Annual Edition 'Buying Power of Black America' report
breaks down billions in expenditures Black
consumers are responding to tighter economic condition by focusing more
of their spending on items and services that improve their homes and
lifestyle. That's one of the trends revealed in the 15th annual report,
"The Buying Power of Black America," published by Target Market News.
The report analyzes spending for black households in 2008 and finds that
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Mehri discusses his work on dismantling discrimination on Madison Ave. By
AtlantaPost.com (April 27, 2010) For many in America, racism is a thing of the
past. Everyday they turn on the television and see a black man who,
having garnered a wide swath of support, sits in the White House.
Surely, we have come a long way. But even as diversity has reached the
highest office of the land, it continues to lack a foothold in many
Cyrus Mehri has dedicated his professional life to changing that. Since
1993 he's been laboring in the trenches of discrimination law. He's
taken on some of America's largest companies, challenging the likes of
Texaco, Morgan Stanley and Coca-Cola. Now Mehri has set his sites not on
a single firm, but an entire industry that he considers is the most
discriminatory. He is out to show advertising agencies that when it
comes to talent, they need to start promoting black.
Did you seek out to specialize in discrimination cases or did you
fall into this field?
I always had the sensibilities to do this type of law, but the
opportunity to do so happened in 1993. Two Texaco African-American
executives, Phil Roberts and Bari Ellen Roberts, hit the glass ceiling,
really more of a brick ceiling, and needed a serious lawyer to take on a
company of that magnitude in a discrimination suit. That was my first
Title 7 case and it led to a landmark settlement.
More recently you have taken on the industry of advertising, rather
than a specific company. Did people come to you directly to complain?
Yes, people came to us, and whenever they told us how egregious the
conduct was within the firms, it was very compelling. So we decided to
look into it, and what we found is that quite often the conduct was
actually worse than what was reported to us. These are some bad boys.
What are some examples?
Right now, African-Americans are paid 80 cents on the dollar for the
same jobs within this industry. That's a 20% percent cut. Just imagine
as you're sitting down to pay your bills, your paycheck is 20% less than
people with the same job. That was perhaps the most stunning find in a
100 page report we co-sponsored with the NAACP. That's the first thing
that stood out to me.
The second thing is that, within the industry, there is a short fall of
7200 jobs. When you compare the pool of available African-American
talent and then look at the placement of that talent, those shortfalls
[indicated that] the African-American community [is being robbed] of
high paying positions.
Within the context of the investigation, we're finding people with
incredible talent that should be being begged to be hired in the
industry, but the doors are shut to them. One position that stands out
in my mind is creative director. There are few, if any, that are
African-American in the mainstream part of the industry. That is like
saying there are no black coaches. Right now, there are more black
CEO's than black creative directors. Many African-Americans are shunned
because of their color. They are not invited to the meetings, or given
very few work assignments because people are just not comfortable with
the African-Americans in that industry.
You bring up an interesting point. Let me play devil's advocate. As
you get up higher in any corporation, it becomes less about technical
skills and more about relationships. If you don't feel comfortable with
someone, you don't want him around no matter what color he is.
First of all, in this environment, these creative type positions by
definition draw on people with eclectic and diverse backgrounds. It's an
environment that in all ways, except with respect to color, is a
Second, you cannot tell me that African-American professionals are not
good at relationship building. I mean we have a black President that led
a movement of millions of people with thousands of relationships, so I
don't buy that relationship building is a skill set that is lacking. So
there is no excuse for the lack of representation or lack of
When did you get an idea that this was a problem on Madison Avenue?
In mid-2008, someone in the industry contacted us and we launched the
project in January of 2009. So it's still pretty new.
How do you prove discrimination? For example, I used to work in a
division of Merrill Lynch with 156 people, of which only six were
African-Americans. The other five wanted to bring suit against Merrill
for a number of discriminatory things; lack of management opportunity,
special training programs, etc. None of these five individuals ever met
their monthly numbers however. I met and exceeded mine on a regular
basis, and was offered the opportunities they say they were denied
because of race.
Let me say a few things about that, and it gets back to your previous
question. Discrimination in corporate America today is much more subtle
than in years past. A big part of discrimination today deals with
favoritism toward people that are like the managers. Social scientists
call that ‘group favoritism.'
What you have on Madison Avenue is something more akin to animus toward
African-Americans -- more than I have seen in some time. On Madison
Avenue we have both group favoritism and an aversion to
African-Americans. But within the group dynamic, you can make or break
someone a number of ways. As a broker at Merrill Lynch for instance,
your manager can decide what territories you have [indeed Merrill Lynch
lost a discrimination suit regarding unfair sales territories in early
2002], which can have an impact on the numbers you are evaluated on.
You can also decide which accounts are given to whom, or what support
staff they are given. So the fact that people on paper are
under-performing, maybe due to being given fewer opportunities, or
resources. That's why we advocate companies have a lot of checks and
balances to be sure this subversive type of discrimination is not
occurring based on race or group favoritism.
How wide spread do you think it is in corporate America today?
Mehri: I think it is a problem in corporate America, but is much more
prevalent on Madison Avenue than in any other industry. The reason I
think it's a problem in general is because of the subtle way
discrimination occurs and many companies do not have the checks and
balances in place to keep it from happening. There is a direct
overlap between wealth and the glass ceiling. I can walk into a company
and speak to say, 30 people, and ask where do the stock options start?
And I'm told pay grade 16. Then I ask, where is the glass ceiling at,
and the answer is pay grade 16. So in the lower to mid-grade levels
many companies are doing well. There is decent representation. In the
higher levels, there is a bigger problem.
You mentioned that there tends to be a more creative bent on Madison
Avenue, which seems analogous to the liberal sensibilities. Why do you
think there is such a large degree of discrimination there versus the
more straight-laced areas of corporate America. It would seem on the
surface that the more liberal mindset is set against such an attitude.
They feel like they are above the law. I think they are getting legal
council that tells them that. They don't feel they are not accountable
to the law. It's as if Title 7 passed in 1964, came and went, like it
So where are you in your investigation? Have you filed suit
We are investigating. We're receiving calls from employees. We're
building a case person-by-person, brick by brick. We have charges
pending with the EEOC, which is a necessary pre-requisite to going to
court. But our hope is that there will be some enlightened leadership
to take this in a positive way, and create some lasting change.
What would the desired outcome look like? You can't just assign a
percentage number to it, can you?
Well, in keeping with the brokerage theme, a good model would be what we
did at Morgan Stanley. We had a transformative effect on the company,
but it has a great deal of creditability because it has outside
monitoring of the company with reports and measuring. It's a good