"An empty man is full of himself." -- Edward Abbey

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Two problems

     I had breakfast with a few of my buddies the other day, and after listening to them discuss a number of issues -- from old TV shows to local restaurants to Florida vacation condos -- I came away with questions about two particular issues.

     The first one is race. One of my friends is a lawyer for a public employee union (one of the few of us who's still working). He's white, middle class, lives in the suburbs. He professes to be liberal. He belongs to a Unitarian church, volunteers at Habitat for Humanity, voted for Barack Obama both in 2008 and 2012.

     Somehow we got talking about cellphones, and that led to discussing Blackberrys, and because they have keyboards, that in turn led us to reflect on whether any of us had taken typing in school. (I myself took typing in summer school, after 11th grade.) The lawyer said he signed up for typing, went to one class, and dropped out.

     Then the lawyer started talking about the secretaries he once had in his office and how well they typed. He was particularly impressed with one woman who he said could type 80 words per minute. "That's really fast," he pointed out. "She didn't make any mistakes either. She was a great secretary." But she left work at some point -- he didn't explain why -- and suddenly he was talking about how they then had several black women who were secretaries for the firm, in the 1990s.

     "They could type, maybe 35 words per minute," he scoffed.

     "Actually, that's not too bad," one of the guys offered, "if they're accurate. I used to earn money typing papers for kids in college, and that's about what I did."

     The lawyer acknowledged that, but according to him these secretaries were just not as good. "And all they did was complain," he went on to say, not in a rant, but just telling his anecdote. "But of course, we couldn't do anything about it, because they were black women, and we were white men."

     And so here's the question: How do we ever get over the race issue as long as guys like this -- older white guys who profess to be liberal, who vote Democratic -- report this kind of personal experience about people they work with?

     And I wonder how much he reported to us was accurate. Did those secretaries really type only 35 wpm -- less than half the speed on their white counterpart? Did the black secretaries really complain, like he said they did? And was he being forthright when he said they couldn't do anything because the lawyers were white, and the secretaries were black?

     Was this fellow offering a moment of honesty about what we sometimes think of as affirmative action? Or was he being a racist? I know what my black friend at our community college would say: Racist all the way! Yet, all of the older white guys at the table, all of whom think of themselves as enlightened and non-racist, seemed to take the story as matter of fact.

     Then there's the other issue. Fast forward to 2013. The lawyer said his firm doesn't have secretaries anymore. Nobody does. They have paralegals. Everyone does their own typing, not onto a typewriter but into a computer.

     The firm replaced (I'm estimating now) roughly eight secretaries, making a decent wage, with five paralegals, who are more highly skilled, and more highly paid. But because there are only five of them instead of eight of them, they actually cost the firm less money.

     Doesn't this kind of explain, in a microcosm, the unemployment problem we have today? The lawyers are doing just fine. The firm is doing well. The more highly skilled workers are making money. But the lower skilled personnel, the old secretaries . . . those jobs have been eliminated.

     See the problem?


DJan said...

I was a secretary for most of my career. I started out as a typist and then secretary, then executive secretary, and finally a writer/editor. I would NEVER have believed that secretaries would become obsolete, but they have.

If I had a crystal ball and could look into the future, I wonder how many other professions will be gone that I can't even imagine today.

Racism is alive and well all over the country, Tom. This guy is definitely racist and the sad part is that he doesn't know it. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I read a really good book about the black flight from the south into the north and learned a great deal about why it's still around. The book is "The Warmth of Other Suns" and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Anonymous said...

Question: Where were the male secretaries? My take on it is that the guy was perfectly willing to put up with a system that shuttled the women off to low-paying jobs, and then whine about a part of the system that he felt was not toadying up to him. Sheesh!

Linda Myers said...

I would have been hard pressed to keep my mouth shut in that conversation. I'm glad I wasn't there!

Barb said...

Well, two different issues. But, as for the unemployment issue, lots of business folks don't even have secretary OR paralegals any more (cant speak for law offices.)These days with computers everyone can edit and type their own work with ease, and its much easier to type than dictate and have someone else type. I think thats a result of technology. Lots of offices have receptionists and file people but not traditional secretries.

As for racism in this country it is still alive and well (as is sexism), and yes, much of it is from the middle aged white guys and much of it is not realized. I give the folks my father's age a break as a certain amount of it is institutionalized but when it comes to folks our age, there really is no excuse. Like Linda, I am not one to remain quiet on such issues.

stephen Hayes said...

I find it hard to believe these black secretaries typed only 35 words a minute. Why, then, were they hired? I don't type, just hunt and peck, but I can get more than 35 words down on a page per minute.

On a related note, when one considers the disrespect so many people aim at our current president I'm forced to conclude that racism is alive and well in America.

Anonymous said...

Why did he feel he needed to state whether the secretaries were black or white? See -- that's racist. Couldn't he have just said he had a string of secretaries who didn't type as fast? What if he would have said they were gay? Same thing.

Anonymous said...

I worked for 9 years at a top notch law firm on Long Island. The firm was 100% Democratic and one of the partners was instrumental in getting Hillary Clinton elected. The firm needed a new receptionist and the partners absolutely refused to hire a wonderful black lady who was well qualified and had applied. It was the rest of the employees (secretaries) who implored the partners to hire her and they eventually did.The firm also fought any ex-employee from ever collecting unemployment benefits.The firm and all the people in it were just nothing more than bigots, racists, hypocrites. The experience I had there did not sit well with me and my thoughts on the Democratic Party.
By the time I left, most secretaries had become paralegals and did dual positions.
Oh, and when it came my time to be 'politely forced' out of the firm I had accumulated so much sexual harassment and bias, racism evidence against them, I sued them AND won.

