As you not doubt know, sometimes your best clients come from the most unexpected places. For example, the client who came to me through a sister in law she didn’t know she had who was trying to dig up dirt on her husband to use against him in a divorce. It seems that in the process of preparing to divorce her husband she located a trust agreement which provided for an estate to be divided between her husband and her husband’s estranged sister. So the wife takes the trust to the divorce attorney who sends her to me who tells her that her sister in law has a very real and strong case against her brother for some serious dough. What is the woman’s response when I tell her the good news about her sister-in-law? She wants to know what’s in it for her.
To be specific, she wanted to know if she should ask her soon-to-be wealthy sister-in-law for some sort of finder’s fee. And after I dance around the issue without committing to an answer one way or another, the woman stands up, grabs me by the shoulders and begins shaking me violently, all the while asking me how much she should ask for.
After this grand display of sudden interest in her previously unknown sister-in-law’s case, by way of an excuse for her conduct the wife says these exact words: “You know how we people are.” Did I happen to mention to you that the wife is African-American?
Needless to say I was completely taken aback by the comment and, in what I would call some “fast on my feet” thinking, I said that it had nothing to do with race; it had to do with how people react to money because people certainly do change immensely when money is at stake. But in actuality, the whole incident was uncomfortable for two reasons.
First, you learn someone’s true nature when you witness how they react to someone else’s good fortune. In this instance, the sister-in-law is in her 70s, lives in Detroit, and has lived a life of tragedy, sadness, and struggle. After having heard her story, I can think of no one who more deserves the good fortune that she will experience once her estranged brother pays for his wrongdoing. But the wife in this situation takes no joy in the good fortune of someone else; she only feels jealousy and anger and begins working an angle of how to make this whole situation beneficial to her. Whereas now the wife would gladly trade places with her sister-in-law, the day, the week, the year, the decade previous I doubt she would have been so willing to offer the trade.
The second reason for my discomfort was truly the use of race as an excuse for her behavior. As you know I am a die-hard Dodgers fan and I am excited for and proud of all of their on-field accomplishments, Hall of Famers, and colorful characters. But the thing that I am most proud of them for is their leadership in breaking the color barrier. The Dodgers came first with Jackie Robinson and have since been leaders when it comes to civil rights and baseball. So when I heard this woman use her race as an excuse for the way she was acting, I immediately thought back to Jackie Robinson. How would Jackie Robinson have felt about this use of race as an excuse?
February is African American History month—why it is in the year’s shortest month I do not know although Wikipedia seems to claim that it was chosen for this month because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born in February (makes sense to me, I guess.) But during the month we will hear so much about the great African American heroes and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver and Barack Obama. Do you think that any of them would have ever used their race as an excuse for anything?
I am not attempting to make any type of a political or social statement, I am merely telling a story of an incident that occurred in my office while meeting with a potential new client. At the end of my meeting with the wife, I had two feelings: one was that I was ashamed that the wife felt that she had to rationalize her conduct by using her race as an excuse. The second was sadness; sadness that despite the monumental changes that have come about as a result of the tireless and heroic efforts to ensure equality amongst all Americans, it is clear that there is still a lot of work to do.
I am by no means naïve; I know that there is still racism; I know that there is inequality; I know that there is still a humongous amount of work to do. But we live in the greatest nation in the world, the nation that prides itself on and promotes to the world its focus on freedom and equality. It sounds good in the brochure, but it’s not there yet.
Look, all she had to say was that she could use the money—that’s something that is decidedly not a racial thing but is a human thing. We all could use the money, right?