Milton Irvin, Director, Salomon Brothers Inc.
A speech for the National Black MBA Association, September 1993—“Congress, Baseball and the Financial Industry: African Americans Changing the Majority’s Culture”
In the second speech I wrote for Mr. Irvin, I was able to blend the personal and the political into a strong piece of oratory. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference. I think because it takes a stand and tells its story directly. I’ve been writing speeches for over a decade and this is one of my favorites. Enjoy.
Something extraordinary happened in Washington last summer. Something I think every African American can learn from, especially those of us who are trying to make our way in majority-dominated industries like the financial industry.
One African American held a mirror up to the majority society and forced it to look squarely at its racism. The person I’m talking about is Senator Carol Moseley-Braun.
Carol Moseley-Braun is the first African American since 1978 to serve in the United States Senate. And she hadn’t been a senator for very long last summer —something like six months. But she wasn’t afraid to speak out in the Judiciary Committee hearing when Orrin Hatch started comparing the Supreme Court’s abortion decision to Dred Scott. She said she objected to Hatch’s treating the abomination of Dred Scott as a dry, legal issue. And Hatch had to apologize.
Later that same day, Senator Moseley-Braun stood on the Senate floor and denounced the Senate for allowing the Daughters of the Confederacy to use the Confederate flag in its insignia. By the force of her convictions and the rightness of her argument, Senator Moseley-Braun managed to do something very few people have ever done. She forced the Senate to change its vote on an issue it had already decided. Joe Biden, one of the senators whose vote she changed, said that he had never before seen a speech by one senator sway the entire Senate.
Now, you know all those senators who voted for the Daughters of the Confederacy the first time around, if you sat them down and asked them what they’ve done to support African Americans, they’d each have a list as long as your arm. Most of the men and women in the United States Senate are well-meaning people, and I believe they are sincere when they say they are working for liberty and justice for all.
But the world they live in and the institution of the United States Senate have been so thoroughly white—and so thoroughly male—for so long that they’ve gotten used to operating from a white, male perspective. I use the word “perspective” here rather than “bias” because I believe in most cases the bias really is unintentional. But it is there. So thank God we had Carol Moseley-Braun to stand up and say: “Stop. Look at what you are doing. Think about it from someone else’s viewpoint.”
There’s some good news and some not-so-good news in this incident, both of which can apply to our situation in the financial industry.
The good news is that even one African American with power can change the dynamics of an organization—if he or she is willing to take a stand for right.
The not-so-good news is that even an organization that truly believes it has overcome its racism—as the majority of senators would say the Senate has (or as they would have said before Carol Moseley-Braun got there) and as the majority of recruiters will tell you their financial firms have—even the best-intentioned organization still has a long way to go.
You may believe that the business world has changed. And why shouldn’t you believe that? That’s what you’ve been told—by the media, by the firms themselves. And you have the evidence of African American executives working on Wall Street. Living proof! But Carol Moseley-Braun’s experience in the Senate should lead us to question the source of the information we get. Is it coming from someone who may have an unconscious bias, who may be looking at the world through the majority’s glasses? Senator Moseley-Braun exposed the fact that even people who genuinely believe that discrimination must end, even people who have worked hard to end it—even those people may have an unconscious bias.
What will it take to eliminate that bias? And specifically what will it take to change the financial industry? Two things: First, it will take brave people like Senator Moseley-Braun to speak out when the majority group succumbs to bias. And second—and maybe this is the hardest part—it will take time. Patience.
Cultures change slowly. Let me remind you that nearly 50 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s still not a single African American running a baseball team. And African American executives have been in the financial industry a lot shorter time than that.
My uncle was a major league baseball player—he played in the old Negro Leagues and later for the New York Giants. He could tell you that lots of African American players got hit by pitches—“accidentally,” of course—after the leagues were integrated. But it happened a lot less when a team had an African American pitcher on the mound.
It works the same way in the business world. The progress we make against racism in the workplace has a direct relationship to the positions that African Americans play on the team. As more African Americans take leadership positions and sit on Boards of Directors, more companies will stop throwing pitches at their African American employees.
So you say you want to work in the financial industry?
Great. It’s a good industry. You’ll be able to learn a lot, to work with people from all over the world. You’ll have an opportunity to do something meaningful and improve our communities…