Kirk said...

My favorite paralegal story was told to me by the lawyer wife of a friend. Her firm specialized in suing companies for employment discrimination against women, and having hired a woman paralegal found her totally incompetent. But as she was also pregnant, they kept her on for fear of being sued themselves.

As a programmer in the early 70s, I needed to code my programs on punchcards. I got pretty good at the keypunch, but in my first job I was required to send the coding sheets to the keypunch department instead of doing it myself. Of course, it then took me longer to actually get the cards, and then I had to fix all the keying errors myself.

I'm a self taught 4-finger typist.

Carole said...

I, too, learned to type in high school as preparation for typing my papers in college. So glad I did, given this high tech age of computers that we live in.

The remarks are certainly racist. They make me cringe, and also to feel so sad! It's hurtful to others to stereotype in that way.

Every time I think that our country is making progress in race relations, I hear stories like this one. The hatred for our President is palpable, and seems to be often based on race. And, it amazes me that someone would make comments like this out loud to others. It suggests that he thought that there was nothing wrong or prejudicial about what he said. Just heartbreaking.

Jeanette said...

How difficult it must have been to hear your friend's comments and to understand that he is racist. I have, too often, heard people say similar things and I am left feeling uncomfortable. In such situations, should the person making these outrageous statement be confronted? If so, what might be the best way to do so and make it a learning moment?

Anonymous said...

I wonder what he would say about me, a Korean woman married to a white man and our mixed race children?

Anonymous said...

Tom--Taught myself to type in 7th grade. Elder brother hadn't enough money for the typewriter he wished to buy, so we went into the purchase together. Dad covered each key with a piece of electrician's tape to force us to learn to type properly. Four years later, I took typing in school (to learn business forms). When I topped 100 wpm, the teacher switched me to the new-fangled electric typewriter (slower than the manual because it didn't throw the carriage as fast) and 10-key adder.

That summer, I (a WASP 17-year-old girl) worked as a Graph-o-Type and Address-o-Graph operator for a tool company, my immediate boss was a black woman (who was wonderful!) who worked for a Jewish man. (Come to think of it, the first boy to ask me on a date was Jewish.)

Did I become a secretary? No, but some of my best friends have been secretaries with whom I worked. They, on the whole, had more common sense than the other engineers with whom I worked! I always thought that a secretary and his/her boss should be paid as a team - with the money being split half-and-half.

Gigi--Many of us are probably "mixed race" and just don't know it - at least here in the lower 48 States.
Cop Car

Douglas said...

Let me address the "racist" issue first: Of course he was racist and he was/is unaware of it. If you called him on it, he would get defensive, angry, and quit looking at you as a friend. I am also not surprised that you were taken aback by your friend's words. Just because someone professes to be liberal doesn't mean they are open-minded and non-racist. Just as all those who profess to be conservative aren't racist and close-minded. judge each person on his/her own words and actions, not on their political ideology.

I am not surprised to learn that secretaries are rare and, yes, you are right about the economy having this effect. In bad economic times, business of all sizes find ways to save money while still being profitable. The lesson learned from that is that we often do more with less. We find we have overstaffed our offices and paid more than necessary. And this lesson lasts for some time after the economy begins to recover. My mother was a Legal Secretary for over 35 years. She did much more than simply type letters, she did what is now called paralegal work. A smart worker often does more than the job description requires. This helps ensure job security. Doesn't always work in union shops but works well in non-union.

Anonymous said...

Why are some folks who profess to be "not racisr" so racist. Voting for BO, or the reverse, did not make one racist or non-racist.

Democrats can be very racist and misogynous too. I don't think any one group has a claim to be non-racist, not even the Republicans who led the fight to end slavery under Lincoln and led the fight to bring about Civil Rights laws while the Democrat party fought them.

Some ignorant leftists claim Tea Party people are tarred with the racist brush, but as far as I can tell they are not, and I've done much research on the subject. Some may be racist, various members of any group should be given the same label.

I am a Classical Liberal like JFK. Many on the left who claim him today are unaware of his right of center policies…which did not make him a racist.

Half the people I worked with at the Census Bureau (in the Race and Ethnicity statistics area) were "people of color" The best compliments I ever received in my life came from my Black friends at work, all of whom hugged me as I retired. The day I left for good, one of them chased me down the stairs as and shouted, "Pray for us!"

Given I grew up in the South, where segregation ruled, and I could have become a rabid racist very easily, I consider overcoming any residual racism in my character a great achievement.

BTW I am not alone, many Southerners feel as I do. There's a reason so many Hispanics and African-Americans are moving "Home" to the South.

I don't like BO's violation of the Constitution he swore to protect and defend, and I did not vote for him. Dianne

Rita said...

Hi Tom,

I don't think your friend is a racist. He was just stating what had happened in the workplace.

Different people and different groups come to the workplace with different skills.

We had a secretary where I worked who had worked at a hamburger place before she got the job. I and others helped her learn about grammar and how to use the computer. She was white.

Like your friend, there wasn't anything we could do about it, because someone else had hired her, but to help her learn the job.


Anonymous said...

I was a medical transcriptionist for over 15 years. It was a great vocation. Now there is voice recognition recorders and the computer types from them. There is no need for people anymore!!!

Another profession down the drain

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