Recently, the Texaco corporation settled a high-profile racial discrimination lawsuit for a staggering $176 million. Accounts of discrimination and harassment at Texaco were widely reported in the media, and a damning tape of top executives sneering at black employees and conspiring to destroy employment records was released to the press. One could interpret this story as evidence that pervasive racism still plagues corporate American, and that herculean efforts are sometimes necessary to shatter the glass ceiling.
However, John Leo, the conservative columnist who writes for U.S. News and World Report, finds a far different meaning in the Texaco case. Leo seems to enjoy railing against political correctness, multiculturalism and affirmative action. His Feb. 10 column, "Jelly Bean: The Sequel," laments the outcome of the Texaco suit.
Leo first attempts to mitigate the gravity of the charges raised against Texaco. He does not mention the Justice Department investigation which discovered evidence of racial discrimination in promotions. Texaco employees were frequently passed over for promotions simply because of their skin color. Black employees throughout the corporation were also allegedly subjected to harassment and intimidation, ranging from insulting slurs to having their tires slashed.
Leo instead focuses almost exclusively on the secretly recorded tape. The Texaco executives were first reported in The New York Times as referring to blacks as "niggers" and "black jelly beans." He claims that the reference to "niggers" was later discovered to be a garbled pronunciation of "St. Nicholas," and the language about jelly beans was taken from a diversity seminar. Hence, Leo surmises, Texaco's image had been unfairly tarnished by a sensationalist media. He adds, "it's hard to shed tears for Texaco," but then proceeds to drum up more pity for the corporation, excusing another racist remark as "narrow-minded but minor." His point is that "Texaco was forced to settle the case quickly for a large sum, $176 million, not on the legal merits but because of the worldwide furor of the bad transcript and the Times's awful screw-up."
Although bad publicity may have been one of the factors that motivated Texaco to accept a settlement, it is preposterous to suggest that a corporation would pay the astronomical sum of $176 million merely to squash bad publicity. Leo's ridiculous assertion is not only unsubstantiated but also ignores hard evidence leveled against Texaco, such as the Justice Department's incriminating report. Furthermore, even his analysis of the recorded comments of Texaco's executives is a whitewash. The executive who referred to blacks as "black jelly beans" had indeed picked up this terminology from a black diversity instructor. However, his comment was a snide claim that Texaco's "black jelly beans" seemed to be stuck to the bottom of the bag--hardly as innocent as Leo implies.
Leo's attitude, unfortunately, is typical of much of the white establishment that persists in denying the impact of discrimination by ignoring evidence of racism and by seeking to apologize for it. He seeks to excuse yet another offensive incident at Texaco (a black woman was given a birthday cake featuring crude references to watermelon) by describing it bizarrely as "well meaning but racist."
Like many of those who control corporate America and share his warped mindset, Leo does not wish to confront the discomforting fact that each and every day millions of black Americans are unfairly denied employment and promotions, or insulted and intimidated at work. His arguments are not only unconvincing and ill-founded but are also representative of an ideology which seeks to defend the legacy of American apartheid and white supremacy: institutional racism. Instead of acknowledging the effects of racism and seeking to propose solutions, Leo brays about "bad publicity" and "questionable evidence." He fears that companies will "lurch toward a quota system," which may prevent discrimination lawsuits but will undermine meritocracy.
Despite Leo's distaste for discrimination lawsuits, the Texaco case sets a healthy precedent. If corporations will not combat racism on moral grounds, perhaps being forced to pay millions of dollars in atonement will spur American businesses to combat and prevent injustice.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.