Learning from Texaco Sticks and stones: Clarifying words said does not diminish damage done by comments.

November 13, 1996

EVEN IF TEXACO executives did not use a racial slur in talking about black employees of the oil company, a tape recording of the conversation provides clear evidence of their bias not only toward African Americans but Jews as well.

Plaintiffs in a $520 million discrimination lawsuit have a tape recording of a 1994 meeting in which their claim was discussed by former Texaco treasurer Robert Ulrich and other top executives. A Texaco lawyer who digitized and analyzed the tape says "St. Nicholas" was what the plaintiffs heard as "(expletive) niggers."

Texaco chairman Peter Bijur admits this attempt to clarify the record doesn't change the "unacceptable context and tone of these conversations." He wants to mitigate the severity of the situation by showing the "n" word wasn't used. However, clarification of the words said does not absolve the Texaco executives of guilt. They did call African-American employees "black jelly beans" and ridiculed celebration of both the Kwanzaa and Hanukkah holidays.

The Texaco executives' demonstration of what occurs when good old boys get together behind closed doors is just the latest example of how far this nation has to go before it can declare the existence of a level playing field where all are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. That is important as this nation continues its debate on the future of affirmative action.

Americans must ask themselves how often similar conversations occur in board rooms and other arenas of decision-making where diversity refers to the color of shirts or styles of footwear being worn by those allowed to sit at the table of power. The answer is too often.

Texaco wants to make amends. Mr. Bijur met yesterday in Baltimore with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. He later met in White Plains, N.Y., with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. A settlement of the discrimination suit was said to be imminent. Already Mr. Bijur has suspended with pay two other executives who were at the 1994 meeting and also suspended Mr. Ulrich's retirement benefits.

Whatever else Texaco does, other companies and institutions should use this incident as the impetus to ask whether their lack of diversity could allow the same thing to happen. Then they should take steps to make sure it doesn't.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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