Texaco puts everything in perspective

November 19, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Right away, the NAACP should toss rose petals at those morons from Texaco. Kweisi Mfume knows this. Texaco is publicly chastened by revelations of bigotry, and the language of the gutter, and does penance with $176.1 million in settlement while hoping nobody organizes any boycotts. But the money is minor stuff, and every civil rights group in America should chip in and throw testimonials to Texaco.

What's important isn't the millions so much as the unlocking of a door previously closed, the shining of light on previously dark corners of the American corporate psyche. "Black jelly beans," yes! "Porch monkeys," beautiful! And let's hear more ridicule of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Marvelous!

Exposed bigotry like this, you can't buy anymore. It's too well hidden now. All of the great civil rights groups, all of the minority watchdog organizations, couldn't have paid for a finer reminder of narrow-mindedness and ethnic bullying to display for a nation that likes to con itself that such things have long since been repudiated.

Kweisi Mfume knows this. He was sickened when he read the transcripts of these Texaco executives, but he also knows a war club when he sees one. Here it is: Two years into a legal fight over discriminating against their employees, Texaco executives not only plot the destruction of documents demanded in the lawsuits but also denigrate minority groups as a tape recorder absorbs every word.

"The Rodney King tape of corporate America," everybody's calling it now, though Mfume thinks he was the first to coin the phrase. Anyway, the point's clear.

"It validated what we knew was the case in corporate America," Mfume was saying Friday evening in Baltimore, and then again Sunday evening, on the phone from Atlanta.

He was here Friday, but only briefly, making the rounds to talk about the lawsuit. He looked exhausted instead of triumphant. He said he'd been in 47 cities in the past three months, partly to promote his autobiography, "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream," but mostly to raise enough money to pull his NAACP out of debt.

When he took over as its national president, the organization was not only $3.2 million in the red but seemed to have lost its political way. Mfume has not only resurrected its finances but vowed to refocus its direction. Texaco thus becomes a deliverance from heaven, a reminder of those attempting to maintain old, destructive divisions.

"When I first saw the Texaco transcript," Mfume said, "I had a tremendous sense of anger and disgust. Here we are, in the last few years of the 20th century, almost a hundred years after ZTC W.E.B. DuBois' warning that America had to deal with its racial divisions, and it's still our most vexing problem.

"So there's a great deal of disgust when you see what they were saying at Texaco. You'd like to believe this doesn't happen. You want to believe the best about people, especially powerful people like this, who control the lives of others, who control promotions and transfers and salaries and the lives of families."

After the anger came analysis. White America has grown weary of calls for racial understanding. Mfume knows it. He watches Bill Clinton undo welfare and knows it's the president's gesture to angry whites who imagine the system's basically about supporting blacks. He sees affirmative action coming apart, because white voters imagine the playing field is now level. Why give more opportunities for blacks when the government's been bending over backward for years now?

Texaco puts everything back into perspective. It helps explain some of those unemployment figures, vastly higher among blacks than whites, and the huge racial disparity in incomes. The government does what it will, but it fails to touch the secret heart of corporations that play by their own rules.

"This is everybody's reminder," Mfume said, "that this is the general corporate climate. They talk diversity, but very few have any moral conscience. Most of the civil rights struggle has focused on the role of government, but this is the first private look at the highest levels of corporate America. This is the reminder America needs that we still have so far to go."

Mfume's not naive about the country's racial edginess. He understands Louis Farrakhan's appeal doesn't come from nothing, and he knows the anxiety produced in white America by such things as the Million Man March and the racially divided reactions to the first O.J. Simpson verdict.

"We have to talk about such things," Mfume said. "We have to talk about white bigotry, and black bigotry, too. And gay-bashing, and anti-Semitism. None of these do us any good, and they all say we haven't learned anything about the damage we do each other. We all have to admit it, and deal with it."

And he knows, for all of the anger they produce, that the Texaco tapes are a start. They shine a light on corporate America's secrets. They're a gift to those who want the truth about race.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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