The shooting last week at the IBM office in Bethesda was one of those tragic and bizarre events that turns over another rock in our society. In this instance, what's hidden underneath is the dilemma faced by an increasing number of black men and women in corporate America.
After the court hearing in which Edward Thomas Mann, the black man charged with the killings, was denied bail, another black former IBM employe, Edell Lydia Jr., asserted that the massive computer firm itself was "responsible for all the deaths and injuries." Lydia, who won a discrimination damage award against IBM in 1975, alleged that the shooting rampage was the product of IBM's "insidious, vile, racist policies" toward blacks. Mann had filed a discrimination suit against IBM in 1977, but the D.C. Human Rights Commission dismissed it, saying there was "no probable cause."
An IBM spokesman countered the accusation: "We take every possible means to insure that our managers do not discriminate in hiring or promotions, all of which are based on merit."
Yet after word of the shooting at IBM spread around the country, Glegg Watson, a manager for Xerox Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, sent company president David T. Kearns an internal memo asking, rhetorically, whether such a tragedy could happen in any one of their locations. Watson's own reluctant conclusion is that it probably could.
"It's definitely related to stress," says Watson, who with journalist George Davis has just completed a new book for Doubleday, "Black Life in Corporate America," due in bookstores in August.
Not surprisingly, Watson and Davis found racism in the board room. Complaints about anything are discouraged in the corporate atmosphere, they report, and complaints about race often are virtually taboo. On the surface, blacks and whites get along. Yet blacks find the silence on race issues oppressive because "their careers and morales are affected by this thing that they cannot mention." Whites, meanwhile, seem to feel that blacks ought to be happy to be there in the first place.
Living productively and creatively in the modern corporation is not simply a question of race. It poses dilemmas for all people. Women executives feel the stress more than men. And blacks feel it more than whites.
Sizable numbers of blacks have entered the corporate world only in the last couple of decades. The problems they encounter there represent the first close clashing of the adult cultures of blacks and whites. Many blacks lifted to prominence in corporate America by the tide of the 60s weren't inclined to assimilate like the pioneers of the 50s. Most wanted to identify with their culture and many were uncomfortable with the impersonal ways of big organizations.
Some complained of the "emotional dishonesty" of pretending to like someone you really don't like. Conformity was tough and dress codes were seen by many as attempts to dilute culture. Some felt guilty that they were making so much money while many members of their own families and communities were struggling to survive. Others experienced anomie, a condition resulting from the breakdown of traditional values and norms of an individual who can't or doesn't want to assimilate the values of a new and complex, inhospitable environment. They felt isolated and surrounded by hypocrisy.
So eager were some blacks to be accepted that they became slaves to the corporation in the way of the old order--corporate niggers, some folks back in the old community dubbed them.
Watson says one of the particular stresses that blacks like Mann face in corporations is distinguishing between corporate behavior and racist corporate behavior, and how to fit into a corporate mode where they sense there is one promotional track for white males, a slower one for white women and the slowest for blacks.
"I know of some people who have not killed anybody, but they've killed themselves from the sense of isolation, alienation and uselessness," Watson says. The wonder "is that there are not more people in Mann's position who have not acted out."
Sociology and psychotherapy cannot explain away last week's tragedy. But there's wisdom to be found by looking under the rocks--and the three-piece suits.