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Wanted: mentors on the job


WASHINGTON -- "Office Politics" is the name of the most important course every college curriculum leaves out.

You find it in every company that has more than one member in it. Skillfulness at office politics has saved many a mediocre worker. Ignorance of it has destroyed the most skillful and talented.

I realized this eternal truth after discovering early in my career that I had been told a big lie. The lie was that if you study hard, keep your nose to the grindstone and don't let anyone break your spirit, you will be rewarded.

Maybe. Maybe not. You will get your just reward if you do all those things plus have some good luck. It also helps to have a kindly experienced big brother or big sister-type to show you the ropes and help direct you through the minefields.

No such big brother or big sister appeared in time to help Lawrence Mungin, which begins to explain why he wound up in court.

Mr. Mungin is the central figure in "The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America" (Dutton, $23.95), written by Paul M. Barrett, a Wall Street Journal legal reporter who was Mr. Mungin's roommate at Harvard Law School.

In March 1996, a District of Columbia federal court jury of seven blacks and one white found that Mr. Mungin had been the victim of racial bias in the Washington offices of Katten Muchin & Zavis, a nationally known Chicago-based law firm. The jury awarded Mr. Mungin $2.5 million in damages.

Katten Muchin appealed and a year later a split three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington reversed the jury verdict. The panel's two white judges invoked the sparingly used theory that "no reasonable juror" could have found any evidence of discrimination.

The dissenting black judge noted that it was a close call, that reasonable people could disagree, but that the jury's conclusion of discrimination should have been respected and upheld.

Mr. Barrett agrees. Throughout his 304-page book he traces the life of a young black man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from a housing project in Queens, where he was raised by a single mother, to make it through Harvard College and law school. He played by the rules, befriended whites, and, following his mother's sound advice, refused to wear his race like a chip on his shoulder.

But, after he served successfully as an associate at two other prestigious law firms, things began to go wrong when he joined the Washington office of Katten Muchin. Although he was paid more than $100,000 a year, he was left out of important meetings, passed over for challenging work assignments, and, despite promises that he would be considered for partnership after a year, was not even given a routine evaluation. In the words of one apologetic partner, he "fell between the cracks."

But was it because of his race? Ironically, the firm argued in court that everybody has a rough time making it at Katten Muchin, regardless of race. These things just happen, no racial offense intended.

Even so, Mr. Barrett notes, although the firm's lawyers promised in their opening arguments to offer white witnesses who would testify that they, too, had been treated shabbily, the lawyer failed to produce witnesses who had been treated as shabbily as Mr. Mungin.

"The white judges, like the white law firm partners, didn't make a serious attempt to see events through the eyes of a black person. Most members of the jury couldn't help but see things that way," Mr. Barrett said.

Candor would have gone a long way in Mr. Mungin's case. If his work was good, he should have been encouraged. If it wasn't, he should have been taken aside and talked to candidly, even if only to be assisted in making a graceful exit. Instead, judging by court records, he was shunned.

You don't have to be the most sophisticated juror in the world to detect unfairness, nor do you have to be blinded by racial rage to suspect that Mr. Mungin would have had an easier time fitting in had he not been black.

Unfortunately, Mr. Barrett notes in his book, Mr. Mungin's case has led some white law firms to say to him, off the record, that they plan to avoid trouble simply by avoiding hiring any blacks. If that's the only message that the people who can make a difference in our society get from his case, we Americans are in worse racial shape than we like to believe.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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