Working in a White Man's World


by Kimberley Wilson

A New Visions Commentary paper published May 1998 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002,
202/543-4110, Fax (202) 543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web
http://www.nationalcenter.org. Reprints permitted provided source
is credited.


For many people, The Black Man's Guide to Working in a White Man's World is going to be hard to read. This is not because it is a dry, scholarly tome, but because it will make quite a few readers squirm with discomfort.

The Guide's author, E. LeMay Lathan, hits hard and speaks plainly. To those who come to this book looking for a mishmash of theory and finger-pointing at whites, Lathan offers hard truth instead. It comes as a splash of cold water: to those readers who approach it with open minds, this book will be as refreshing as rain after a drought. Lathan is not an academic sitting in an Ivy League comfort zone. He is a black man who rose from a poor neighborhood in Mississippi to become a successful manager at a large Pacific Northwest company.

Instead of offering dry surveys, statistics and charts, Lathan begins his book by simply telling how -- as a black man -- he made his dreams come true. After a stint in the Navy, he found that no one was beating down his door to hire him. Lacking a college degree, he also realized the world was not going to be his oyster. But, his own work ethic would not allow him to sit on a street corner and weep into a beer with the guys. He got a job as a cemetery security guard. He soon got second and third part-time jobs, and was earning a decent amount of money.

This was not enough. Lathan realized that he had to go back to school. In The Guide, he repeatedly admonishes young black men to get themselves into an institution of higher learning. "Education," he writes, is "the secret of achieving the American dream." Lathan went to his local city college, and later to a technical school, to study mechanical drafting. This led to a career that has taken him and his family across the country and into a middle-class lifestyle.

To those who claim the white man keeps them from succeeding, Lathan says, "it is not the white man's fault, it is not the government's fault, it is our own fault ... we must stop giving the impression that the blame lies with someone else. We must at some point break this chain of thought." To those who claim they can't do better on their jobs because the white man won't let them, Lathan is equally stern. He discusses the concept of "getting over." At his early jobs, he was often "mentored" by blacks who taught him the best places to goof off, how to get by doing the least amount of work, and how -- if things got tough -- to use the race card to get himself out of trouble. Lathan ignored this advice and tells his readers to do the same.

There was a price for Lathan's success. As he moved up the ranks, passing blacks who had been on the job for years in the same position, he had to face resentment and backbiting. He was called a sellout and the old stand by, Uncle Tom. Former friends back in his neighborhood criticized him for going to work every day instead of "keeping it real" on the streetcorners with them. Lathan advises his readers that, when faced with this kind of peer pressure, they should think how good they feel as they pass "the brothers on the corner to go to the bank and all they are capable of doing is standing and watching and making comments."

Lathan is also angry. He wastes no words in describing his disgust and sorrow for the terrible situation the black community finds itself in today. The fact that black kids are failing in school, joining gangs, killing one another and getting pregnant at alarming levels has him angry. When he speaks of the black criminals who are terrorizing their own neighborhoods and the black apologists who seem to condone their behavior with high sounding psychobabble, the indignation he feels seems to rise from the page. But Lathan does not end his book on a note of despair. Black America's problems, he says, cannot and should not be solved by whites, even sympathetic whites of good will.

Finally, Lathan leaves the reader with a challenge. Go home, brother, get out of the gangster-lane and educate yourself. Get a job with a future and take care of your own.

The Black Man's Guide to Working in a White Man's World is an excellent tool for young blacks of both sexes. If only it could be made available in the school libraries of every inner-city high school in America.

 

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(Kimberley Wilson is a writer and a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21.)


Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.


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