A New Black-Jewish Partnership Is Beginning to Emerge at Firms
JONATHAN KAUFMAN Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
Jeh Johnson, one of the few black partners at a major New York law firm, never thought much about black-Jewish relations before he began his climb up the career ladder. But soon after law school, he started working at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, where he was mentored by two well-known lawyers, Arthur Liman and Morris Abram, who were both Jewish. Four years ago, he became the firm's sole black partner. Today, his three biggest clients are companies managed by Jews.
"It's more than coincidence," says Mr. Johnson, 40 years old. "In a predominantly white professional environment, it seems constantly the case that blacks and Jews find more in common. If you blaze the trail yourself, you are going to be more courageous in bringing someone else along."
Mr. Abram, 79, agrees. "We had a lot in common," he says of Mr. Johnson. "There was a sharing that I didn't feel with some of my other partners. I guess I saw part of myself in him."
Make a list of the top blacks at corporations and in law firms, and a striking pattern emerges: Despite all the noise about tensions between blacks and Jews, many black and Jewish executives have forged extraordinarily close partnerships. Indeed, at the top levels of American business, a number of Jewish CEOs have named a highly talented black as an heir apparent or top executive.
At American Express Co., Kenneth Chenault, 46, expected to be the next CEO, has been mentored by Harvey Golub, 59, the company's Jewish chairman and CEO. At Time WarnerInc., Richard Parsons, 50, is president under Gerald Levin, 58. At Travelers Group Inc.,Thomas Jones, 48, is a vice chairman under Sanford Weill, 65.
'A Lot of Bruises'
Just last week, Barry Sternlicht, 37, head of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. and part of a new generation of Jewish corporate leaders, named his friend and Harvard Business School classmate, Richard Nanula, as CEO of the $10 billion company. Mr. Nanula, who is black, is coming over to Phoenix-based Starwood from Walt Disney Co.where he was chief financial officer under a Jewish CEO, Michael Eisner.
"The Jews who scrapped their way to the top have a lot of bruises and calluses," says Gershon Kekst, a New York publicist who is close to Mr. Levin and Mr. Weill. "They look for people with whom they can feel some sort of compatibility, a shared vocabulary."
The blacks who are making it to the top are seasoned executives with excellent corporate track records. And, of course, blacks get promoted by gentiles as well as Jews. In his early career, Mr. Parsons served as an aide to Nelson Rockefeller. Mr. Chenault began his rise at American Express under James Robinson. Mr. Jones received his big break when a black executive, Clifton Wharton, brought him to New York to help run the pension fund TIAACREF. And while Franklin Raines, the newly appointed head of Fannie Mae, has worked with Jews, his major patrons have been Democratic politicians such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Moreover, not all Jewish executives have brought along blacks in their organizations. And some partnerships, like many business relationships, don't work out. In 1994, the Jewish owners of Ben & Jerry's , known for their devotion to liberal causes, hired Robert Holland as the company's first black CEO. Mr. Holland resigned two years later. "I had put through some important and difficult changes," he says. "But I wasn't going to spend another five years there. I thought someone else could do better."
But the closeness between some high-ranking blacks and Jews in big business is striking, especially given the deterioration in black-Jewish relations over the past 20 years. In the early 1960s, Jews were major contributors to civil-rights groups. In 1964, three-quarters of the whites who went to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote were Jews -- including Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were murdered alongside their black colleague James Chaney by the Ku Klux Klan.
But in the years that followed, the black-Jewish alliance began to fray. Blacks and Jews were at loggerheads over issues ranging from affirmative action to the presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson. Louis Farrakhan inflamed tensions with his anti-Semitic statements. Israel's ties with apartheid-era South Africa angered many blacks. In 1991, blacks rioted in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., after a car carrying a Hasidic rabbi struck and killed a black boy.
Still, these high-level corporate ties suggest that, out of the public eye, some blacks and Jews are finding common ground in the boardroom and aboard the company jet. Most top black and Jewish business executives consider the issue sensitive and declined requests for interviews, saying through spokesmen that merit, not race or ethnicity, determines their business relationships. But another, more subtle factor seems to be at work: Blacks and Jews have come together by the common experience of being outsiders.
