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Is It All Just PR?

After almost half a century as a practicing lawyer, I am skeptical of justice in the abstract. In my experience, justice is achieved in particular situations through detailed effort, care and attention to individual facts, which is why I am waiting to see whether America’s big companies and institutions, which have proclaimed themselves committed to social and racial justice, actually follow through on their high-minded words and pledges. Are they going to “walk the walk” or is this just another public relations exercise to get their shareholders, stakeholders and consumers off their backs?

They could start by tackling evident cases of injustice.

My law firm represents a brilliant black academic, a fairly young man who currently is a liberal arts dean at a noted southern university. With impressive academic credentials (Brooklyn College and a Yale Ph.D.), he has already published books on the interface between Greek and Roman classics with Black history and culture. Given this background and his services as a senior university administrator, you might think that the next step in a distinguished career would be his selection as a college or university president. In fact, given the oft-stated need to diversify administrations and faculties at academic institutions throughout the United States, you would think there would be a line of potential employers waiting at his door.

You would have been right until two years ago, when he was made the centerpiece of a baseless gender discrimination lawsuit brought against his university by a woman professor whom, ironically, he had not only championed, but actually promoted into her very first high-level administrative job. Her claim of discrimination? That he had not valued or relied on her ideas as he supposedly had on those of her male co-workers. She also did not like the way he spoke to her. That was it. There were no claims of any sexual improprieties and no claim of any job or income loss (she had, in fact, resigned of her own volition because she purportedly felt stressed). Of course, this lawsuit, despite its evident weakness, attracted the media and immediately put our client’s employment aspirations on hold.

As it turned out, this meritless lawsuit quite properly never proceeded beyond a patently inadequate complaint. A Federal judge threw it out on the first motion to dismiss, but in an excess of caution granted the professor an additional chance to state her case. When she was unable to do so in an amended complaint, the judge threw that out as well. Dismissed with prejudice, as the lawyers say. Over and done with. Wisely, the professor did not even bother to appeal, and the deadline for any appeal passed. The end, right? As dead as a doornail, as Dickens said of Scrooge’s partner.

Wrong. Thanks to the internet, this worthless lawsuit — which never resulted in any proceedings other than the filing of a few pieces of paper — lingers on, just like Marley’s ghost, continuing to derail this Dean’s promising career.

Whether you believe, as I do, that the lawsuit was itself racially motivated is totally irrelevant. The underlying injustice of the lawsuit against him — even after she lost — continues to be perpetuated by people so frightened of any hint of controversy that they are incapable of reading beyond the headlines and getting their facts straight.

Example: one of the major management consulting firms in this country recently invited this same black academic to give a talk on their purported “Values Day” celebration on “Juneteenth”. This was a particularly appropriate invitation because of our client’s scholarship on American author Ralph Ellison, whose follow-up to his classic Invisible Man was titled Juneteenth. Then someone at the consulting firm saw that our client had been involved in a lawsuit and promptly disinvited him. What does this say about the management consulting firm which no doubt has widely publicized its commitment to social justice? American companies pay this same consulting firm millions of dollars each year to supposedly make a minute, detailed analysis of their most intractable business problems. You would think that this would presuppose the ability of the firm’s analysts to look at the underlying facts and avoid superficial judgments. But apparently no one at this famous (and highly profitable) management consulting firm bothered to figure out that the lawsuit had been fully and finally dismissed because the professor could not even state — much less prove — a viable legal claim against our client.

Isn’t this the moment when we are supposed to be to examining racism in all its forms?

And, lest you say that this desire to avoid controversy is just cowardice, not racism, Dick Nodell, a leading management consultant with years of experience counselling executives in higher education, points out that such fearfulness is one of the reasons why racism becomes entrenched and is so intractable.

Let’s see if the big institutions, and not just this one prominent management consulting firm, but the many for-profit and non-profit organizations, colleges, universities and foundations, who claim that they are ready and eager to promote black talent, are really willing to do so, or whether it is still just a lot of talk.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.