Thanks to the civil rights movement and affirmative action, blacks now occupy positions in numbers and at levels that were unimaginable as recently as the 1960s.
But that success has created a new set of problems, and at a May 1 talk sponsored by the African-American Resource Center, sociologist Elijah Anderson examined some of them.
Anderson, the Charles and William L. Day Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences, spoke on “The Social Situation of Black Workers in Organizations.” That situation, he said, is most complex for those successful blacks who have adapted to the culture and ways of the larger group.
Calling them the “peripheral own,” he said they navigate between two worlds. Most are conscious of the persistence of racism, he said, and “want to give something back to their community.” But they may avoid deep involvement with core group members who might jeopardize their own success.
“The people who are decidedly peripheral are often put through a lot of changes in the black community,” Anderson said. “They run the risk of being seen as sellouts, even though they are not,” often working behind the scenes to advance the interest of black employees in general.
Many of the questions asked by the almost all-female audience dealt with the issue of the apparent disconnect between successful blacks and the larger black community. Within the workplace, Anderson said, mentoring programs can help successful blacks contribute to the black community, but added that “some of the best mentor-mentee relationships are those that arise informally.”
He also noted that while some successful blacks may oppose affirmative action because it calls their own achievements into question, the workplace as we know it today would not have come about without it, and that this duality also underlies calls for altering rather than abolishing it. And, he added, opposition to affirmative action is not the exclusive province of the peripheral: “I’ve met blacks who support Louis Farrakhan and still oppose affirmative action.”
Originally published on May 9, 2002