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Spence Perry: Discrimination touches us all

July 24, 2013|By SPENCE PERRY

When most of us think of discrimination, we think of “other” people. If you are a WASP, you often view your efforts to abate discriminatory practices as a form of mission work — an altruistic gift for the good of others.

But the best reason for actively opposing discrimination lies in the protection of one’s own self-interest. If it can happen to one, it can happen to anyone.

This came home to me in the fall of 1965. I was a third-year student at Duke Law School. I had spent the last three or four months reporting on another “Civil Rights” summer. I returned to the quiet halls of the law school complacent in my confidence that while I had witnessed the struggles of “others,” the world was indeed my oyster.

The fall of the third year of law school was recruitment time. Law firms, banks, insurance companies and federal agencies descended to interview prospective graduates. (In those happy days, they not only interviewed but actually hired people at what were pretty good salaries for the time.)

The employers came from all over the country, and Duke being a “national” law school drew a lot of interest in New York.

I signed up to interview with a large New York bank (long since merged beyond recognition). I was particularly interested in their international banking department, a new field at the time.

At the appointed hour, I presented myself at the door of the visiting bank official’s office.

He came around the desk to shake hands. His greeting was cordial and even warm. After pleasantries, we sat down to do the ritual.

Mr. New York Banker had done his homework. He knew my undergraduate and law school record, had checked my references and was informed of my interests. I, too, had studied his bank, its history, deployment of forces and stated plans for the future.

In an effort at informality, he had removed his coat and sat snapping his suspenders, a look of complete self-satisfaction on his face.

We were winding down what I thought had been a promising conversation when he bolted upright, and with evident sympathy said, “Mr. Perry, you are a very attractive candidate with considerable promise, however we will not be making you an offer.”

“Why do you say that?” I replied.

“We have not had much luck with Southerners. They are not comfortable living in the North in big cities, and they are not aggressive enough to do well on Wall Street. They simply don’t ‘cut the mustard’ in New York.”

I demurred and suggested plenty of aggressive Southerners had stirred up plenty over the years. I asked him why, if he felt so strongly about Southerners, he came to North Carolina at all.

“We find a few Northern candidates and some from the Midwest.”

I said my good-bye and walked out into the fall sun angry at an argument I could not refute, humbled in the face of an ignorance that seemed invincible. Being in the “wrong” category is not subject to negotiation.

Discrimination lies in wait for us all. We are all in some part vulnerable. We must defend each other and so defend ourselves.

(Note: A few days later, our law school dean, “Cactus Jack” Latty asked me how the interviews were going. I told him of my encounter with the suspender-snapping New Yorker. I later learned the bank was not invited back for three years. The dean hadn’t been a senior litigator at a large New York firm to no purpose.)

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.





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