The other day, a memory from a long, long time ago suddenly popped into my head.
In 1962, I was a 17 year old senior finishing high school at the Laboratory Schools - the wonderful K-12 schools associated with the University of Chicago. In those days, Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood where the U of C is located, was one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the country, and the Lab Schools’ student population reflected that diversity. A significant portion of the students came from middle-class black families living in Hyde Park and nearby areas.
As I remember, sometime toward the end of our senior year our class was invited to a party at a doorman building in the fancy section of Hyde Park near Lake Michigan. I went in a car with some of my friends, and as we approached the entrance of the building, we saw that three of our fellow students that had gone ahead of us were talking to the doorman. This group of three included a girl who happened to be black - as were so many of our classmates in the Lab Schools. But the doorman would not let her go up to the party, because, he said, that blacks were not allowed in the building.
This group of three did not argue with the doorman - they just turned around and left. I wish I could now write that I also turned around and left with them, but I did not. I don't know why. I went up to the party along with the rest of the group I was with. I knew the girl who was giving the party, Linda, fairly well, and recall that she was very upset. She had tried to convince the doorman to let everyone up, but was unable to do so because this was the policy of the building.
I honestly don't remember ever thinking about this event in the last 46 years, but all of a sudden, it popped into my head as vividly as if it had happened last week. Why did it come to me out of the blue? I guess this is all part of the dialogue about race relations that we are having in the country now.
When it comes to race and diversity, I have frankly been living a charmed existence ever since I came to the US from Cuba in October of 1960. I went right to the Lab Schools and graduated in 1962, then went on to the University of Chicago until 1970, and lived in Hyde Park through all those years. From there I joined IBM in 1970 - a company with one of the strongest records of diversity leadership in the country, if not the world.
I am obviously very aware of the turbulent history of race relations in the US, and the horrific practices that only started to fade away with the advent of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But I never experienced discrimination personally. No one ever told me that I could not do something because I was Jewish, or because I was born in Cuba, or because I spoke with an accent. In fact, I don't recall seeing an act of discrimination around me - except for that jarring incident in the fancy Hyde Park building. That was clearly not the case with my black classmates at the Lab School. I suspect that many of the black colleagues I have worked with at IBM throughout my professional career have had to put up with their share of such incidents ever since they were little.
We have come a very long way in the last fifty years. Our country has truly become a multi-cultural society, much more accepting of diversity than ever before. The fact that a woman and a black man - both excellent candidates - are fighting for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States is something we should all feel very good about.
As part of my participation in IBM's diversity councils, I have spent quite a bit of time mentoring younger employees, especially Hispanic ones, given my own roots. I strongly advise them to focus on how full the glass has become in the last decades, not on whether the glass is totally full. I remind them that to get ahead in the world - in business, academia, government and everywhere else - you need a relatively tough skin, whether you are Hispanic, black, female, gay, or the waspiest of male, heterosexual WASPs. Up to a point, we are all better off letting personal slights roll off our backs and moving on.
But there is still quite a bit of not-so-nice, hate-mongering behavior out there, some of it coming from people and institutions that should know better. For example, I think it is very disappointing how CNN and Time Warner have compromised their brands by giving such prominence to Lou Dobbs’s divisive, strident messages on the very complex subject of immigration. People in the know tell me that the management of CNN and Time Warner do not agree with the red meat Lou Dobbs dishes out, but since he gets such good ratings they are compelled to keep him on.
I am not sure if that rationalization makes me feel any better. How far would they go to attract audiences? Would they put today's equivalent of the once popular Father Coughlin or Lester Maddox on the air if they helped increase ratings? Are there any limits on what good companies should do to improve earnings and profit?
I have also wondered why powerful people are sometimes so insensitive to the feelings of those around them. In March of 2007, for example, General Peter Pace, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an interview that "I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way." What was the impact of such a remark on the many thousands in our armed forces who are gay or lesbian, when they heard their leader say that their feelings and actions are immoral? How about the feelings of the families of someone killed or seriously injured in Iraq or Afghanistan who happened to be homosexual?
Maybe, in the end, a good dialogue about race requires all of us to think about empathy - the ability to put oneself into someone else's shoes, and to reflect on The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you were a senior in high school going with friends to a party, how would you feel if you were not allowed to go up to the party because the building does not allow people like you?