"Many of the Jews in their 50s and 60s who were the first to break through the corporate barriers are mentoring African-Americans in their 40s who are breaking barriers," says David Thomas, a professor at Harvard Business School, who studies the rise of black executives.
Messrs. Golub, Levin and Weill "understand what it is like to struggle, to be the first in their generation to make it," says Eli Evans, an author and head of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, who knows many of the black and Jewish business leaders. "These black and Jewish executives understand what it's like to be outsiders on the inside."
Consider Mr. Golub and Mr. Chenault. Mr. Golub is the grandson of immigrants who grew up in Brooklyn. Three of his father's businesses failed. Mr. Golub flunked out of Cornell University before earning a bachelor's degree from New York University. He joined American Express in 1984 as president of its IDS Financial Services subsidiary, becoming president in 1991. Often abrasive, he was an outsider, determined to shake up a stodgy culture. At one point, a colleague urged Mr. Golub to turn down the IDS job because he and his wife wouldn't feel comfortable moving from New York to largely Protestant Minnesota, where IDS is based.
Mr. Golub, a board member of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes this newspaper, declined to be interviewed. A spokesman says he doesn't feel his religion played a role in his selection. But the spokesman acknowledges "there was a white-shoe tradition at American Express going back to the 1940s and 1950s of a company populated by traditional WASPs. They looked at Harvey as someone who didn't grow up in the company, wasn't the scion of a prominent Atlanta family," as was his predecessor, Mr. Robinson.
The Self-Made Guys
"Harvey is a self-made guy, and part of being a self-made guy when you're Jewish is that you never forget that you're Jewish. In certain environments, being Jewish is not an asset. It's something you have to overcome," says Kenneth Bialkin, a lawyer in New York who has known Mr. Golub for years and has done legal work for American Express.
Soon after being named chairman of American Express in 1993, Mr. Golub set up a series of diversity seminars, noting special problems faced by blacks in corporations: "If you're black, it is a central fact in your life," he said at the time. "You wake up in the morning, and you know you're black. By the time you get to work, you've been reminded two or three times that you're black. For us as white men, that is not the No. 1 thing that we would think about ourselves."
Mr. Chenault is, in many ways, Mr. Golub's opposite: polished where Mr. Golub is rough; a consensus-builder where Mr. Golub is curt; a Democrat who socialized with Jesse Jackson where Mr. Golub is a Republican who gave money to conservative Sen. Phil Gramm.
Mr. Chenault also grew up in better social circumstances than Mr. Golub. The son of a dentist, Mr. Chenault attended private school in the Long Island, N.Y., suburbs, then went on to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and Harvard Law School. He joined American Express at 29 and moved up rapidly.
He is also an outsider credited with attracting and promoting minorities in the company. And he is comfortable working with Jews. Mr. Chenault is a supporter of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes black-Jewish relations, according to Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the group.
"Ken has a rare ability to make people of all ilks feel comfortable with him -- whether it's Jewish people from Brooklyn or aristocratic WASPs from Atlanta," says a former American Express official who knows both Mr. Chenault and Mr. Golub well. "Ken is one of the most sophisticated sizer-uppers of situations from all angles, whether it be sizing up someone's ethnicity, background, their biases or their interests."
Last year, Mr. Golub named Mr. Chenault the company's president and his most likely successor. Mr. Chenault's ability to turn around the troubled card division, his ferocious work ethic and considerable people skills were key to his rise. And if part of mentoring is seeing yourself in your protege, some suggest that Mr. Golub sees something of himself in Mr. Chenault.
"People usually mentor people who look like them," says Mr. Thomas, the Harvard professor. "In this case, there are things that aren't visible to the naked eye. Harvey and Ken share an identification. They share a psychic space."
