Blacks' anguish gives 'Rage' its strength

December 30, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

Title: "The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?"

Author: Ellis Cose

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 192 pages, $20

At a basketball media day at the Naval Academy, a ranking Navy official was greeting reporters. Each journalist received a gracious hello, but when the Navy man got to me, I was asked a question.

"So," the official said, extending his hand. "Where did you play ball at to get this job?"

His assumption: Because I'm an athletic-looking African-American male, my education must have come in combination with an athletic scholarship. It's a question I'm often asked, although I've never played collegiate sports.

Another incident happened as I walked on a bright afternoon this past summer to my car parked just behind The Sun building. From an angle approached a white woman, maybe in her early 40s. She hesitated when she saw me. When it appeared that our paths might cross, she stopped. And ran.

Her assumption: Although I was professionally dressed, I was a potential threat. It wasn't the first time someone has run from me, and it won't be the last.

Still, no matter how many times such instances happen to me, it's unsettling. "Rage" is an appropriate word, then, for the feeling described in "The Rage of a Privileged Class."

In it, Ellis Cose, a former editorial page editor with the New York Daily News who is a contributing editor and essayist for Newsweek, provides a detailed look at the frustrations of black professionals -- from newspaper reporters to management consultants to corporate lawyers with Ivy League backgrounds.

Casual observers may feel that middle-class African-Americans have it made and should be thankful to have risen to a status that so

many fail to achieve, but this book puts their views into the proper perspective. It's a perspective that for many members of the African-American middle class is disheartening.

For a journalist, it's disheartening to read about the author's conversation with an assistant managing editor from the New York Times. They were talking about whether a talented black editor, whose career had hit a wall, would be in line for a high-level editorship.

"My companion agreed that the editor would probably do very well in the job, but then he pointed out that a black person had never held such a post at the New York Times," Mr. Cose writes. "The Times would have to think hard, he indicated, before changing that, for they could not afford to have a black journalist fail in such a visible position. . . . Failure at the highest levels of the Times was a privilege apparently reserved for whites."

It's disheartening to read how the manager of a firm that specialized in recruiting minorities in the 1960s describes how "the most threatening thing I could do in my minority search activities was to present a candidate whose qualifications were better than those of the person responsible for recruiting him.

"If I would present three candidates," the manager said, ". . . the predominantly white corporation

would invariably select the weakest of the three, not the strongest."

And it's disheartening to hear the advice that same former manager -- based on his experiences, and those of others -- gave at the Harvard Business School.

"I used to tell [African-American students], 'For the love of God, do not accept a staff position if it is offered you in a major corporation. They are dead-end positions.' "

There's also an interesting chapter, titled "Crime, Class, Cliches," that examines how some justify their attitudes toward blacks based on violent images projected by the media. Mr. Cose recalls discussing the topic with Sen. Bill Bradley, who "wondered, aloud, if black violence was the rationale for unequal treatment of all blacks, how such treatment could have been justified in, say, 1905, when whites essentially had nothing to fear from blacks."

But the strength of "The Rage of a Privileged Class" is the anecdotal references, which particularly hit home for those who have experienced them. They are the stories spoken quietly among those who are affected -- but repressed in most work and educational atmospheres from the people who need to hear them.

"That the pain of those blacks is generally invisible to whites in part reflects the fact that voicing it can carry consequences," Mr. Cose writes. "Neither bosses nor colleagues much care for a crybaby -- especially when they cannot understand what lies behind the tears."

This book puts an understanding behind the tears -- tears that, in the "The Rage of a Privileged Class," are ever-flowing. For those affected, and for those who lack understanding, it's must reading.

(Mr. Bembry is a reporter in the Sports Department of The Sun.).

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