November 1996
Article 1

Texaco--Running on Fumes

 

 
 

The situation at Texaco has made a public spectacle of diversity training. Who would have thought that something as prosaic as corporate training would be part of a story that includes secret tapes, weirdly misheard transcripts, lawsuits, shredded documents...
When the tapes from 1994 were released, the first impression was that several white male senior managers were calling African-American co-workers "black jelly beans" and "niggers."
So it followed that the men were bigots. And that explained Texaco's discrimination against black employees. And that just confirmed what many people suspected about the people at the top of corporate America.
In an instant, we have revealed a roomful of Mark Fuhrmans. Open and shut case. Convicted by their own words.
Except that those weren't their words. The man didn't say "niggers," he said "St. Nicholas," a well-known jolly white man.
And the Texaco manager didn't call black people "black jelly beans." He was mimicking or paraphrasing a man who has been comparing diversity to a jar of jelly beans for years. No, not Ronald Reagan. The speaker was an African-American man, hired by Texaco as part of their diversity awareness program. (Note for the sake of accuracy: Dr. Roosevelt Thomas does not talk about black jelly beans; he talks about red, green and yellow jelly beans.)
I know this sounds like a sketch from "In Living Color." Except that it's not funny.
The Texaco managers now share infamy with a list of sour white men, caricatures, archetypes, friends and neighbors.
Let's look again at their remarks on that tape. They weren't just rattled by their black co-workers. They were rattled by their company's diversity awareness training program.
Holidays to the right of them, holidays to the left of them, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, squeezing out their own Christmas.
The tapes--or the mistaken transcripts of them--were the talk of the town.
Texaco's management--white men, one for all and all for one--were condemned.
The so-called "racial slurs and epithets" turned out not to exist, though there may well be a psycho-political connection between destroying evidence in a discrimination lawsuit being brought against your company and being obtuse about the diversity commitment of your company. It's certainly something to ponder. There is a criminal obstruction of justice investigation underway.
In retrospect, it looks as though Texaco's diversity awareness effort back in the summer of '94 did make an impact in perhaps unforeseen ways. It got under the skin of some senior managers. Those jelly beans went off like hand grenades.

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