1st and Long: The Plight of African-American Professionals in Corporate America

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In all of sports there is a most peculiar instance found only in American football known as 1st and Long, i.e. 1st down and more than the standard 10 yards for the yard to gain. A 1st and Long, be it 1st and 15, 1st and 20, or a situation far worse, is a phenomenon resulting from a penalty against the offense that occurs either: (A) During play of the initial 1st down, e.g. Offensive Holding, (grabbing or impeding a defensive player as opposed to blocking him) Offensive Pass Interference (impeding a player’s ability to catch the ball) Unsportsmanlike Conduct, or Personal Foul. Or (B) transpires before the ball is snapped, e.g. False Start or Delay of Game. The latter scenarios, also called dead ball fouls, are infamously referred to as “idiot penalties” or an “offense shooting itself in the foot.”

There are a couple reasons that make 1st and long a noteworthy occurrence. First off, 1st down is, in a way, the “clean slate” down in football. It represents the initial and minimum objective of each offensive series in pursuit of points. In other words an offense takes the field on 1st down to progress through their allotted four downs. And they remain on the field by receiving a fresh set of (four) downs as long as they continue to acquire 1st downs; which they are awarded, on their own merit, when reaching the yard to gain. If the yard to gain is not reached by the start of the fourth down, the offense can elect to go for it, i.e. try once more for the yard to gain, or punt the ball away to the other team. Hence a 1st and long can make the slate not so clean.

Secondly, there is nothing the opposing team’s defense needs to do to put the Offense in a 1st and long situation. In fact there is nothing in the philosophy of the game that tolerates an offense ending up in a 1st and long; especially In a pre-snap situation. The offensive formation should be legal, pre-snap player movement should be sequential, timely, and true (otherwise resulting in a False Start), and the Quarterback should snap the ball before the play clock expires (otherwise resulting in a Delay of Game). To violate any of these fundamental principles makes the offense, and by extension the entire team, appear as a motley crew of undisciplined slobs. 1st and longs simply should not happen!

Far more often than I care to even acknowledge I as an African-American in corporate America am made to feel like a player whose team just received a penalty resulting in 1st and Long. Not by written company policy as might have been the case 50 years ago, mind you. Rather as if by a virtual cloud of individuals throughout various levels of the company. As I advance through my career I am on occasion reprimanded according to the most inclusive interpretation of “in-game penalties,” as opposed to the learning curve afforded to my white counterparts; whose beginners’ mistakes are treated as positive learning experiences. These penalties cause either the Line of Scrimmage to move back, or the Yard to Gain to mysteriously move forward, increasing the yards needed for a 1st down. Occasionally both the Line of Scrimmage and the Yard to Gain marker are moved.

Throughout my career flags have been thrown before or after the ball is snapped, so to speak. Sometimes before I even break the huddle. But in all cases the opposing team’s defense (or in this case my white counterparts) benefits from the offense (i.e. breech of protocol) without lifting a finger. As a result my white co-workers’ “innate superiority” is validated by these incidences of my “inferiority.”

OK, let’s bring the football metaphors home:
A pre-snap penalty resulting in a 1st and long would be taking initiative without first running my idea by my manager. This would like a False Start penalty. Or perhaps he gives me an assignment with a near impossible due date, or insufficient resources to complete the task on time. This would be a Delay of Game penalty. Either would result in the line of scrimmage being moved back a few yards before the ball is snapped. Then there are incidences when penalty yardage is added before I even break the huddle; in an effort to make me appear as an undisciplined slob.

In any event, the distance to the yard to gain has been increased. I suspect this has been done so that the difficulty to achieve my next 1st down is more representative of the African-American experience in relation to white privilege. In other words it will be more challenging for me to achieve the “same” 1st down than my white co-workers. If I am successful I am to be commended and my handlers acknowledged for superior mentoring, but if I fail… well, it’s to be expected.

Sometimes a flag is thrown for behaving too “aggressively;” which is code for a black man being as assertive as a white man. Other times my presentation lacks the “necessary” humility in the presence of higher-ups, or I speak too authoritatively to my white peers (even though the task may call for it), or did not use “proper” etiquette when introducing a new idea. I liken these violations to Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Personal Foul penalties.

