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Diversity's Champion : When Elsie Cross Takes on Racism and Sexism in Corporations, She Strives to Free Everyone--Even the White Men at the Top

August 09, 1992|J.P WHITE | Minneapolis-based poet and essayist J . P. White's last book of poems was "The Pomegranate Tree Speaks From the Dictator's Garden," published by Holy Cow Press.

IT'S A SIMPLE FACT OF DEMOGRAPHICS AS WELL AS SIMPLE JUSTICE: WHITE men must figure out how to share power with women and people of color.

According to the Hudson Institute's 1987 report, "Workforce 2000": "Only 15% of the net new entrants to the labor force over the next 13 years will be native white males." And according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, job discrimination and sexual-harassment complaints just keep rising. The agency's job-discrimination lawsuits increased 30% from 1981 to 1991, and that amid charges that the commission prosecutes too rarely.

"Do the right thing" may be the order of the day, but the question is how? Twenty-five years of affirmative action and equal-employment opportunities have helped women and ethnic minorities crack the door, but they haven't helped them climb the ladder. Instead, by and large, the traditional power groups that run America's corporations continue to hire and promote people who look, talk and act like them. Forget bootstrap theories. Forget Horatio Alger. America keeps polishing the mirror principle: If you look the part, you still have the best shot at landing--and succeeding in--the part.

Statistics are a dime a dozen, but here's the one that hurts us all: Women and people of color compose 65% of the work force, yet these groups still don't have the clout to match their numbers. Women have surged into middle management (an increase over the last decade from 27% to 41%) but they've been blocked from senior executive jobs. Only 3% of those top jobs are held by women, up from 1% in 1981. Minorities hold about 2% of the corporate management positions.

Some of America's white male CEOs are shaken by these sobering numbers and the implications for their companies' productivity. How will these men attract and keep top-quality women and people of color? How are they going to utilize this talent? How are they going to dismantle the racism and sexism that prevent this talent from flourishing?

Enter Elsie Cross. This 63-year-old, soft-spoken black woman from Philadelphia is one of the most persuasive and potent "diversity consultants" in this country. Her clients include Eastman Kodak, American Express, G.E. Silicones, Corning Glass and Ortho Pharmaceutical. Her 20-year-old business, Elsie Y. Cross Associates, is at the top of a fast-growing field that includes other independents (such as her main competition, the Kaleel Jamison Group in Albany, N.Y.) and corporations, which sometimes launch internal diversity programs. Cross' company has more work than it can handle and a Fortune 100 waiting list.

Working with Cross has turned Jim Rose, white male vice president of human resources at Ortho Pharmaceutical, into an eloquent and cogent advocate for her program. "Has Ortho reached utopia? No way," he says. "But have we changed the dynamics of this organization so that women and people of color want to stay and grow into new responsibilities? I say, yes we have."

As hard as it is to picture, Cross and her converts claim that top-dog, kick-ass, five-star members of the white ruling class can not only learn to recognize the sexism and racism in themselves and the organizations they have created but also can learn to change it.

Cross has seen the necessary, inevitable future of power sharing, and it works.

THE FUTURE BEGAN FOR ME WHEN I WAS JOLTED FROM MY OWN STEREOTYPICAL view of Elsie Cross. In my mind's eye, I had imagined a large, angry, boisterous black woman who wasn't interested in what a white guy had to say. But the diminutive woman I met was at once abrupt and expansive, casual and sophisticated, sardonic and yielding, her conversation rich and inventive. At every turn, she was The Teacher.

We met in a converted railroad-station inn halfway between Philadelphia and Raritan, where I'd spent a day with one of Cross' clients. It was three days after the Los Angeles riots, and the upheaval was an unavoidable topic. "White people cannot understand the anger and pain that we feel from being constantly reminded that we are not welcome here, that we are despised, that we are seen as inferior," she said.

It was midafternoon. The room was empty except for a cleaning crew. "Right now," she said, looking around, "I know some people in this hotel think it's wrong for you and me to be sitting together at this table talking to one another."

But Cross mixes hope with anger. She still believes in the first lesson she ever taught to a roomful of abashed white men: Everyone is a member of this broken family called America. Everyone will eventually look into the chasm of our collective wounds of race and gender. Everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants the giant wound healed.

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