It Wasn’t About Race. Or Was It? by Jeffrey C. Connor


Jack Parsons put the phone back on its cradle and pressed his fingers to his temples. Thiswasn’t his first crisis as managing partner of the Northeast office of Fuller Fenton, a nationalaccounting firm, but it was a doozy. That was his 11th phone call about what had happened the day before between Hope Barrows and Dillon Johnson, two hard-working, valuable members of

the firm. And he was certain that the deluge was just beginning. Each caller had been very upset,

and it was painfully clear that no one was willing to back down. The firm—or at least all the people

under Jack’s purview—seemed to be splitting into two angry camps.

He thought back to the first phone call he’d received, at 7:30 that morning, from an associate who

had talked to Dillon the night before. “I always suspected this was a racist organization

masquerading as a ‘good’ company,” the caller railed at him. “I’m sick about this, and I’m telling you,

so are a lot of other people. We won’t work in a racist environment!”

The last call had been equally charged but on a different tack. The caller was a female partner whom

Jack had known for years. “This had nothing to do with race. Nothing at all!” she practically

shouted. “If a woman can’t feel safe in the parking lot of her own company, that’s pretty sad.”

The story was really quite simple—the basic facts weren’t in dispute. Hope, a partner at Fuller

Fenton, had gone to the office Sunday afternoon to get a jump on the workweek, as she often did.

When she arrived at the parking garage, she swiped her access card and the exterior door opened. As

she drove up to the inner gate—the usual point of security during business hours, when the garage

door was open—Dillon pulled in under the exterior door as it was closing. Hope stopped at the gate

and, instead of swiping her card, got out of her car and walked over to Dillon. She asked who he was


and whether he belonged in the building. Dillon told her he was an associate at Fuller Fenton. Hope

asked to see his identification, and he showed her his card. Hope thanked him, went back to her car,

and entered the garage. Hope was white. Dillon was black. Somehow the incident, as small as it

seemed, had started a storm that was threatening to tear the company in two.

And it was only Monday afternoon. It certainly hadn’t taken long for things to heat up. Jack pressed

his fingers harder into his temples and let out a small groan. Dillon had been on the phone to him

from San Francisco at 5 am Pacific time. He had flown there the night before to meet with a client.

He’d been up most of the night. He was angry—appalled. He said the incident, as far as he was

concerned, was an indication that the firm was racially biased. Judging from the calls Jack had

received, most of the firm’s African-American partners and associates agreed.

Jack had asked Dillon to tell him exactly what happened. Dillon said he was working out at his

health club when he got a call on his cell phone from a fellow associate, Shaun Daniels. The two had

planned to meet at the office later that afternoon to review the file for Dillon’s San Francisco client.

Shaun asked if they could push up their meeting because he had to be somewhere at 4 pm . Dillon

was grateful Shaun had agreed to meet with him on a Sunday, and he knew they had several hours of

work to get through, so he rushed from the gym and drove to the office.

He pulled into the driveway of Fuller Fenton’s garage behind a red Volvo. The car just seemed to be

parked at the door. “I remember thinking, ‘What’s taking this person so long to swipe their card?’”

he told Jack. “Then I thought, ‘Where’s my card?’ and I started looking through the pile of clothes on

the passenger seat for my wallet.

“Then the door opened, the Volvo went through, and I didn’t even think; I just followed,” Dillon

continued. “Then the car stopped again. I thought, ‘What is this?’ and I tried to see who was in the

car. I could see it was a woman, and she was looking at me in her rearview mirror. So I waved. And


“She gets out of her car, comes over to me, and asks me if I work in the building. I say yes, and she

asks me for my identification. I recognized her, you know—didn’t know her name, but I’d seen her in

the building.


“I was confused. I didn’t know what the problem was. Then I realized that she thought I had slipped

through the door behind her because I was some sort of criminal. I’m black; she’s white. Most people

at the company are white. Case closed, in her mind.”

“What happened next?” Jack prompted.

“I told her my name,” Dillon said. “I found my wallet and showed her my identification. But Jack, I

have to tell you, at that moment, all I could think was that this wasn’t the first time I’d been made to

feel like an outsider at this company because I’m black. When I signed on, I heard a lot of talk about

how Fuller Fenton was reinventing itself as an incredibly diverse, versatile organization. But my

experience tells a different story.

“My first week here, one of the administrative assistants saw the wedding photo I have on my desk.

She looked really surprised, and then she said, ‘Your wife is very light skinned.’

