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Authors: Henry Louis Gates

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BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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I asked Ashley why chess, of all things, would be relevant to black people. “Chess transposes the imagination of inner-city black kids so they can see themselves in the back row where all the power pieces are . . . It’s much harder for inner-city kids to understand why they should learn something that seems to have no meaning for their future life. But in chess, I’ll show kids a move and five minutes later they can use it against their friend. In another five or ten minutes, they’ll win the game and come back to me and say, show me something else, ’cause I just won that game and I wanna win again. It’s self-reinforcing.”

How did he get involved in chess? I asked.

“I learned to play many different games at an early age . . . By the time I was seven or eight, I could beat the other kids and I could compete with all the adults,” Ashley said. In America, he told me, “in tenth grade, when I was fourteen, I had a friend who played chess a lot. I thought, I’m better at games than all the rest of the kids, so I’m going to play this guy and beat him. He crushed me. It was ugly. Then one day when I was at the library, I came across a book on chess . . . It was love at first sight . . . That’s when I discovered that reading could open your mind to the wonders of everything you wanted to know. For the first time, I understood the power of books, because after I started reading them, I began crushing players I couldn’t beat before.”

In 1991, Ashley shook the chess world—and America—when his team from Harlem, the Raging Rooks, beat elite white private schools to become national champions. Stereotypically, black people weren’t supposed to excel at intellectual activities, and these inner-city black kids had won a national chess tournament! This was news.

Ashley realized that chess could be the lure to hook schoolchildren into attending school regularly and focusing on their classwork. Chess could be a “black thing,” its mental rigor and discipline transferred into new study habits in every other school subject. By kids learning chess, grades—and graduation rates—would go up. In 1991, at the Mott Hall School in Harlem, he and businessman-philanthropist Dan Rose helped establish an educational program in which chess was an integral part of the curriculum.

It amazes me in the generation of fast food and video games that kids would have the patience for chess, so I asked Ashley if this is a problem.

“I think fundamentally kids love to learn, as long as you make the learning engaging. . . . They sit and memorize and study so that when they get into actual competition they’ll be ready . . . The great thing about chess is that it’s practical.”

I asked him if the kind of thing he’s accomplishing with chess can be exported throughout the community.

“Chess is not the only solution, but I think of it as a direction. Chess insists that you use your mind. You can’t play the game without it. But success does too; that’s what success is all about, having a direction . . . I think we’re approaching a time when kids’ aspirations will be much, much higher than they were. We have a long way to go to put the structures in place that can finally bring about progress racewide, but we’re closing in on the effort psychologically . . . We have people striving in all walks of life.”

Ashley invited me to see another inner-city program, called HEAF, that is literally putting these ideas into practice. HEAF—the Harlem Educational Activities Fund—is dedicated to helping students who are being failed by their schools to get a solid education.

“HEAF takes kids in the community and makes them successful, that is, gets them through high school and beyond,” Ashley explained. The program takes kids from junior high school and gets them all the way through college, teaching them that education is their ticket out. “These kids are hot,” said Ashley.

And without HEAF?

“Without the tremendous support and direction that HEAF has been providing since 1992, thousands of inner-city kids who have gone on to college as a result of HEAF programs may have fallen through the cracks.”

HEAF’s after-school chess class helps draw these children into educational programs. Dan Rose is the founder of HEAF. He summarized his philosophy of education this way:

“The challenge of bringing inner-city disadvantaged children into the mainstream of American life is without question the most pressing, most important social challenge in American life. It is
challenge. Anyone who doesn’t see it or who doesn’t address it is not living in the real world . . .

“If a smart inner-city kid goes bad and goes to prison, it will cost the city, the public, $60,000 a year, and could cost him the rest of his life. Our goal is to turn these kids into professionals who make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and who pay $60,000 in taxes. I tell my archconservative friends that our goal is to take a $60,000-a-year tax eater and turn him into a $60,000-a-year taxpayer.”

For Ashley and Rose, the long-term success of our people depends upon education, leading inevitably to a greater slice of the economic pie. And the economic pie is baked in the corporate world, symbolized by Wall Street—a world traditionally as “white” as chess.

Who would have believed just a few years ago that four of the world’s largest corporations would be run by black men? For many of us, the corporate world was the last bastion of black exclusion. Quite visibly, that has begun to change.

One man I spoke to understood the importance of black representation at the top of the corporate world long before anyone else did. For him, economics, class, and wealth accumulation were the next fronts in the war for civil rights. He was a prophet of black class mobility. Vernon Jordan is the first person to retire from the Civil Rights Movement and take it to the next level—Wall Street. Among black Wall Street executives, Vernon Jordan is the proverbial chairman of the board. Jordan grew up in a black middle-class neighborhood in segregated Atlanta. His mother was a successful business-woman, his father a postal clerk. He was the only black student in his class in the 1950s at DePauw University, before earning a law degree at Howard University. Jordan recounts a bit of stark advice that his father gave him when he dropped him off at DePauw:

“I remember my father shaking my hand to tell me good-bye, but he didn’t say good-bye; he said, you can’t come home. I said, what do you mean? He said, the college counselor says your reading scores are far lower than those of your classmates . . . these white kids went to fine township high schools and private schools and you went to this old dilapidated, segregated, ill-equipped, double-sessioned, overcrowded school, he said, but you can’t come home. And so I said, well, what am I supposed to do, Dad? And he said, read, boy, read, and he drove away.” Jordan rose to prominence as a civil rights lawyer, then led several key black organizations, such as the National Urban League. In the early 1980s, however, he deliberately became an agent of another kind of social change, a pioneering force in the integration of the all-white boards of directors of corporate America. This led to the hiring of black corporate executives. Quietly, Jordan had taken the Civil Rights Movement from the segregated cities of the South straight to the heart of Wall Street.