An Offensive Pass Interference might be me speaking up when my manager or another team member fails to publicly acknowledge when I am the source of an idea or solution that has been implemented, yet will go as far as publicize it in the company newsletter for my co-workers. (My original suggestion or recommendation would have been outright rejected or explained away, only to have them go through their more credible process and arrive at a solution that looks and acts like my initial idea.) These would all be examples of post-snap penalties; 1st and longs resulting in the Line of Scrimmage being moved back a few yards; as if to put me back in a black man’s place.

One root cause of a post-snap penalties is intolerance to cultural differences. In a very general way, African Americans may appear to be flippantly braggadocious, a bit theatrical at times when speaking, ostentatious, obsessed with originality, communal almost to a fault, and prudently religious; a combination of characteristics that are, for the most part, less desirable to a white American culture dominant in corporate America. (The degree to which any of these characteristics are displayed of course depends upon the individual.) But for us these behavioral traits contribute to our greatest strengths. They contribute to a character that has enabled us to survive despite the circumstances to which we have been subjected for generations.

Now before you go accusing me of pulling the “race card,” well… I am. But perhaps not how you may think. Every 1st and long scenario as defined in this article is an instance of racism. But not all are necessarily demonstrations of racial bigotry.

Bigotry is about hatred, but hatred is not a requisite of racism. It really doesn’t matter who the target of the hatred is; be they obese, homosexual, or of another faith or so-called race. The target of the bigotry is merely the unfortunate person the bigot feels current societal standards have, to a degree, sanctioned for his or her hateful behavior. Thus racial bigotry is more about treating someone unfairly, or worse, primarily because of their (so-called) race. Racism is about much more than racial bigotry. I would even go as far to say the true purpose of racism requires more cohesiveness than racial bigotry will tolerate.

Racism is about power, wealth distribution, and designation of a dominate culture. It is the assignment of these things based on the delusion that not all people are “fully human,” (e.g. not descendants of Adam and Eve). Still, declaring one race inferior to another doesn’t necessarily dictate that members of the supposedly superior race deal harshly with members of the inferior race. An example of this would be members of PETA, despite the innate inferiority of cats and dogs to humans, advocate for the humane treatment of animals. (And yes, this does mean that some racists, those I affectionately refer to as “PETA racists,” can be compassionate or even helpful to the plight of so-called minorities. As long as their delusion as protectors of the weak remain in tact.)

Declaring a race inferior may not dictate ill treatment towards its members, but it does mean that collectively the members of that race will, rather they must, be deprived of privileges and social benefits reserved for members of the superior race regardless of their individual merit; if not permanently then at least until members of the privileged group have had their fill. Racism is “business, never personal.” Well, hardly ever personal.

(Remember, to justify slavery after America declared itself a free society the so-called Negro was portrayed as a being less than human; a subhuman race exempted from the ranks of men.)

Racism thrives as a self fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps Dr. King said it best:
The segregation of Negroes, with its inevitable discrimination, has thrived on elements of inferiority present in the masses of both white and Negro people. Through forced separation from our African culture, through slavery, poverty, and deprivation, many black men lost self-respect.

In their relations with Negroes, white people discovered that they had rejected the very center of their own ethical professions. They could not face the triumph of their lesser instincts and simultaneously have peace within. And so, to gain [this inner peace], they rationalized—insisting that the unfortunate Negro, being less than human, deserved and even enjoyed second-class status.

They argued that his inferior social, economic, and political position was good for him. He was incapable of advancing beyond a fixed position and would therefore be happier if encouraged not to attempt the impossible. He is subjugated by a superior people with an advanced way of life. The “master race” will be able to civilize him to a limited degree, if only he will be true to his inferior nature and stay in his place.

