The issue of race has once again surfaced in the U.S. presidential campaign (surprise!) owing to Mitt Romney’s comments in Detroit yesterday. While listening to the TV pundits this morning, I decided to weigh in with this excerpt from the epilogue of “Proving Ground: A Memoir.” Let me know what you think.
Excerpt from Epilogue
We accomplished our business goals, but not because racism had somehow evaporated in the wake of all that 1960s consciousness raising. Race was an ever-present factor in our business relationships, but the signs were rarely, if ever, unambiguous. In fact, I was often struck by a kind of “race uncertainty principle.” In these pages, I have described cases in which I was convinced someone was racist, yet they bought our products or otherwise supported our company. Did that mean my assessment was wrong? I’ve described other cases in which a white person treated me unfairly, but only a hefty dose of truth serum could extract a motive. Should I assume the motive was racism?
Racism definitely remains with us, but to focus too intently on it is to be defeated by it. Racism turned out to be only one of many forces governing the behavior of people we dealt with. Like gravity, it was weak but ubiquitous. In most person-to-person or even business-to-business instances, it could be overcome. If we believed otherwise, there would have been little point in embarking upon our venture.
I was surprised to find that people outside the U.S., particularly those in Asia, seemed less resistant to the idea of a black technology entrepreneur. In the case of my Asian colleagues, that is perhaps because nearly all U.S. entrepreneurs they dealt with were of a different race. Our Asian customers didn’t seem to buy into white superiority or black inferiority.
The most encouraging thing I learned was that most people were rational, and based their business decisions on economic self-interest. That was true of customers, suppliers, professional advisers, and employees. No one was going to buy from us, or work for us, simply because we were bright and charming—we had to present a compelling rationale. In the long run, the need to justify our products and our company made us better business people. Though we sometimes encountered people who behaved irrationally, i.e., contrary to their own economic interest, they were in the minority, and their irrationality was a fairly reliable sign that racism was afoot.
More than a few white colleagues went out of their way to help our business. Some offered expert advice, and others purchased and enthusiastically recommended our products. I don’t think any of them would have helped us if they believed we produced an inferior product. At the same time, I think they were heartened to see three black engineers, definite underdogs, trying to build a successful business. To them, our venture was fresh, new, exciting. On the other hand, a few whites actively avoided doing business with us, and, given the opportunity, would have impeded our progress. Because we were independent entrepreneurs, those people had little power over us. We simply focused our time and energy elsewhere.