African Americans at the top: Where is coverage and context?

News wanes with the holidays, along with the working hours of reporters and editors, producers and broadcasters.

This time of year the media serve up acres of hazy recollection concerning the 12 months just past and miles of vague speculation about those to come.

All of it struggles toward significance; the best of it sometimes arrives.

Still, before the warm glow of retrospection fades entirely, it's worth taking note of one of the most interesting domestic stories that went largely unremarked upon in our annual summing up:

At the end of 2002, the secretary of State, the president's national security advisor, the CEO of the world's largest media company, the head of the world's biggest financial services firm, the CEO of the world's largest mortgage lender, the leader of American Express, as well as the globe's most recognized athlete and the finest actress and actor in the world, as selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, all had one thing in common:

Every single one is African American.

Americans are well accustomed to the prominence, even preeminence, of black artists and athletes. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington are part of a distinguished continuum; Tiger Woods is the immediate successor to the incomparable Michael Jordan. But Colin Powell's leadership of the State Department and Condoleezza Rice's influence in the Oval Office are novel events. So too are the nearly simultaneous ascensions of Richard Parsons at AOL Time Warner, Stanley O'Neal at Merrill Lynch & Co., Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae and Kenneth Chenault at American Express.

For more than 100 years, the stage and the stadium have been entry-level rungs on the American ladder of success. But foreign policy and finance are pinnacles of Establishment power.

Why, then, the silence on this remarkable watershed? Has the media's long and fitful attempt to find a coherent language with which to address painful racial issues failed to produce a vocabulary of success?

Writer and social critic Stanley Crouch thinks the success of people like Powell and Rice "hasn't been allowed to become part of the general national discussion because some people think stressing what they have accomplished gives a false impression of what has been going on in the United States." Focusing on individuals' achievements, Crouch said, "distracts people who are looking for distraction from the fact there has been no serious move by federal government to reduce the ongoing violence by street gangs that has killed 10,000 black people over the past decade. That level would not be tolerated if it had been perpetrated in the white community by the Aryan Resistance."

Crouch said he and Powell, like most of the people named above, "graduated from public schools that prepared us to compete with white students. I graduated from Thomas Jefferson [High School] in Los Angeles 40 years ago ready to take on a university education," he said. "Today, the best thing too many of our public schools can offer black kids is a choice between becoming a menace to society or a burden to society."

The difficulty of moving issues like gangs and failing urban schools to the front burner not withstanding, Crouch argues that "the real success of people like Powell should be talked about, too. We need to say out loud that it's just as possible to become secretary of State as it is to be shot down in the street by some knucklehead."

Martin Kaplan, director of USC's Norman Lear Center and associate dean of its Annenberg School of Communications, wondered whether "the media, like the country, hasn't come sufficiently far in the struggle for social justice that we are just less race sensitive. We didn't notice this landmark because what's been accomplished is more ordinary. We don't report these individuals' successes in a racial context for the same reasons we no longer routinely report the race of people accused of crimes -- because it's irrelevant."

But, said Kaplan, there "is another disturbing possibility: Maybe these individual achievements don't add up to what one would hope. When you connect the dots, you don't get a picture that signifies the end of social discrimination in these strikingly individual successes. Maybe the dots are still too widely separated by the divisions of class and race that continue to exist."

If there is anything that has taught America the values of humility and caution, it is indeed the question of race.

Failure to celebrate adequately the achievements of those African Americans who now occupy so many upper rungs on the ladder of our meritocracy is a mistake. The reluctance to recognize success in a long struggle can spread hopelessness, but there is a long, sad history to instruct us on what comes from denial.

When it comes to issues of racial equity and social equality -- to gloss Frost's famous sentiments -- we still have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep the sleep of the innocent.

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