The Washington Monthly
The Good Black: A True Story of Race in Americaby Paul M. Barrett
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Larry Mungin spent his life preparing to succeed in the white world. He looked away from racial inequality and hostility, believing he'd make it if he worked hard and played by the rules. He rose from a Queens housing project to Harvard Law School, and went on to practice law at major corporate firms. But just at the point when he thought he'd make it, when he should have been considered for partnership, he sued his employer for racial discrimination. The firm claimed it went out of its way to help Larry because of his race, while Larry thought he'd been treated unfairly. Was Larry a victim of racial discrimination, or just another victim of the typical dog-eat-dog corporate law culture? A thought-provoking courtroom drama with the fast pace of a commercial novel, The Good Black asks readers to rethink their ideas about race and is a fascinating look at the inner workings of the legal profession.
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Barrett, a Wall Street Journal legal affairs writer who coincidentally was Mungin's friend at Harvard Law School, manages to keep a discreet distance from his subject while also enjoying access to him and other parties of the court case. Suspenseful, highly entertaining courtroom drama.
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Read an Excerpt
"Don't Be Afraid; I'm One of the Good Blacks"
Lawrence D. Mungin, a tall African-American man of imposing build, sat calmly at the plain wooden plaintiff's table in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. He was an attorney, and looked the part in a well-cut gray business suit. But he wasn't trying this case for a client. Mungin was the client. He had sued his employer, the large corporate law firm of Katten Muchin & Zavis. His claim was race discrimination.
"He's damaged goods," Abbey Hairston, Mungin's lead lawyer, was telling the jury. She was nearing the end of her closing argument. Mungin, she said, had endured "emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life."
The jurors, seven blacks and one white, had listened to four days of testimony about Mungin's high hopes and frustration at Katten Muchin's field office in Washington. "He had to sue his employer, his dream of being a partner in a major law firm probably down the tubes," Hairston reminded the jurors. "What's he going to do? Well, he can still practice law. We're not going to deny that. He's practicing law right now at fourteen dollars an hour. He's making approximately thirty thousand dollars a year." She shook her head. He might have been making $130,000, plus a bonus. "Big difference," she said. "He was humiliated. You saw that. He was in anguish. You saw that. He didn't know what to do. He was professionally trapped.
"What do we want?" Hairston paused. "We want a million dollars."
The seven-figuredemand seemed to surprise even Hairston. "Is that too much? I don't think so." The jury had heard testimony about partners at Mungin's former firm who made more than $500,000 a year. "Larry will not be on that track," Hairston said. "Larry's off the track. He deserves a million dollars.
"And the firm should be punished," she continued. "Two million dollars in punitive damages, that's what we'd like to see."
Mungin "met the qualifications. He exceeded the qualifications. He worked hard to get where he did. He came out of housing projects and got to that point. And now it may be lost. So what we want to see is justice, because justice was not served in that law firm."
Hairston, who also was African-American, believed in her client's case, but by nature, she couldn't avoid worrying. Had she convinced the jurors that, despite the absence of racist insults or overtly hostile acts, the law firm's not-so-benign neglect amounted to a violation of the federal civil rights laws?
Mungin had no such doubts. He was certain that he and his lawyers had persuaded the mostly black and working-class jury that he had been mistreated and shunted aside by his former employer--and that the reason had been the color of his skin.
Another stylish black woman lawyer, Michele Roberts, had listened to Hairston's closing from the defendant's table. She sat near her client, Vincent Sergi, a top partner from the Chicago home office of the predominantly white Katten Muchin firm. As lead defense lawyer, Roberts had told the jury that Mungin, the only black among the 50 attorneys in the firm's Washington branch, may have had a bad time at Katten Muchin, but so did a lot of white lawyers. Sergi, middle-aged and unassuming, hadn't flinched as Roberts depicted the firm as a place of equal opportunity unhappiness for young attorneys. The Katten Muchin side believed that it wouldn't take the jury very long to conclude that whatever happened to Mungin, it hadn't been discrimination.
Roberts rose to answer Hairston. Her client, she told the jurors, shared their values. "It goes without saying," she said, that "it is intolerable, it is offensive, it is unacceptable, and it is unlawful to treat any man, woman, or child differently because of their race. It's conduct that has no place in this community.
"And when we see it, it is our responsibility to shout about it, to shout it out, to point it out. But as we point that finger, ladies and gentlemen, don't allow that finger, that pointed finger, to quiver. Don't allow that pointed finger to be bent.... When we point that finger, ladies and gentlemen, it must be straight, and it must be certain. We cannot allow those real racists the ammunition to argue that we have no credibility, that we complain whenever things don't quite go right."
Roberts reminded the jury that it was not enough that Mungin may have been "treated badly." The civil rights laws barred--barred only--his being "treated differently because he was black."
