Frederick Black, a corporate executive with General Electric, wanted his company to buy a few more sockets, a little more electrical wire from minority firms.
After all everybody buys light-bulbs, television sets and stereos, so the profits should trickle down. Though unwavering in his purpose, Black didn't steamroll his husky, 6-foot form into the conference room or use his booming voice to lecture his colleagues.
"What I did was butter the people who do the buying, those dealing directly with the suppliers. I suggested an internal newspaper, had all the pictures of the buyers displayed, accompanied by a story that gave them the credit for the new minority business thrust," says Black. "I stroked them. I didn't want the credit but the satisfaction of seeing the purchasing figures go from $4 million to $8 million to $16 million."
Conn., Black, 55, is manager of issues and analysis, a job that includes forming corporate policy on privacy, tax reforms, as well as manpower training. His 12 years with GE have generally been in nontraditional minority fields, mainly because his training is engineering physics, but his movement up reflects the declassification of minority executive roles. The corporate group, however, is still less than 1 per cent of the total black labor force, a number so small that its members can unobtrusively blend into the convention of the National Urban League.
How do these executives view their roles? At the extreme end of the black economic ladder, what do they have in common with a larger segment that lives at the edge of hopelessness, which vents that frustration in actions such as the recent looting in New York City?
"If a gap exists, it's economics, not consciousness about your life as a minority, not a feeling of community and exchange," says Black. Though he now lives in a house with three bedrooms and a two-car garage on three-quarters of an acre of land in Straford, Conn., he remembers waiting tables in St. Louis, where he grew up. And he unabashedly credits that work experience with teaching him how to "manage" people. "People show themselves when they eat," he says.
Many corporate executives, including Black, feel their rapport with the economically short-changed continues - not only through subtle boardroom maneuvering, but through their actions as role models. "I have been involved with the Reading Is Fundamental program. And I took the company limo to Harlem, rode some kids around to give them that view of my success. But then I stopped in the park and read to them," he offers as an example of bridging that gap.
As more blacks move into the corporate hierarchy, they form a new leadership class. But it's a leadership that has been criticized for an apparent cultural disassociation. Easily accepting their role as representatives of a total community, they have been categorized as shadings of the white organization man, concerned more about the upward mobility of their careers than anything else.
Black says it isn't so. True, he changes from an orange seersucker jacket to a conservative nay blazer for a photographer - his executive look - as he explains: "I always ask myself the question, who benefits here? How are blacks affected by the energy policy, what can I do about it. But the differences today are the ground ruls. The one basic is economics and that's a difference between accounting and finance."
As a youngster, Black used to make "missiles" out of Karo syrup cans and miner's carbide, so when GE first assigned him to supervise $750-million worth of equipment, testers for space missiles, he was thrilled. He didn't even think of effecting change in a broader sense, and certainly not on the corporate level, until the Watts riots of 1965. "I had been working with things, not people. It wasn't that I had missed something but now I was simply more curious about human psychology," he says. In 1971 he took a two-year leave from GE and helped develop an industrial park in Watts that provided 800 jobs.
"Now I look for an input across the board," Black says. "When Kenneth Gibson, the mayor of Newark, N.J., was scheduled to testify on the Hill, I knew he didn't have the same reseach backup as the chairman of GE. I offered an outline of issues and everbody came out looking better. Now the chairman and Gibson have good relationship, and I never showed my face. I just had a supportive role."
When the black corporate executives gather, as they did informally at the convention this week, Black says the talk of pressures from the whites at a comparable level is minimal. "You get the same pressures as the white in the situation. It's win, win, win. You don't have to play harder because you're good, and once you cross the threshold, everyone has to be tough."