As “First Friend” and confidant to President Bill Clinton, and as a member of some of the most influential corporate boards in the world, no one is better placed to explain what the presence of blacks on Wall Street means to our people than Vernon Jordan. New times, new duties: I asked Jordan if the integration of corporate America is the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement.

“The integration of corporate America has been going on a very long time. I went on my first corporate board in 1972 . . . but we’ve come a long way from the seventies if you think about Dick Parsons, CEO at AOL Time Warner, Ken Chenault of AmEx, Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch, and Frank Raines of Fannie Mae. These four black men control in excess of $300 billion in market capitalization, and they employ some 300,000 people. That was inconceivable in my time, and now they are CEOs at companies that would not have hired their parents, except in menial jobs.”

But how important to the progress of our people is it that individual black people are occupying these positions? I asked him.

“It’s important in that it says to young people that they can do it too—that anything you want to achieve can in fact be achieved. But it says something else. It says that if you have the ability, the tenacity, the perseverance, the fortitude, and the smarts, they will put you in this job . . . when you think about Parsons, Raines, Chenault, and O’Neal, white people have put them in charge of their money, and my people did it. That’s very serious! And the one thing that we know is that white people like money, and that’s why they sold us and bought us. It had to do with money . . . But white people have entrusted their trust funds and the future of their children and their grandchildren to these brothers, because they are competent.”

Jordan’s dream of integration has affected every level of Wall Street, from the boardroom through upper middle management. Milton Irvin is one such executive, and he has excelled on Wall Street. Irvin grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Jersey. For the past thirty years, he has steadily ascended the corporate ladder on Wall Street. His lifestyle is on a par with that of his white upper-middle-class counterparts.

Irvin recently became the first black member of his country club. Fees are now $70,000 per year. Almost twenty years ago, he and his family moved to Summit, New Jersey, an affluent and still predominantly white suburb forty minutes from Manhattan.

“When I moved to Summit in 1985, there were not a lot of middle-class African Americans, and to a certain extent it was lonely being here . . . But something inside of me said, you know what, someone has to put a stake in the ground in a community like this, and show that we can be woven into this fabric.”

I asked Irvin if he ever felt, as he integrated his golf club in Summit, for example, as if he had to ingratiate himself to the white people who were members there.

“When I’ve joined these clubs, I’ve never approached it with the attitude that I’ve got to make white people feel comfortable around a black person. It’s more like I’ve felt they had to figure out, over time, that . . . you’re really not different from them . . . I consciously try to be a full participant in the activities of these clubs. This done, it begins to give the others a sense and feeling of comfort . . . It’s all a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement. Economic empowerment is a part of it. It’s what we’re building now.”

Irvin and I visited the home of his friends Walt and Donna Pearson. Walt Pearson graduated from the Harvard Business School and was another Wall Street executive before recently assuming a new executive position in the Boston area. As with many affluent African-American families of our generation, their home is a splendid shrine to black history, art, and culture. I asked Pearson what he thought the constituent parts might be of our people being held back. “Nowadays there are programs to help bright and motivated African-American kids get out of the ’hood—whether it’s ABC or Prep for Prep or private schools that offer some students full scholarships,” he said. “However, if you come home to little or no family structure, you need something to keep you going, and that’s the tough part. Beyond that, the playing field is far from level in terms of the ability to make connections in a white world.”

Despite all of his success, did he and his wife, Donna, still experience racism? “On Wall Street,” he said, “what happens now is they let us in the door, but instead of blatant racism, you come across subtle things. For example, it seemed like they never wanted me to get too big an assignment, too big a client. When I went after those guys, I was always told I had enough clients, I had enough capacity, whereas my colleague could have even more clients than I did but yet he wasn’t at capacity. It was things like that.”

Donna Pearson agrees: “Racism still exists, but it’s more quiet. It’s kept behind closed doors. In Summit I saw instances, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, particularly at the school. Because I’m so fair-skinned, people sometimes think I’m white, and they’ll say things and I’ll say, excuse me, I’m African American too. And all of a sudden their face gets red.”

I wondered how blatant this form of behavior could become. For example, did Donna ever hear these people say the “n” word?

“They don’t say the ‘n’ word, but one time someone said to me, oh, that black person, they don’t know what they’re doing. And I said, excuse me? Or they’ll think that the way I’m doing something is inferior to what they’re doing and that I can’t do a job like they do . . . you have to let them know right away that you can take the lead just as well as they can.”

Did the Pearsons ever worry that their kids will be criticized by lower-class black kids?

“They will have to learn to handle being called white,” said Walt. “I went to a private school, and I would come home to a housing project every day and was called ‘schoolboy’ a couple of times. I had to knock a few heads . . . But I tell my kids now, you’re going to encounter a different kind of racism. You’re going to confront the class system from your African-American peers, some of whom are going to call you ‘whitey’ or ‘Oreo’ . . . In addition, you will have racism from white people. It’s going to be arduous. The kids . . . have to come home and be able to tell us everything. They have to realize they’re blessed, but they must give back. It’s nonstop.”

As I conversed with these two families, it became clear that despite all of their personal success and wealth, the task of integrating the white power structure is far from over. Very few African Americans have penetrated the upper echelons of Wall Street. Just as painful, the success of those who have is viewed by some members of the black community somehow as a betrayal of the race.

I asked Melody Irvin, Milton’s wife, how this bizarre attitude came to be, when social integration and economic success were cardinal virtues of the Civil Rights Revolution. How did it get to be that being successful is equated by some black people with being white?

BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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