Workplace racial discrimination and the professionals at the center of corporate hierarchies

Date19 May 2009
Published date19 May 2009
AuthorCheryl L. Wade
Cheryl L. Wade
Why do so many African Americans get stuck near the bottom or at the
middle of the corporate ladder? Why do so many continue to complain
about discriminatory pay and promotion decisions many decades after the
enactment of anti-discrimination laws? Law and economics commentators
who have written about the issue of employment discrimination have failed
to address the complexity of the problem of implicit bias and the effects of
the frequently inaccurate heuristics used by some white workers when
making judgments about their black colleagues. Economic theory without
context is useless. But with context, law and economic analysis can help
us understand and address specific problems like workplace discrimination
that persist within corporate cultures because of an overestimation of the
cost of anti-discrimination efforts and an underestimation of the gravity
and likelihood of workplace discrimination.
In this chapter, I explore the economic and socioeconomic reality of
African American low and mid-level corporate managers in order to
capture a more complete picture of the costs of discrimination in the
Law & Economics: Toward Social Justice
Research in Law and Economics: A Journal of Policy, Volume 24, 271–306
Copyright r2009 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 0193-5895/doi:10.1108/S0193-5895(2009)0000024014
corporate workplace. I also explore the heuristic assumptions that are
made about African American professionals and the effects those
assumptions have on the black community. Finally, to understand the
gravity of the harm to individuals, their families and the communities to
which they belong, narratives about the economic and psychological harm
caused by discrimination are essential. I offer the narratives of six middle
managers and low-level professionals who faced discrimination in the
corporate workplace to provide an important context about discrimina-
tion’s real costs.
One afternoon in the spring of 2006, I spent some time in the Central Park
Conservatory Garden. The garden was closing and I waited with about 20
others for the park attendant to let us out of the locked gate. A well-dressed,
seemingly affluent white woman asked me if I worked in the garden.
Volunteers who work in the park wear knee-pads or gardening gloves and
carry gardening tools. I carried a Nike tote bag in which I had books and a
compact disc player. All park attendants wear uniforms. Their shirts are a
pale green, and their khaki pants a deeper shade of green. The only aspect of
my appearance that was similar to the Central Park attendants and workers
was my brown skin. Other than the fact that I am African American,
I looked like the others who toured and enjoyed the park that spring day
dressed in jogging or hiking shoes, exercise clothes, and carrying tote bags.
As I walked home from the park, I thought about going out to buy newer,
more expensive-looking exercise clothes. Maybe then I would not be
mistaken for ‘‘the help.’’
Then I remembered my experience at Bliss Day
Spa in Manhattan the year before. While in the locker room, one of the
white patrons had assumed that I was the locker room attendant who was
also a black woman. When she made this assumption, I was dressed in the
thick white terry-cloth robe and slippers that all clients wear on their way to
their massages and facials.
Another incident occurred when, after seeing a movie, I stood and waited
for my friend to come out of the women’s bathroom. Without excusing
himself, a white man brusquely asked me where the men’s room was. I was
annoyed and responded with a question, ‘‘why would I know where the
men’s room is?’’ He responded, ‘‘well, I asked because you’re standing there
looking as though you work here.’’
Similar interactions occurred with regularity in the professional work-
place. When I worked as a lawyer in a large New York City law firm,
colleagues and clients who did not know me, or who did not know me well,
frequently assumed that I was a messenger, or a secretary. One particular
example makes the point graphically: while I waited in the reception area,
dressed in a navy blue business suit, the white receptionist received a call
from the person for whom I was waiting, asking her to let me know that he
was running late. I later found out that he asked whether there was an
associate waiting in the reception area. I recall that while on the phone, the
receptionist looked over at me and said to the person with whom she was
speaking, ‘‘no, she’s not here.’’ (I did not know at that time that she was
talking with the person for whom I waited.)
I call these incidents professional misidentifications, and the accumulation
of these types of interactions has made me intolerant ofthem. These personal
stories about my experiences in New York City are not unique.
Americans suffer daily indignities, mild annoyances, and micro-inequities
that accumulate day after day and rob us of our individuality and inner
I describe these experiences because they offer insight into the
assumptions some whites make about the type of work that African
Americans do.
Clearly, working as park or locker room attendants are
honorable ways to make a living. It is true that manyif not most of these jobs
are filled by black Americans, at least in some urban areas. But not all black
Americans work at such jobs. These stories reveal the inability of some
whites to see much of anything beyond brown or black skin. In anonymous
interactions such as the ones I describe in the preceding paragraphs,
socioeconomic differences and educational attainment are irrelevant.
So many black Americans can tell personal stories similar to the ones I tell
in the immediately preceding paragraphs.
I have heard many black lawyers
mistaken for mail room workers, or defendants; black doctors mistaken for
nurses or orderlies; black business executives mistaken for secretaries. The
common thread throughout all of these interracial misunderstandings is that
although the lawyers, executives and doctors were dressed like, and
behaving like, members of their profession when the misidentifications
occurred, they did not look like lawyers, executives or doctors to the whites
who misidentified them because they looked like African Americans. My
point here is not that these professional misidentifications are actionable
discrimination, or even that they are morally blameworthy. If they say
anything at all about race, the messages are indirect, unconsciously
transmitted, almost imperceptible, and perhaps innocuous. The incidents
are mere annoyances in the daily lives of African Americans.
Workplace Racial Discrimination 273

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT