In light of the terrible and tragic recent events, I was inspired to reflect on the racism I’ve experienced over the years.
Now, after reading that last line, it’s possible some of you may have already prejudged, jumping to some conclusions as to what you think is going to follow. If so, I suggest jumping back and reading on. Come to your own conclusions at the end, not the beginning.
A Roll Of Dollar Bills
It was at an event where investment brokers from all over the country gathered in New York for new product training session. As we were wrapping up for the day, one of the brokers from out of town came over to get some ideas as to where he and a few of the others might grab some dinner, drinks, and hang out. Since I lived in Manhattan at the time, I played the good ambassador for my city and suggested some popular spots.
Then, apropos of nothing, he pulled out a thick roll of cash with what looked like a $50 or $100 bill on the outside. “Y’know what this is?” he asked. I had no idea—looked like a roll of bills to me. “This is nigger rich” he announced, “A big bill on the outside, dollar bills on the inside.”
Skip to: 01:41 Built to accommodate the burgeoning growth, my neighborhood was a Sid Farber development, with low-priced formulaic split-level or ranch homes laid out in a grid pattern not dissimilar to barracks on an army base. My neighbors and friends were mostly blue-color families who worked in the trades, ran small businesses, or had mid-level management jobs.
I attended the Islip Public Schools. My graduating class in 1976 had over 300 students. A few were Latino; not one was African American. Ethnicity was defined predominantly by whether you were of Italian, Irish, Polish, Scottish or German descent. Race wasn’t something we dealt with on a daily basis. In fact, we didn’t deal with it at all. We didn’t have to. I was white. My friends were white. My Boy Scout troop was white. My school was white. My town was white. I didn’t live in suburbia—I lived in Caucasia.
That demographic isolation didn’t change much when I went to work on Wall Street. My first job on Wall Street, at a Prudential-Bache office in midtown Manhattan, was almost entirely white men. That changed slightly when Carl “Spider” Lockhart, the former pro-football defensive back for Giants got hired. Carl had a private office and was laser-focused on his business. His intensity silently told other brokers to steer clear, which they did. My desk was near his office and we exchanged occasional banter. I guess since I didn’t want anything out of him—like an autograph or to armchair quarterback the latest game—he didn’t mind.
There was some football scandal at a college where players, predominantly black, were being given passing grades so they could keep their status. I mentioned it offhandedly to him, my remarks somewhat along the line of how giving out passing grades wasn’t helping the students any. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly before responding. He replied calmly that I should understand that football was the only thing these boys had to get them out of their circumstances. It was a voice born of personal experience. A teaching moment for him, a learning moment for me. I never forgot it.
Joining the investment banking firm of Smith Barney, I found the demographic mostly the same. The trading floor—salesmen, traders, assistants—another sea of white faces. When I moved over to money management, at every shop I worked at, the investment teams were uniformly Caucasian. There were some women, but across the board, analysts to traders to portfolio managers, you’d find more diversity in a jar of mayonnaise.
Not being in human resources, I couldn’t tell you if this occurred because of a tacit rule—if an unspoken one—was being followed. I have my suspicions. At these firms, when I was looking to hire people, the human resources recruiters screened all incoming resumes. A lot of people are eager to land well-paying jobs in finance. Yet I can count exactly one resume crossing my desk from a black candidate. Who was ultimately not hired.
In My Experience
The results of this lack of diversity doesn’t just manifest itself in demographically homogenous hiring. I was touring a project in Washington, D.C. needing financing to expand housing and care for the most difficult cases of intellectually and medically impaired children.
With me on the trip was a vaguely WASPish institutional salesman from the now-defunct firm of Kidder Peabody. The manager of the project was an African-American fellow, which I was pleased to see, given the community being served. Financing schools, homes and care facilities for the intellectually disabled was a large part of my practice. I had visited numerous projects around the country serving this most needy of populations. But as he toured us around of these facilities, I saw some of the toughest cases I’d ever experienced. One young man, some limbs stunted, some missing, was on an incline mattress with a pillow to keep his head positioned so he could breathe and swallow. Unable to move himself, he needed to be physically lifted and turned by his aides.
