Judging from Vice President Bush's closing statement during the debate, the Republicans plan to fly their banner of "the good old days of opportunity are back." But before he makes another glowing statement about how opportunity is spreading he should talk to some of the worried middle-class blacks.
My friend had been talking about opportunity just that morning, but he talked about the lack of it.
"I think there has been a complete retrenchment of one's ability to expect mainstream involvement," he said, looking tall and youthful at 44 as one of those blacks who'd entered the corporate world just before the mid-'60s affirmative action push.
When I saw him last, he was working as an executive vice president of a corporation. He was upbeat then, with none of the sourness he has now. That was 1982, when the book, "Black Life in Corporate America," was noting that few blacks had been allowed to manage in marketing or finance departments with bottom-line, decision-making responsibilities because of caution and a lack of trust. The authors suggested that corporations imitate Major League Baseball. Since my friend was in marketing, I jokingly called him Jackie Robinson and assured him that others would follow. He felt that the corporations would get better.
"It was great for two years," he said. "I had a great deal of autonomy. The managerial staff and the employes were receptive to programs I began and implemented." When a new chief executive officer wanted to place his own people in significant positions, however, my friend was out of a job. At the end of 1983, he found that his situation had changed.
"At my level, the executive level, there were fewer opportunities available. . . . What is happening now is what probably was happening in industry in the early '60s, when blacks were not given an opportunity for employment."
I've heard the same story before. Listening to him, I was convinced that America has to start measuring opportunity by one yardstick to turn the vice president's rhetoric into reality.
Business Week noted the dearth of black senior managers in a survey earlier this year. "Many corporate personnel executives attribute the small number of black top executives to the relatively brief period during which blacks have held management positions at mainstream companies."
But my friend and other black professionals and managers had to sacrifice time on the job for mobility. He had worked for nearly 10 years for a major pharmaceutical company and went on for another five to a Fortune 500 high-tech organization. He was promoted at both companies.
"But there was a thwarting of my full participation. It was a subtle indication to me of my future worth to the company. So I looked around again." Meanwhile, a white male he hired to work for him felt confident enough to stay with the company, and is now a division vice president.
In an unpublished study of 303 black midlevel and senior executives, the National Urban League found that six out of 10 worked in "traditional" staff (affirmative action) areas rather than mainline departments.
"Right now, those blacks who have operated effectively in industry since the mid-'60s and pre-affirmative action days ought to be in very significant positions of responsibility in corporate America, but they are not being considered on an objective basis for employment, nor internally for promotion," said my friend.
He is one of many blacks who dived into the mainstream in the '60s and '70s, was beginning to sound like a metaphor for the black middle class of the '80s. We talk a lot about the expanding poor under Ronald Reagan, but the expanded middle class is very fragile, too.
"I am deeply concerned about the immediate future for my children. I don't feel society is moving in the direction I thought it was that would make it better for them. I don't see the social progress that I thought would enhance the ability of my children to truly participate in this society. Whether things will be better for my kids than they were for me is a real concern."