White men soon came to forget that the southern social culture and all its institutions had been organized to perpetuate this rationalization. They observed a caste system and quickly were conditioned to believe that its social results, which they had created, actually reflected the Negro’s innate and true nature. In time many Negroes lost faith in themselves and came to believe that perhaps they really were what they had been told they were—something less than human.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., article entitled “Our Struggle”

Another way to view racism would be as a component of classism, i.e. individuals functioning in their assigned roles. In other words the “junior” must in all things yield to his “senior;” the “peasant” to his “prince.” A society that embraces this principle must entertain the notion that in all scenarios there is a junior and a senior; either by age, seniority, rank, pay grade, servitude, and unfortunately gender and (so-called) race. This would mean that when two races interact one race is believed to be the senior or superior and the other is its junior or inferior. Therefore in instances wherein an African-American does not yield to his perceived senior he is not functioning in his assigned social role; which for his handler is cause for great concern.

The idea that when two meet one is always senior or superior is paramount to classism. Staying with the football analogy, the NFL is made up of the best players from the NCAA. The Pro Bowl is made up of the best in the NFL; the elite. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is made up of the best NFL players or all time; the elite of the elite. And this was the highest plateau upon which all who made it there were equally great. However in recent years our society’s insistence upon there being one more superior to the other has given birth to the “first ballot Hall of Famer,” the now supposed elite of the elite, of the elite.

At the core of black American culture is a belief that everyone is the same; regardless of economic status. Everyone is essentially a part of one village, family, or team. Therefore individual accomplishments are often masked by group effort. Each member of the group is approachable; there is no respecter of persons. Even the good book teaches that God is not a respecter of persons; so why should we be? The only exception being our elders; they are held at a slightly higher regard for their wisdom, contributions to succeeding generations, and their sacrifices. This ideology is the very reason I still have such a hard time with annual evaluations on the job; to recall and highlight individual contributions to what I consider to be a team’s overall success.

Diversity may be about more than just race (rather ethnic genus), but what diversity should never be is people of different ethnicities all simulating to a singular white American culture; a sterile and superficial adaptation of diversity I sometimes refer to as “Easter Egg Diversity.” There must be room for other cultures to flourish in a diverse workforce. To look different but expected to be exactly the same is not diversity. Even when a company sees the value in having a more diverse workforce and attempt to implement diversify through policy, too often it’s dominant culture ends up imposing its old ways upon their new minority employees via that virtual cloud of which I spoke earlier.

I’ve said all of this to say that racism isn’t simply about the hue of a person’s skin; that is to say a distain for one’s ethnic genus. It’s about a person’s perceived place in society. In other words African-Americans are tolerable when they remain subservient:

I entered, sometime ago, the parlor of a distinguished southern clergyman. A kinsman was standing at his mantel, writing. The clergyman spoke to his relative—“Cousin, let me introduce to you the Rev. C., a clergyman of our Church,” His cousin turned and looked down at me; but as soon as he saw my black face, he turned away with disgust, and paid no more attention to me than if I were a dog. Now, this porcine gentleman, would have been perfectly courteous, if I had gone into his parlor as a cook, or a waiter, or a bootblack. But my profession, as a clergyman, suggested the idea of letters and cultivation; and the contemptible snob at once forgot his manners, and put aside the common decency of his class. Now, in this, you can see the attitude of the American mind toward the Negro intellect.
—Alexander Crummell

“No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and–who knows?–maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”
—Toni Morrison

1st and Long is this era’s glass ceiling. Except instead of capping the limits of one’s ascent through various company policies or social normalcy, the ascension process is obscured by qualifiers and unreasonable expectations, i.e. penalty flags.

The 1st and Long analysis brought me to the realization that I as an African-American in corporate America am more often penalized for not assimilating their culture than for just having black skin. And that White Privilege realizes as much on our sense of inferiority, real or imagined, as it does on their sense of entitlement. Perhaps more. Hence a 1st and Long in corporate America is to substantiate the likelihood of my attempt at climbing the corporate ladder ends in a three and out. So I play every series knowing that I have further to go for the yard to gain on 1st down than my white counterparts. That my manager’s harsh critiques masquerading as truth are really distortions of his reality; because truth without empathy lacks proper perspective. Still, I will continue to bump against the glass ceiling until it I break through, or I leave a crack for those who follow me; as others have done for me. That regardless how many penalty flags are thrown I will give each series my all. And that I will never punt on 1st and Long!

P.S. It goes without saying that not all white people are racists. And not racists are racial bigots. But all racists are racists; the well intentioned and the bad. Racists do exist. The notion of multiple races is a myth, but racism is real.

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