Introduction to Symposium on People of Color, Women, and the Public Corporation: The Sophistication of Discrimination

Article excerpt

Justice O'Connor[] . . . fully understood the real world of discrimination. . . . [O'Connor] graduated number two in her class from Stanford, . . . couldn't get a job because she was a woman; they'd offer her a job as a secretary. . . . [S]he understood. . . that discrimination has become very sophisticated . . . [and] very much more subtle than it was ... 50 years ago. . . . [E]mployees don't say any more . . . "We don't like blacks in this company," or, "We don't want women here." They say things like, "Well, they wouldn't fit in," or, ". . . they tend to be too emotional" or "a little high-strung." . . . [I]t's harder to make a case of discrimination even though there's no doubt that it still exists. . . . What I do wonder about is ... whether you fully appreciate how discrimination does work today.1

I recently heard a speaker distinguish "scholars" from "intellectuals." A "scholar", he explained, is someone who gathers facts and concepts without knowing what to do with them. An "intellectual" is someone who puts facts and ideas to use. In the spring of 2005, a group of accomplished intellectuals gathered at St. John's University School of Law to participate in the conference entitled, "People of Color, Women, and the Public Corporation." They presented papers that put to meaningful use the facts, ideas, and theories they had gathered concerning the relationships between women and people of color, and the public corporation.

Two weeks before the conference, I attended an event sponsored by the Macon B. Alien Bar Association and invited a white male attorney with whom I sat to the conference. "Is this kind of conference necessary?" he asked. After I spent a minute or two explaining why it was imperative to hold a conference such as this, he said, "I don't see what the problem is. I'd be happy to change places with a black woman. I'd rather be a black, female lawyer with all the opportunities they have today."

The next day a young, anxious-looking woman of color stopped me in the corridor of the law school building. She was looking for help with an employment discrimination problem and one of my colleagues suggested that she speak with me. After inviting her into my office, she told me a devastating story about the sexual harassment she had faced at her company for more than a year. Her supervisor touched her in unwanted and inappropriate ways. She endured insulting comments about her body. She was afraid to take her break because it would require her to be in a room with the supervisor. She worked in constant fear for her personal safety. Her ordeal had destroyed her confidence. It had compromised her ability to communicate. She was on the verge of tears. She was shaking.

I include a description of these two events because they demonstrate the exigency of a symposium such as this. The white, male attorney who dreamed of being black and female believed that racism and sexism no longer afflict the vocational, financial, and personal lives of women and people of color. He assumed that women and minorities only benefit from, and are never disadvantaged because of their racial and sexual identities. It is important for men and whites who believe as he does to hear the typically untold stories of people like the unsteady woman who visited my office. Unfortunately, the attorney who questioned the need for this conference did not attend. He missed an important opportunity to understand the issues women and people of color face in the business setting.

It is difficult for people of different races to come together to talk about racism and race discrimination.2 Interracial discussions of America's race problem rarely occur because we live in a society that remains racially segregated and stratified, even today.3 Moreover, some whites who participate in discussions about race may fear that they will say the wrong thing. People of color may fear that they will hear the wrong thing. It is, perhaps, slightly easier to talk about sexism and sex discrimination, but a serious discussion remains difficult. …