Friday, April 22, 2011

"Executive Decision" and Affirmative Action. Charles Johnson explains...

In 1996, Susan Richards Shreve wrote to me, asking if I would be interested in contributing to a book she and Porter Shreve were doing. That book is Outside the Law: Narratives on Justice in America (Beacon Press, 1997). The other contributors had already selected their topics. I asked Susan if anyone was writing about "affirmative action." She said, no. Then I asked her if I could compose a story on that subject. Susan said, yes.
Her request led to my writing "Executive Decision." A story using second-person viewpoint, it is set in Seattle, where a white CEO must decide between two candidates for an executive position in his company. One is a black man. The other is a white woman. Both are exceptionally qualified for the position advertised. So that is the premise, the set-up, or "ground situation," as John Barth once described a story's conflict---the "agony of choice," to borrow a phrase from Sartre. I selected second-person viewpoint ("You" are the protagonist) to place the reader in the CEO's shoes, to force a reader to ponder the question, "Who would you choose? And why?" 
This tale is riddled with allusions to "Bartleby the Scrivener," deliberately implying that this story's protagonist is a descendent of the first-person narrator in Melville's tale, indeed, that this business is what the one Melville described in 1853 evolved into. My unnamed CEO has two close associates, who were his classmates at Harvard in the late 1960s, and have the nicknames Nips and Turk (a tip of the hat to Melville's characters Turkey and Nippers), and an elderly secretary, Gladys McNeal, who worked for his father and knows "where the bodies are buried" in terms of this firm's history.
The CEO and Turk are quite comfortable, on a personal level, with one charming candidate, Claire Bennett. In many ways, she could be their biological and cultural daughter, wife, or sister---she has moved in social and racial circles they are familiar with since childhood in an America that ended legal segregation, yes, but one that still engages in what I call Jim Crow-lite. On the other hand, Nips---who occasionally socializes with black people---favors hiring Eddie Childs, a man who (like Bartleby) is a social, cultural, and historical mystery to the others. They do not know the Lebenswelt  ("Life-world") or world of daily lived-experience that produced a high-achieving Negro like Childs, a man who has negotiated his way through a racial minefield every day of his life, and emerged unscathed (or has he?). They do not know his mind, his soul, but on paper he clearly matches Claire Bennett in worldly achievements. 
The story grapples with the complexities of affirmative action, the meaning of "equality," and John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971). All night long the CEO agonizes on which candidate he will choose, and by the story's end it is a personal revelation about old Gladys and his dead father---and the ambiguous illusion of "race"---that tilts him toward selecting one candidate instead of the other.
I will leave it up to the reader to decide if he made the right decision.

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