The manager knew the operations and all their components extremely well. He understood all the various reimbursement regulations, no mean feat considering the myriad of overlaying federal and state programs covering the various services the facility offered. Moreover, since this organization dealt with the intellectually disabled from the African-American community, his understanding of the problems and intricacies of this community was helping him build important supporting relationships. Because of all this, what most clearly shone through were his commitment, caring and dedication. The tour ended, the salesman and I went back to the car to head to the airport. As we pulled out of the driveway, the salesman, who had said little during the entire tour, remarked, “He was so well-spoken. Why can’t they all be like that?”
Skip to: 07:16 Heck, if you’re going down the racism road, then why not just add “he was articulate” too? Equally disturbing, he just said it so naturally, as if this was such an obvious observation that I couldn’t but agree with him. Which I didn’t, but was so stunned that he assumed I would, I found myself speechless.
If I wanted an independent perspective on this, I got one. I was in Chicago for a convention with one of my colleagues. Raised in South Africa, he was now living in the US, but still had his delightful clipped South African accent. His malapropisms of American slang were legion—he once described someone on the losing end of a fight as “having the shit kicked into him” which strikes me as far more painful than the opposite occurring.
A very astute analyst and shrewd investor, I never heard a racist comment from him in the entire time we worked together. That night in Chicago, we were riding back to our hotel in a transport bus from the convention hall. Some of the conventioneers had tossed back a few and were a bit louder than they probably thought they were. One of them was describing a black woman to the others in terms less than flattering, the least of which was describing her hair as “all nappy and shit”.
We both heard it—it was hard not to. He turned to me shaking his head and whispered that this was just unbelievable. And to be making such comments in this public setting, out loud? Incredible! We rode the rest of the way in silence.
It’s a short step from casual racism to being downright black-paranoid. Bullshitting around the little first floor office of the hedge fund I was trying to get started, my partners and I got to talking about hunting and shooting. One of the partners said if we liked this stuff, he had something to show us. We went upstairs to his office where he proceeded to lay out his collection of side arms which he kept there. He had several hand guns, including a hunting revolver that took bullets so large that the gun could only hold five of the enormous slugs instead of the traditional six. But the piece-de-la-resistance was a fully automatic Uzi. These are rare outside of military use. He was as proud of it as a father with a newborn baby. I picked it up. I was surprised; it was heavier than I thought it would be, around 7 or 8 pounds. Before I could catch myself, I wondered out loud, what do you need something like this for? He looked at me with dead seriousness, pursing his lips slightly as he answered, you know, just in case. The election between Obama and McCain is coming up, and in the event Obama wins, well, you know—just in case.
Assumed To Be A Racist
Okay, maybe I’m being too sensitive, over-generalizing about pervasive racism from some one-off incidents or misinterpreted observations. But bump into enough of these, and I have pages more of these experiences, and those of us trained to find trends know one when we see one.
Moreover, it isn’t so much the crass, crude and explicit racism that bothered me—not that that isn’t bad enough and unfortunately, I’ve heard more of those than I can fit here as well—but the implicit assumption behind either the casually shared racism of an offhanded comment or the more explicit statement in a rolled-up bunch of bills seems clear to me: I’m a white guy, therefore it’s okay to share racist comments with me.
It’s not. I refuse to be dragged into being a Caucasionally-complicit racist. A racist comment is the trifecta of disrespect. It disrespects African Americans, it disrespects the person it’s being told to, and it disrespects the person telling it.
I close with this final experience. Touring a chain of near-bankrupt nursing homes in Indiana, I found many had deferred maintenance, looked shabby and worn. Believing strongly that, regardless of financial ability, senior citizens at the end of their lives deserve dignity, care, and respect, I was appalled at the condition of these homes.
So, it was at the end of a long, depressing day when we pulled up in front of the last one. The facility was a sad, institutional-looking single level brick structure built in the 1970s and obviously never much revisited since then. Faded fabric curtains covering the front windows were torn in spots, paint was peeling from the top of the walls, and the ceiling tiles had unattractive coffee-colored stains from the sweating pipes they hid from view.
As I stood in the lobby, surveying all this, my gaze fell on a white, middle-aged nurse’s aide sitting with one of the residents, an old black woman. The black woman looked at us for a good long moment, turned to the aide, and said in a low clear voice that I don’t think I was supposed to hear, “white men in white shirts. This can’t be good.”
Her comment haunts me.