BOSTON — It has been almost 20 years since a young black journalist in Chicago, Leanita McClain, first captured public attention with a powerful guest column in Newsweek about the burden of being a middle-class black.
As a rising star at the Chicago Tribune, Ms. McClain acknowledged that she was "a credit to my race." Yet speaking for many blacks, she described the challenge of straddling two cultures. "I have a foot in each world, but I cannot fool myself about either," she wrote. "I know how tenuous my grip on one way of life is, and how strangling the grip of the other way of life can be." She added, "I have made it, but where? Racism still dogs my people."
In the two decades since McClain wrote her anguished piece, many more minorities in all fields can say with justifiable pride that they too have "made it." But they also know, all too well, that racism still dogs them and can threaten their advancement.
Three sobering reports this month show just how slow progress can be. In businesses, newsrooms like McClain's, and entertainment media, minorities still lag behind their white counterparts. They may be underpaid, underpromoted, or even invisible.
In the corporate world, minority women continue to trail both white women and minority men in management positions. According to a new three-year study by Catalyst in New York, minority women earn less than their white and male counterparts. The jobs they hold also remain more limited.
Calling this a "concrete ceiling," Catalyst, a not-for-profit group, notes that opportunities for minority women have failed to improve in the last five years. Ironically, it finds that even well-intentioned diversity programs often fail to deal with subtle racism and sexism at management levels.
For some minorities, the salary gap has actually widened. In 1993, Hispanic women earned almost 70 percent of what white male managers did. By 1998 that figure had dropped to approximately 60 percent.
The picture is similarly discouraging in newsrooms. When 5,000 minority journalists - black, Hispanic, Asian-American, native American - held their second national convention in Seattle this month, they noted stagnant numbers. Minorities account for only 11 percent of newspaper journalists - 6,365 out of 55,100 - up from 10 percent five years ago. At local television stations, minority employees dropped from 21 percent in 1996 to 19 percent last year.
The world portrayed by Hollywood is even worse. Among 26 new prime-time shows debuting on networks this fall, not a single nonwhite character plays a lead role. Where are Bill Cosby's successors?
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People plans to pressure networks and advertisers to include more minorities. It also intends to monitor TV and movie industries for evidence that they are integrating acting and production staffs.
Americans talk a good line about diversity. It's an upbeat, politically correct, feel-good word, perfect for feel-good times like these. Yet prosperity and semantics can easily distort reality.
Less than four years after she wrote her Newsweek piece, the award-winning McClain took her own life. Friends cited the stress of being a role model as a partial cause of her despair.
In the mid-1960s, another black role model, the acclaimed playwright Lorraine Hansberry, coined the phrase "to be young, gifted, and black." She saw it as a description filled with "dynamic" promise. The same could also be said for other minorities making up the rich mosaic of cultures in the US today.
Yet passivity threatens progress. As one executive at the conference on minority journalists noted, "It's not going to change unless we pound and pound."
Pounding on concrete ceilings and doors can be hard on fists and morale. But as more minorities strengthen what McClain called their "tenuous grip" on success, the less likely it is that outdated, monochromatic attitudes will block the progress of another young, gifted, and minority generation.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society