The Changing Face of Black Power
By Jabari Asim
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; 10:11 AM
E. Stanley O'Neal is often in the news. As chief executive of Merrill Lynch, his maneuverings attract nearly constant scrutiny. Recently, his name surfaced when he set a record among George Bush's fund-raisers. After O'Neal wrote a letter urging his executives to open their wallets on behalf of the president, they coughed up $279,750 in less than three weeks. As one of nine Wall Street "Rangers," a name given to individuals who have raised $200,000 or more for the Bush campaign, O'Neal is virtually guaranteed access to the highest levels of government. Rare among Rangers, he is African-American.
Alphonse Fletcher's name doesn't circulate as often in the media. Still, the founder and chairman of Fletcher Asset Management has consistently exerted his influence. Ten years ago, he donated $4.5 million to his alma mater, Harvard University, to establish a professorship in his father's name. More recently, he purchased an Encarta Africana CD-ROM, an electronic encyclopedia, for every public school in New York City and co-sponsored an exhibit of black art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two weeks ago, a flurry of headlines followed his announcement that he would give $50 million to assist individuals and groups who are dedicated to improving race relations. Rare among wealthy philanthropists, Fletcher is African-American.
As individuals who can set great wheels in motion with the stroke of a pen, O'Neal and Fletcher are among a small group of African-Americans who are redefining conventional notions of black power. O'Neal, 52, usually operates in ways that show no obvious connection to his race. In contrast, race seems to figure frequently -- if not overtly -- in the efforts of Fletcher, who is 38.
Where many observers might find little noteworthy in the disparate approaches of O'Neal and Fletcher, Cora Daniels sees a significant philosophical and generational shift. She is the author of "Black Power Inc.," a book based on her interviews with nearly 50 black corporate executives, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s.
Daniels says that groundbreakers such as O'Neal -- who is one of four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies -- often regard success as dependent upon transcending race and advancing as far as possible in the white world. She contends that the new generation of black executives doesn't succeed despite their blackness; they succeed because of it. "Their blackness is what drives them and what pushes them," she writes, "and ultimately, it becomes their goal to succeed for the race that they are carrying."
In her book, Daniels calls Fletcher and his peers the "post-civil rights generation" for whom "traditional black power, in the form of a groundswell social movement, is not relevant today." This may sound inflammatory -- and maybe even dangerously ahistorical -- to anyone who marched and struggled on behalf of racial equality in the 1950s and '60s. But Daniels told me she's just telling it like it is. "It's significant to realize that this is a generation that has no firsthand memory of the civil rights movement. It doesn't mean that they dismiss it or that they don't know about it."
Daniels' profiles of young financial whizzes with their minds set on entrepreneurship and community empowerment will surprise some observers -- myself included -- who tend not to regard corporate corridors as bastions of race consciousness. I asked Daniels about the common belief that African-American corporate strivers are Uncle Toms who never give a thought to blackness besides wishing they could scrub it off. That's an unfortunate and inaccurate stereotype, she says. She suggests that many in the business world simply realize there are various ways of uplifting the race.
"They know that there's other kinds of power," she told me. "They know that the way to have any kind of substance is to have economic wealth behind it. That's why they're working at these companies. It's easy to look at this younger generation and say they're not doing anything because they're not marching."
They are doing quite a bit, according to Daniels. "These executives are building funds and controlling assets, using the dollar to improve education and wield influence, political and otherwise," she writes. "They are also gaining independence for the community by starting their own companies. When this generation volunteers its time and services on the block, they are trying to spread the knowledge they gained from walking through those doors. This is what Black Power Inc., the movement, is about."
Only time will tell whether Daniels' assessment is accurate. But as a contribution to our ongoing conversation about black power and its place in an ever-changing world, it's right on the money.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com