Sending a Message
"Harvey is very aware of the message he is sending," says Maceo Sloan, a black money manager who has known both men for a dozen years. "It's a message that says, 'Let's base things on competence and performance and get away from skin color.' Harvey ... and other Jews are old enough to remember what it used to be like 50 years ago when you had signs on Miami Beach that said, 'No Jews or Dogs Allowed.' "
Some of Mr. Golub's motives are more basic, those who know him say. Mr. Golub came to power after the board of directors forced out his predecessor, so Mr. Chenault's loyalty counts for a great deal. "Ken would never go to board members and do anything untoward," says Mitch Kurz, vice chairman of Young & Rubicam Inc., who knows both men.
Like other Jewish CEOs, Time Warner's Mr. Levin began as an outsider, subject to the slights and barriers of discrimination. In the 1940s, his father, a successful grocer, tried to move his family to a better neighborhood near Philadelphia's Main Line. They were turned away from buying a house because of their religion, he has told interviewers.
Politically, Mr. Levin is more liberal than Mr. Golub. He grew up in a Reform Jewish home, where religion was mixed with a strong bent toward social justice; he then attended Haverford College, a college founded by Quakers near Philadelphia. Mr. Levin's son Jonathan, before his murder last year, taught poor black children at a high school in the Bronx; another son is studying to be a rabbi. Under pressure to identify a No. 2, Mr. Levin in 1994 named Mr. Parsons, a prominent New York lawyer and bank president who was on the Time Warner board.
"I think Jerry gets an enormous amount of satisfaction from having Dick Parsons there," says a friend who has known Mr. Levin for 20 years. "He likes telling the rest of the organization, 'You learn to relate to him. This is the new reality.' These guys believe the country can be different and they like being the people who make it different."
Many of the black executives working with Jews share traits, too. Like Mr. Chenault, they often grew up in homes with more social status than their mentors. Travelers' Mr. Jones grew up in a middle-class Queens, N.Y., neighborhood; his father was a minister and a chemist. As for Mr. Johnson, the lawyer, his father was an architect. The blacks also often attended school with Jews.
Mr. Johnson says he remembers Jews who befriended his family when, in the 1960s, they moved to a predominantly white community in upstate New York. "When I would play with the Jewish kids, I would never hear their parents say, 'Don't play with that black boy,' " Mr. Johnson recalls. "I heard that a lot from other white families."
Mr. Johnson's family ties with Jews, it turns out, go back several generations. He recently discovered that when he was born, a family Bible was given to his grandfather, president of historically black Fisk University, by the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The two men had been friends.
It was Mr. Johnson's ties to historically black colleges that attracted Mr. Abram's interest when Mr. Johnson arrived at the Paul Weiss law firm as an associate. Mr. Abram, the son of immigrants, grew up in a small Georgia town that had only 10 Jewish families. He worked for a time as Martin Luther King Jr.'s lawyer, becoming a trustee of Morehouse College and chairing the United Negro College Fund for nine years. Moving more to the right, Mr. Abram came out against affirmative action and served as vice-chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under President Reagan. He says he saw in Mr. Johnson confirmation of his view that while it is critical to guarantee equality for blacks, they don't need affirmative action to succeed.
"Jeh was a person of great quality who could make it on his own," says Mr. Abram.
Though Mr. Johnson disagrees with Mr. Abram about affirmative action, he was drawn to the older lawyer. "I thought, 'Here was a guy who had been a Jew in the South.' That must have been interesting. And he was a civil-rights lawyer." The two became close. "He was like an uncle," says Mr. Johnson.
By the 1990s, Paul Weiss still didn't have a black partner. Mr. Johnson says his other mentor, Mr. Liman, made it clear that he wanted to make Mr. Johnson the firm's first black partner. He advised him on his career and introduced him to important clients. "Arthur would build me up to clients to the point that when they met me, they didn't care what race I was," says Mr. Johnson. In 1994, Mr. Johnson became a partner.
When Mr. Liman died last year, Mr. Johnson went to his shiva, the mourning period observed by Jews. He ran into a prominent Jewish client of Mr. Liman's.
"Arthur told me about you," Mr. Johnson recalls the businessman saying. "I'm going to give you a call."