Gettys' helicopter, the young Colin Powell showed a leadership that left a lasting impression on General Gettys. The helicopter crashed from a height of about three stories in the Vietnam jungle. Powell braced for impact as the copter slammed into the ground. Powell got out safely but then headed back as the engine continued to grind away and smoke filled the craft. Powell searched for and found General Gettys, barely conscious. In a race against time, Powell released the General's seat belt, removed him and pulled him into the woods. Powell also rescued the general's aide. In the end, everyone was saved from the downed helicopter.
General Gettys never forgot Powell's valor. The general awarded Powell the Soldier's Medal for his role in the helicopter crash rescue. In his autobiography My American Journey, Powell recalls that he would have left the Army but for the likes of General Gettys in Vietnam.
But valor alone did not guarantee Powell's rise in the Army. At one point in 1982 Brigadier General Powell was assigned to the command group of the 4th Infantry Division (mechanized) at Fort Carson, Colorado. The division commander was a difficult Major General John W. Hudachek. As Powell wrote, "Hudachek found my performance wanting and said so in an efficiency report that could have ended my career."
Powell feared for his career. Hudachek had ignored Powell's command potential. In Hudachek's judgment, Powell had flunked. What saved Powell was the informal network among other generals throughout the Army. Generals talked. They knew Hudachek and they knew Powell from personal dealings. In the end, Powell's future was assured because of "chats over drinks at the officers' club, phone calls, the gossip mill, the old bulls sniffing the air and figuring out what (was) really happening . . ."
And it was these old-fashioned principles that propelled the daughter of segregated Birmingham, Alabama into the word's most powerful woman in August 2005, according to Forbes Magazine. While Condoleezza Rice was a brilliant student and gifted scholar of affairs in the Soviet Union, she might still be toiling away in Stanford classrooms were it not for her developing key relationships with powerful patrons. Back in 1984, Brent Scowcroft, then head of President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Strategic Forces, gave a talk on arms control at a Stanford faculty seminar. At the dinner that evening, junior faculty member Rice challenged Scowcroft on conventional wisdom. Scowcroft was favorably impressed by her self-confidence. He made a mental note to keep in touch with Rice.
Scowcroft began grooming Rice for a position in government by arranging for her to be invited to seminars and conferences and to meet people. When Scowcroft became National Security Advisor in 1989, he appointed Rice to the National Security Council as its chief authority on the Soviet Union. During her two years on the National Security Council, she became personally close to President and Mrs. George Herbert Walker Bush. The relationship was so meaningful that the Bush family invited Rice upstairs into the White House family quarters to say good-bye before Rice returned to Stanford in 1991.
Rice continued to hone her relationships with powerful mentors upon her return to Stanford. While serving on the Presidential Search Committee, she so impressed the new President, Gerhard Casper, that Casper appointed Rice provost of the University. She was second in command and responsible for running a $2 billion budget. If Rice had isolated herself in her research and writing, these opportunities would not have come her way.
By 1998, former Secretary of State George Schultz had taken Rice under his wing. He arranged for an introduction between George W. Bush and Rice at a Hoover Institution meeting. Once again, Rice made a dynamic presentation and impressed the future President. Bush and Rice hit it off immediately. Bush appointed Rice to be the head of his team of foreign-policy advisers. And the rest of the story, as they say, is history.
Am I suggesting that the ascent of Rice, Powell, Lewis, Frazier, and others means the end of racism? No.
What I do suggest is that more attention should be given to the relationship gap between African-Americans and other Americans. How many Black Americans limit their contacts and connections to other blacks? What has been the effect of an explosion in minority-themed groups ranging from the National Bar Association to the National Medical Association, and other professional groups limited to blacks only? Can much of the income and wealth gap be attributable to a grown up version of the "black table" prevalent on white campuses? Much research needs to be done in this area.
