Race bias nearly poisons a business relationship


This is a story about race. I am sharing it with you because the incident provides yet another perspective on the difficult, emotional and often divisive debate over affirmative action.

Once upon a time, my friends Paula and Jim Kramon of Hunt Valley went to a local merchant to buy wallpaper for their home.

They asked the owner if he knew of someone to do the job for them.

"Well," said the owner. "I could recommend one contractor in particular. He's probably the best in this area. He's reliable. Fast. Charges reasonable prices.

"But I have to warn you that he's black," the merchant said. "I hope that doesn't bother you."

My friends, who are Jewish, were offended by this addendum to the contractor's resume. "What difference does his race make?" demanded Paula Kramon. "Why would we care? Why should you care?"

The storekeeper hurriedly explained that he had recommended this contractor to other customers and that some of them came back very angry that he had failed to "warn" them about the contractor's race.

The merchant said some of his customers felt uncomfortable with a black person in their home. Other clients were more open to the idea of hiring a black contractor but felt the storekeeper had a duty to announce the person's race in advance.

Jim Kramon and I had different perspectives on this story.

Mr. Kramon, a Baltimore attorney, believes the shopkeeper should refuse to accommodate the prejudices of his customers.

"I have clients who are racist," Mr. Kramon says. "I have clients who are sexist, anti-Semitic and who feel uncomfortable around people who are, or who appear to be, gay. My attitude is that I refuse to get involved in that. I will bring the best person to a meeting, regardless of who that person is. If my client can't deal with that, too bad."

Mr. Kramon is right, of course. As long as people feel comfortable in their prejudices, such beliefs will continue to flourish. But I felt a little sorry for the storekeeper. After all, he had tried to do the right thing by recommending a contractor based on merit alone.

But when the shopkeeper failed to mention that the contractor is black, he made some of his clients mad. When the shopkeeper added this fact, he made others equally angry. Recommending a contractor without regard to race had placed the shopkeeper in a no-win situation.

The real tragedy is that the shopkeeper may eventually decide to avoid this conflict altogether by no longer recommending the black contractor. His conscience will be clear because in his mind, he wanted to do the right thing. And those customers who focus inappropriately on race will never have their prejudices challenged.

Meanwhile, the contractor will see his business diminish without ever getting a chance to fight back or prove his worth.

Says Mr. Kramon, "this is an example of the fundamental irrationality implicit in racism."

Obviously, no government edict or law could address this irrationality directly. Laws cannot compel customers to feel comfortable about having a black contractor in their home. Laws cannot compel the shopkeeper to recommend the best man for the job, regardless of the reaction of his customers. We cannot measure how much business the contractor lost because of his race, and since we cannot measure this, no law can compensate the contractor for his losses.

Affirmative action programs do not attempt to do the impossible. But such programs recognize that prejudice flourishes when it goes unchallenged. Such programs are based on the faith that when deliberate and well-planned efforts are made to bring people together, those people will realize that the stereotypes they have held about each other are untrue.

To this end, affirmative action programs have led to dramatic progress these past 20 years. But as the Kramons' experience indicates, we still have a long way to go.

"For the record," says Mr. Kramon, "the contractor in question was the best we ever hired. He not only did an excellent job, he turned out to be a real nice guy.

"But his performance was never at issue," notes Mr. Kramon. "Prejudice. Irrationality. Those are the issues."

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