Before landing a position as a salesman at xerox, Frank Warren says he was denied four times. He was also passed over, he says, for a white counterpart who had failed at several positions at the company. Despite having nine years of experience in graphic arts, Warren, a New York University graduate, says he was never given the chance to work in the lucrative graphic arts division, where clientele equipment purchases averaged between $200,000 and $400,000. Instead, he handled small accounts, where equipment purchases ranged from $50,000 to $70,000. “If [Xerox] puts you in situations where there’s very little opportunity [to advance], you don’t really get recognized in the company,” says Warren. “And you get looked at as an underachiever.”
Warren says this happened most often to the black employees. He says he witnessed work teams comprised solely of African Americans; the white employees referred to one as the “Soul Train Team.”
According to Warren, his white counterparts — many right out of college — were given preferential treatment. Warren observes that even with no experience, they were placed in positions that allowed them to advance easily within the company.
As black professionals like Warren continue to move up the corporate ladder, many are finding that the rungs extend only so far. Are they out of sync with corporate culture, or is it racism? How can you tell the difference, and what can be done to change discriminatory behavior?
In Warren’s case, he became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Xerox. He is part of a growing number of educated and experienced African Americans taking their employers to court. In 2001, 21,000 discrimination lawsuits were filed in federal court. That same year, close to 5,000 complaints regarding promotions, or lack thereof, were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Federal Express, Nextel Communications, Sodexho, and BellSouth are among the major corporations presently engaged in court battles. Coca-Cola, Texaco, Winn-Dixie Stores, and Shoney’s have already paid out combined settlements of more than $500 million.
“Racism [in the workplace] is the process of limiting and curtailing, creating an environment where access is not possible, right down to the management of dreams and visions,” says Robert L. Morris, founder of The Center for Diversity Assessments, Analysis and Audits in New York City (www.center4diversity.com). The Center, in conjunction with The Center for Forensic Economic Studies, provides analytical and statistical reviews of organizations’ diversity visions and efforts.
Morris says discriminatory practices follow a tradition where business leaders are created in the likeness of their founders.
“Corporate brass promote those who are most like them,” he says. “Discrimination and racism will continue to exist until companies go to a true system of merit — standards of performance. That does not exist.”
James Vagnini, attorney for the class-action lawsuit against Xerox, agrees. “My clients consistently ranked No. 1, 2, and 3 in their training classes at Xerox, but they were always the last to get their territories [to oversee],” says Vagnini, who is also the attorney for a class-action suit filed against the company