Earl G. Graves took a water glass and gently pushed it toward a visitor.
“It’s half-filled,” said the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. “We can’t rest.”
Graves spoke bluntly of racial progress in America Thursday evening as he kicked off a 14-city tour for his first book “How to Succeed In Business Without Being White.”
“I’m on the board of an automobile company, and my father couldn’t even afford to buy a car,” Graves said before a party for 1,000 friends and supporters at a hotel. “But we can do better.”
When Graves started Black Enterprise magazine in 1970, there were only 45,000 black-owned businesses in the country.
Today the magazine has a circulation of 300,000, while 621,000 businesses are black-owned - an increase of 46 percent just since 1987. The top 100 black businesses have annual sales of more than $12 billion.
Still, blacks - who comprise 12.6 percent of the population - make up just 6.9 percent of the ranks of executives and managers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In his book, Graves paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to be black, successful, well-known and yet still suffer daily condescension and discrimination:
Just recently, he met with a national advertising client who told him: “In my business, black people are still considered svartze - (a racial slur) - and in order to do business with us, you are going to have to overcome that.” Graves didn’t name the client.
Graves once couldn’t sell his remodeled and newly landscaped house in an affluent New York City suburb for a year. At a friend’s suggestion, he took down all family pictures and avoided the house when it was being shown so that buyers wouldn’t know the owners were black. In a week, the house was sold.
“For African-Americans, the struggle goes on in spite of all we have gained,” he writes. “It’s not a matter of whether my grandchildren will be called (a racial slur). It’s only a matter of when …”
Despite the gravity of the problem, Graves said he always considered race “a nuisance factor” in business. He didn’t let racism keep him down yet never lost sight of blacks’ struggle for economic gains.
That’s one reason for his success in a white-dominated business world, said Maurice Cox, vice president for corporate development at Pepsi-Cola Co. and a business friend of Graves’.
“Few people could say the things he says and maintain the level of credibility that he does,” said Cox. “This is the book we’ve all thought about, but didn’t have the insight or courage to write.”
For blacks who want to succeed in business, Graves advises keeping business first. “You won’t make it if you go into every sales presentation or job interview feeling you have to convince people that African-Americans are wonderful people,” he writes.
He also advises trying to do business with top executives because he says racism thrives in lower tiers of management. And he tells blacks not to ask whites to buy their products for social consciousness reasons, but purely for business reasons.
“Businesses don’t take the baby boomer, senior citizen or Generation X markets for granted,” he writes. “They would be foolish to take the African-American market for granted.”