Something clearly went wrong with Larry Mungin's career at Katten Muchin. He arrived as an experienced associate with two Harvard degrees and an impressive personal history that began in inner-city New York. He ended up marginalized, assigned inappropriately basic work, brushed off by senior partners, told he had "fallen between the cracks."
But was he a victim of ordinary mismanagement or of race bias? While Mungin's account of what happened to him was harrowing, many of the important facts in this case could be interpreted in varying ways. This wasn't the rare, clear-cut instance of racial discrimination, such as the famous Texaco episode of 1996 in which white executives were caught on audiotape making disparaging references to blacks and contemplating destruction of documents in a pending bias lawsuit. There was no secret recording in the Katten Muchin files, no "smoking gun" memo. Mungin's case was far more typical of most discrimination suits, tinged in ambiguous shades of gray. As fervently as Mungin believed that he had been singled out for bad treatment, the law firm was convinced that his setbacks could be attributed to business problems having nothing to do with race. If anything, Katten Muchin insisted, it treated Mungin better because he was black.
The case captivated lawyers from Chicago to New York and made headlines in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other publications. I followed it closely as a journalist specializing in legal affairs, but I also had a personal interest: Thirteen years earlier, Mungin and I had been first-year law school roommates at Harvard. We had talked about the role of race in his life quite a bit that year, and on and off ever since. When his suit went to trial, I began the reporting that became this book.
With striking consistency, white lawyers told me that what happened to Mungin may not have been pretty, but it was merely a function of the callous way many law firms now conduct themselves. There is considerable truth in that view. A white lawyer in Mungin's place might have had some of the same sort of difficulties.
But in a society where race permeates so much of our thinking and subtly colors so many actions, Mungin's race could not be ignored. Katten Muchin didn't ignore it. The question is what role did it play? How is it that someone with so much promise--who was raised specifically to vault over the race line, and had the skills to make it--ended up instead accusing his employer, and, by extension, "the system," of harming him because of his race?
Most black lawyers with whom I discussed the case expressed sympathy for Mungin. They said that minority associates sometimes stumble because they are excluded, consciously or unconsciously, from important relationships. Even well-intentioned white partners and their white clients typically feel more comfortable on a personal level with associates who look like them. A sense of satisfaction over the hiring of a black associate may turn sour when business goes bad or personalities don't click. Self-consciousness over race inhibits direct, honest conversation. Think what it would be like, black lawyers said to me, if you were the only white in an office with 49 blacks. Would you feel at ease? Would you trust your black employers when they told you that career reversals were simply a result of business developments, not race? These are fair questions.
When I put these questions to white lawyers, the answer I received, with jarring vehemence, was that Mungin couldn't have been hurt because of his race. Big law firms are dying to improve their minority numbers. Mungin was probably an affirmative action hire who just didn't work out, I was told.
The gulf separating white and black views of the Mungin case demonstrates that his story is more than a good courtroom yarn. It dramatizes the current dilemma of race in the middle and upper reaches of American society. Openly racist behavior is uncommon these days in business and professional life. But distrust and resentment are rife. Mungin was unusual in that he had the audacity and stamina to mount a serious lawsuit. But his story reflects the experiences of countless other blacks who do not sue--people who overcome obstacles, work hard, achieve some success, yet still feel thwarted. They have the graduate degree, the leather briefcase, and the right sort of suit, but they end up estranged and embittered. They ask: What more do I have to do to be treated with respect?
Katten Muchin's reaction to Mungin, on the other hand, reflects the thinking of many whites in the professional workplace. They look across the hall, the trading floor, or the corporate cafeteria, and they are mystified as to why blacks believe they are at a disadvantage or are any different from everyone else trying to get ahead in a demanding world. Many whites are persuaded that they are the ones held back, as corporate America gives special breaks to minorities. The question on many white minds is: Why are these people so angry?
Mungin felt doubly burned at Katten Muchin. He had defined himself largely in terms of professional success. The law firm crushed that self-image by making him feel like a failure. Worse, he walked away feeling foolish that for his whole life, he had "gone the extra mile to show people--whites and blacks, but mostly whites--that I wasn't one of those blacks, one of the dangerous ones, the bad ones. Or one of the complainers, the ones demanding special treatment." Mungin had assumed that to get ahead, he needed to distinguish himself from the negative stereotypes of inner-city African-American men. By the time of his lawsuit, he was no longer proud of all the time and energy he had spent reassuring whites. "To be honest," he confessed, with a self-deprecating bite to his words, "I wanted to show that I was like white people: `Don't be afraid. I'm one of the good blacks.'" But that hadn't been enough.
What People are Saying About This
(Abigail Thernstrom, Co-author, America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible)
(Jeffrey Toobin, Author of The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson)
Meet the Author
Paul M. Barrett is the Deputy Legal Editor at The Wall Street Journal. He was nominated by The Wall Street Journal for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.
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