If you want to know all about the intersection between big business, race and society, then look no further and ask Cora Daniels.
Over the past few years the Brooklyn-based journalist has chronicled the culture of contemporary America, from the rise of the corporate black class to the ghettoisation of the nation, through her books, 2004’s Black Power Inc. and Ghettonation, which is due out in paperback later this month.
A Yale and Columbia graduate, Daniels’ award-winning journalism has been featured in a plethora of notable publications including the New York Times, Essence and O: The Oprah Magazine. The former Fortune staffer was responsible for the compiling the elite business magazine’s first ever search for the 50 most powerful Black executives in America while her 2005 groundbreaking cover story The Bravest Generation, about the original Black corporate pioneers, garnered national attention for highlighting this overlooked part of civil rights history. “Every major piece of journalism that I’ve ever written in my career I had to fight to get published,” says Daniels. “In every case I was told by an editor “No” at first. To overcome the “No’s” I always continued to pursue the stories anyway.”
Here, Daniels talks to Clutch about what it means to live in a ghettonation (on her website CoraDaniels.com visitors are invited to leave their top ghetto gripes or ghettoisms) and defines the new black power and its impact on national culture.
Clutch: Tell us about Ghettonation. What’s the premise of the book?
Cora Daniels: In Ghettonation I argue that ghetto is no longer where you live it is how you live – a mindset. It’s a mindset that embraces and celebrates the worst. And mindsets do not have to be confined to one community. So yes, America has indeed “embraced a ghetto lifestyle”. Why? The short answer is that I think our expectations have gotten too low — our expectations of ourselves, and our expectations of each other, and that allows behavior that should not be acceptable to become acceptable.
Clutch: Who or what has been / is responsible for America embracing the ghetto nation?
Cora Daniels: When I travel the country I hear a lot of folks pointing their finger to the “media” or “corporate America”, it’s almost like these two enormous entities have become our modern day boogie man and like the boogie man under our beds when we were kids no one knows quite what it looks like or who it is but are sure it is out to get us. And as a business journalist I can’t deny that there is truth in media’s role and the role of big business – each have boogie man tendencies. You have major companies profiting from ghetto and exploiting our ghetto tendencies in order to make more money. But, honestly, business’ job is to make money not save society. It’s our job to not make it so easy for them to do harm by giving them so much to exploit. So as much as we point the finger we also have to point the finger inward as well and take responsibility for our own contribution for the downward spiral.
Clutch: What do you consider to be the worst thing about America as a ghetto nation and how can it be overcome?
Cora Daniels: I don’t think there’s anything good about it. I think that the bar has gotten so low as a nation we can’t even find it anymore. As a Black woman it’s even more disturbing because, even though this is something that the nation may be facing, there’s no denying how much Black folks are being destroyed by it. You can have a 13-year-old white boy and a 13-year-old Black boy and both can be equally as ghetto. The Black boy is going to be worse off because that’s the reality of race in this country. Of course, it’s not fair and it’s not right, but at this point in time it’s true. So, like any other sickness, there are different consequences for different communities. How can it be overcome? First, we have to acknowledge that there’s a problem. That’s why I wrote Ghettonation because I was sick and tired of it all and was beginning to question if anyone else saw something wrong. Once you recognize there’s a problem, which not everyone does, then you can work on overcoming it. When it comes to trying to change behavior that really starts with raising expectations. And that’s a gradual process. But, when we’re talking about raising expectations that’s something each of us can do. It starts in our home, on our block, in our neighborhood, and beyond.
Clutch: What prompted you to write Black Power Inc.?
Cora Daniels: I wanted the voices of my generation to be heard. I belong to a generation of highly educated, highly successful black folks with no first-hand memory of the civil rights movement because we were born afterwards. Too often Black is seen as this monolithic blanket and we don’t recognize generational differences in thought – we saw this during the Democratic primary where older Black politicians were slower to embrace Obama than younger Black thinkers. When I decided to write Black Power Inc. I was at Fortune magazine and I had just put together the magazine’s first ever list of the 50 Most Powerful African-Americans in business. It was a huge undertaking and part of the difficulty was that no one wanted to be on the list. Many of the Black faces that had risen to prominence in corporate America did not want attention shined on their Blackness. So I got a lot of “I’m not a Black executive, I’m just an executive who happens to be Black.” I understood their caution, as groundbreakers the obstacles they faced and the compromises they chose to make were very different than those of my peers with the luxury of coming 2nd, 3rd and 4th. But, personally, I think it’s a bit naÃ¯ve. You can’t just happen to be a Black anything, my Blackness is part of who I am. And it is significant that those coming to the corporate world after these groundbreakers felt no hesitation to proudly call themselves Black executives, period. Those are two very different things. For any community still trying to climb you would hope that there is no monolithic mode of thought and that each generation tries to move things forward on their own, otherwise a community is stagnate. The post civil-rights generation is no longer trying to prove they belong, instead they expect to be let in. So being let through the door is not the endpoint but the beginning. They are constantly learning from the system to change the system and start their own. In this sense business is a movement and the goal is to build black wealth.
Clutch: Although you feature many high-achievers in the book of how much value is their success when on a wider scale African-Americans still can’t make headway in the corporate world at lower levels?
Cora Daniels: Any Black success has value no matter how common or how rare. But this undeniable gap within the Black community is indeed our biggest challenge now. People often mistakenly think of this gap only in class terms but I believe it’s really a gap of mind. Maybe because of my own background of growing up in a household that struggled economically in a neighborhood that was struggling, I still feel very much a part of the corner despite the professional success that I’ve had. And because I still live in a neighborhood like the one I grew up in I often feel that a lot of the “nonsense” that was going on on the corners of my struggling neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn was also going on, to different degrees, in my Ivy League bourgie professional circles too. So I tried to bring the argument away from self destructive finger pointing and expose a mindset that is dividing and conquering us. Truth is, just because the door may be open, or rather cracked, doesn’t mean the fight is over. Instead the post-civil rights generation is fighting about the meaning of success once you walk through that door not as the firsts, but as young, black, and proud. That is how we unite as a community and eliminate the gap. Because in the long run if we can’t do that, if we can’t walk through those doors proud like that, then what does it matter if the door was ever open.
Clutch: From your own experience, what kind of obstacles have you had to deal with in the corporate world and how did you overcome them?
Cora Daniels: As a Black journalist, the biggest professional obstacle I face is a general lack of respect, or recognition, for my thoughts. The myth is that journalism is objective. We are human so there is no way that journalism can be objective. Every journalist brings their own lens and that is how the news is shaped – from what is considered news to how that news is covered. And often, I find as a Black woman, especially one who has spent much of my career writing for very big mainstream publications, my lens is sometimes not valued because the view can be so foreign. Unfortunately, sometimes the voice that sees things differently is dismissed because that’s easier than trying to understand what that voice actually sees.
Clutch: What tips would you give to young African-Americans striving to get up the corporate ladder?
1. Be honest – with the situation and yourself.
2. Speak up. Respect comes from taking a stand.
3. Be proud. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, once said to me that if you don’t know who you are people will exploit that and use it to their advantage.
4. Spread the word. It isn’t good enough to do the best work in the office if no one knows about it. You have to be your own publicist.
5. Don’t forget the blueprint, or what I like to call the Blackprint. Learn what you can from the system and every situation and use it for yourself and your own dreams.
Clutch: What’s next for you?
Cora Daniels:More writing. I’m working on another book tentatively titled Cliques: Straight Talk on Who We Really Are. I’m trying to figure out what identity truly means for each of us. And the book after that is already percolating in my head.
For more information about Cora Daniels visit www.coradaniels.com.