After hiring his newspaper's first black journalist to hold a management position, an editor insisted that the pioneering move was not such a big deal, as I recall. Real progress comes not when you are able to hire a black editor, he said, but when you also are able to fire her.
The danger of getting fired is a sign that you're accountable. It is evidence that you have been hired for your ability to help the company achieve its mission, not for your value as a token. Of course, such double standards are not fair. But no one promises you a rose garden in the world of management, except maybe if you're the president of the United States, and even that one has plenty of thorns.
Those realities of corporate life sprang to mind when I heard the news from Merrill Lynch & Co. that the financial giant's top boss, E. Stanley O'Neal, "has decided to retire from the company, effective immediately."
Mr. O'Neal's departure is a disappointment to those of us who praised his rise after 16 years at the company to become the first African-American to lead a major Wall Street firm. But just as his rise was a sign of progress, so is his slide out the door, as long as it indicates that women and minorities have to meet the same rigorous profit-making standards that white men do.
Mr. O'Neal, you may recall, shared a stunning Newsweek cover photo with two other black CEOs of mega-giant Fortune 100 companies, Kenneth Chenault at American Express and AOL Time Warner's Richard D. Parsons.
That December 2001 cover brought encouraging evidence that America truly is a land where any kid can grow up to be president of, at least, a multibillion-dollar corporation.
Just six years earlier, Bob Holland broke that glass ceiling when he was named CEO at Ben & Jerry's. Unfortunately, Mr. Holland quit the quirky ice cream company less than two years later after disagreements with its famous founders. But in one of corporate America's tastiest peace offerings, his severance included endless free pints as a member of the company's elite "Ice Cream for Life Club."
Now, in addition to Mr. O'Neal, Time Warner's Mr. Parsons also is expected to step down soon. That leaves only Mr. Chenault still in place among the Newsweek trio, and only five African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500, according to Black Enterprise magazine. That's a setback, but the success of these pioneers is a sign that history is moving in the right direction.
Like Time Warner and American Express, Merrill was going through tough times when Mr. O'Neal took over. Its stock was down almost 30 percent. It was cutting jobs and trying to rebuild its image after paying $100 million to settle state charges of misleading investors by tailoring research to please clients.
With that, I can hear faint echoes of my late father's wry observation: "White folks don't give colored folks nothing until they're tired of it!" But, had he lived long enough to see it, I'm certain that Ol' Dad would have smiled with approval at how well Mr. O'Neal was allowed to prove himself the old-fashioned way, through grit, determination and the inventiveness that Ol' Dad used to call "Mother Wit."
The grandson of a man born a slave, Mr. O'Neal grew up in rural Alabama poverty, as my father did. He learned golf, took control of his Southern drawl through speech training and worked his way up from a General Motors assembly line to earn a Harvard MBA.
The financial media are calling Mr. O'Neal the first chief of a Wall Street investment bank to be done in by the subprime mortgage crisis that's been making big headlines for months. "Last hired, first fired," say the cynics in my neighborhood barbershop.
But as long as the profits rolled in, Mr. O'Neal apparently was as free as any other CEO to do things his way, for better or worse. Worse got him.
That's how they play the game on Wall Street. From its earliest days, the civil rights movement called for a level playing field. No one can guarantee results, but everyone deserves an equal opportunity.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.