Texaco tapes: the case for affirmative action

November 08, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- ''Share the fantasy,'' a memorable perfume ad used to invite. I would like to invite you, dear reader, to share a fantasy, Texaco's commitment to equal opportunity.

''Our commitment to diversity is an inclusive process, grounded in our core value of respect for the individual and in our long-standing policies of equal opportunity for all employees,'' says the company's annual report for 1995.

Good words. But, now that you have heard the dream, share the reality, as recorded secretly by a participant in an all-white, all-male August, 1994, meeting of top Texaco executives discussing a discrimination lawsuit filed by black middle-managers.

''It's this diversity thing,'' grumbles Robert W. Ulrich, then treasurer of Texaco, Inc. ''You know how black jelly beans agree.''

''That's funny,'' says Richard Lundwall, then human-resources assistant at the company. ''All the black jelly beans seem to be glued to the bottom of the bag.''

Ridiculing the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, Mr. Ulrich says he plans to wear a Viking hat for ''National Odin Month'' to celebrate his Norwegian heritage. ''I'm still having trouble with Hanukkah,'' he laughs. ''Now we have Kwanzaa. These [expletive deleted] niggers, they [expletive deleted] all over us with this.''

The tape also records the men discussing their alleged practice of keeping a sanitized version of committee-meeting minutes and a second, more frank ''restricted version'' containing information that could be harmful to their side in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs charge that Texaco practiced a dual evaluation system that persistently upgraded select white men and downgraded otherwise-qualified blacks and provided inadequate safeguards against racial favoritism.

Mr. Ulrich suggests on the tape that there is ''no point to keeping the restricted version anymore. . . . 'We're going to purge the [expletive deleted] out of these books,'' he says.

Another executive, J. David Keough, senior assistant treasurer, adds, ''You look and make sure it's consistent to what we've given them already for minutes.''

Right. No wonder all the black jelly beans get left stuck on the bottom.

A popular television comedy this season is called ''Men Behaving Badly.'' Perhaps we should title these Texaco tapes: ''White Men Behaving Badly.'' The tape reveals men who are openly hostile to the very notion of allowing blacks to join their little club -- and willing to break the law to preserve their privileged positions.

The tapes were recorded by Mr. Lundwall with a recorder in his pocket for his personal use. He turned whistle-blower after he recently was terminated in a downsizing. After excerpts of the tapes appeared in the New York Times, a federal grand jury in Texaco's corporate home town of White Plains, N.Y., launched a criminal investigation into possible destruction of evidence by Texaco executives in the civil-rights case.

Why does it take a tape?

Right on. To middle-class black folks like myself, the Texaco tapes are to the issue of job discrimination what the Rodney King tapes were to police brutality. Why, we wonder, does it take a tape recording to convince so many white people that we're not irrationally paranoid?

Peter I. Bijur, Texaco's chairman and chief executive, decried the tapes and declared himself ''ashamed and outraged that such a thing happened to our family.''

Like a lot of CEOs, Mr. Bijur calls his employees a ''family.'' That's a fine analogy, as long as you remember how many families are dysfunctional. Texaco's corporate culture appears to have rewarded some favored sons more than others.

That's why, if America is going to live up to the noble words expressed in Texaco's corporate diversity policy, we need affirmative action, not to give any group an unfair advantage but merely to level the playing field. It still needs leveling. If you don't believe it, just remember the Texaco tapes.

Unfortunately, as happened with the King tapes, I suspect the cloak of denial soon will settle back over the heads of affirmative-action opponents. Some will call the Texaco tapes an isolated incident, just as some said Rodney King had it coming when he was pummeled by four police officers.

Someday America can yet attain the dream expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. and other visionaries of a color-blind society. But first we must deal with a cruel, bitter reality, live and on tape.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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