Some may argue that unconscious racism cannot be overcome by positive thinking. Whites feel more comfortable with other whites, so blacks will be left out of informal networks that create opportunities. Look at the sad example of Mungin described in The Good Black. Mungin had a Harvard undergraduate and law degree and still was denied partnership at his law firm. The case became noteworthy because Mungin sued for race discrimination. A majority-black jury awarded Mungin $2.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury award. Mungin tried to fit in and not make waves. But a close examination of Mungin's experience suggests a naive faith in passive good work. If you are passive and expect opportunities to come your way, you will be disappointed. Mungin placed too much faith in his academic credentials. Having a Harvard degree means nothing after your first job. Relationships matter. Mungin came from an inner city, single-parent background where there was no one to teach him what Breaux taught Frazier. Quite honestly, Mungin needed to have someone set him straight about the way the world works. But that conversation never happened because Mungin did not have friends in high places.
Affirmative action may open doors but it will not make the powerful like you. You have got to compete and make a favorable impression.
And that is the problem when African-Americans recreate the "black table" and the Black Student Unions in their careers.
Closing the relationship gap will require three steps. First, African-Americans must embrace relationships with others in the workplace, particularly those who can serve as patrons and mentors. Second, these relationships must be outside the comfort zone of minority-themed groups. The country is only 12 percent black. Among the professional classes, the percentage is even less. Why limit your relationships to people who only see the world as you do? Careers are powered when people do the opposite of the expected. Who would have expected that a junior African-American female faculty member would bond with a senior white male Republican advisor? Finally, don't blame the game. Play the game. Learn the unofficial rules for success. And remember that you cannot control racism. What you can control is your reaction to racism. When you change your thoughts, you change your world.
Introversion is now a dead end for Black America.
One symptom of introversion is the reluctance to ask questions when you need to because of some imagined sense that one represents the race. Asking questions is imagined to be a sign of weakness, of perpetuating stereotypes of incompetence. But you don't represent the black race. No one represents 25 million black Americans. You do represent yourself. And you owe it to yourself, not the race, to do the best that you can in any context. Claude Steele touches upon this point in his stereotype vulnerability argument.
But it's about more than a feared dumb question. It's about inner thoughts triggered when one walks into a conference and there are no other blacks present. I attended a San Diego Writer's Conference recently. I had a great time. I made several contacts with big deal literary agents. I had such a great time that I spoke up and made my thoughts heard at every panel session. And why shouldn't I? I consider myself to be a well-integrated, well-educated attorney. I had begun writing in my spare time. I was excited about meeting other writers.
I knew no one at the conference beforehand.
As I entered the conference room, I looked for other black people in the sea of faces. I saw none. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell has written about decisions that take place within a split second. I immediately wondered if others would be uncomfortable in my presence because they would see my race first and bring whatever prejudices or life experiences they might have to the table. If I had been White, I would not have had these inner thoughts. These inner thoughts are part of a collective personality shared by all Black Americans in unfamiliar white settings. Unless one is a celebrity or already known, there is that initial flash of introspection where one remembers that you are at the whims of whatever preconceptions others might have until one proves one self.
That introspection is central to Black American personality. One does not find the same introspection among Africans or West Indians in America. Only after repeated brushes with White and Black Americans does one see the introspection in mixed settings. Black Americans may pay homage to Africa but Africans in America are perceived as different.
How many Black Americans share their inner thoughts with others?
There is an advantage to being inner directed. Free from micro-aggressions and the whims of others, a rich inner life propelled the growth of a people. Inward intensity produced the masterpiece of Howard University, the epic story of the famed M Street (Dunbar) High School, the crusade of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the vision of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the solace of the National Bar Association.
But the time for introversion has come and gone.
The personality of Black America will not change in our lifetime. Much time must pass before the ways of learned introspection can be undone and blacks can feel as comfortable in all white setting as they do in all black settings. Realizing that barriers are rooted in personality, in introspection, is an important first step for navigating an introverted people through an extroverted modern world. *
"There are in fact four very significant stumbling blocks in the way of grasping the truth, which hinder every man however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a clear title to wisdom, namely, the example of weak and unworthy authority, longstanding custom, the feeling of the ignorant crowd, and the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge." --Roger Bacon