“I laughed and said something like, ‘Amy is white.’ But the look I got? It was disapproving, almost

like she was disgusted.” Dillon’s voice trailed off. Then he said, “I know I could cut her some slack.

She’s one of the older assistants, and she’s been here a long time. But it stung. She hasn’t talked to

me directly since.”

He was quiet for another moment. Jack waited. “That was the smallest incident,” Dillon said. “After

four months here, remember I was going to be on the team for that consumer goods company in

Texas? I was put on and taken off within 48 hours. I found out—actually just last night, when I was

venting to a colleague about this incident—that the partner heading the team was worried a black

face would put the client off.”

Jack shook his head; of course, Dillon couldn’t see him, but he answered as if he had. “Jack, I know

it’s true. And maybe the guy had a point—that client is a very old-line kind of company. But still, if

this company is serious about diversity, is that any way to behave? That’s not the kind of company I

thought I was joining. And it’s certainly not the kind of company I’m going to keep working for.”


Jack knew the last story was correct. In fact, he’d argued with the partner about the way Dillon was

treated. And he’d hoped, at the time, that it would be just one of those things and that he could work

to prevent it from happening again.

“I called four or five colleagues last night,” Dillon continued. “I asked them if I was imagining this.

They all said no. This time it can’t just be water under the bridge, Jack.”

Jack reassured Dillon as best he could. He told Dillon he was a valued employee and that he’d do

some digging, that they would all work to resolve the situation. As soon as he hung up the phone, he

called Hope and left a message asking her to come see him.

“I tried to call you earlier,” Hope said when she entered Jack’s office. “I’ve heard a lot of rumors

going around about what happened yesterday, and I have to tell you, I’m shocked—totally shocked. I

didn’t ask for Dillon Johnson’s identification because he was black. I asked for it because I was

freaked out that a man was following me into the garage—a man who didn’t seem to have an access

card of his own.

“I was only concerned for my own safety,” she said. “He could have been white, or purple, for all I

cared. I thought there was a good chance I was going to be robbed. Or raped. Asking for his

identification was the fair thing to do.”

Hope took a deep breath and told Jack the story from the beginning. She often came into the office

on Sundays, she explained. She liked the quiet; she got a lot done. She knew that at least a few other

people felt the same way. Occasionally she would see other cars in the lot, and sometimes she would

see people coming or going.

But she didn’t recognize Dillon’s car, and she didn’t recognize Dillon. “What was he thinking, Jack?”

she asked, indignant. “I’m not the one who was insensitive here. Dillon Johnson was insensitive to

me by ‘piggybacking’ behind me when I opened the garage door. Didn’t he know that any woman

would feel vulnerable, and potentially threatened, if any man—or anybody, truth be told—evaded

security measures to follow her into a deserted garage? Why didn’t he just wait the extra 15 seconds

and use his own card?”


“You know, I really never should have gotten out of my car,” she chided herself. “I should have just

called security. But I was thinking, ‘Better to confront him now than to put myself in possible

jeopardy deep in the garage with no one else around.’

“To be honest with you, I was also thinking about two of my friends who have been mugged. One in

a parking garage, the other on a subway platform. Neither was hurt. Well, my friend Alice strained

her back trying to twist away from the subway mugger, but she got off easy, considering. And I was

thinking about what my husband said to me, two years ago now, when I started coming in here on

Sundays. He asked me if I was sure that it was safe to come in when the building was deserted. He

asked me to carry my cell phone at all times.”

Hope paused, then continued, smiling. “I laughed at my husband when he said that,” she said. “He

grew up in Manhattan.” Her smile faded. “I did have my cell phone in my hand when I got out of the

car,” she said. “I had punched in 911, and my finger was on the send button.

“I didn’t recognize him,” she said again. “I didn’t recognize his car. He was wearing a T-shirt. Not that

that matters, really. No one dresses up here on Sundays. Still, no one usually wears T-shirts, either. I

did feel a little silly, at one point, before I got out of the car. I mean, I was telling myself that whoever

it was was just coming in to work and had been too lazy to get out his card. But scared overruled


“And in no way—no way—was I acting out of any racial prejudice. Come on, Jack, this guy has some

personal chip on his shoulder, and he’s putting all his baggage on me. I was scared, for God’s sake.”

Jack listened and, at the end of the meeting, told Hope he would think about what to do. It was clear,

he said, that she and Dillon should sit down in the same room to discuss the issue. He would set up

the meeting and get back to her. Meanwhile, he told her, he did see her point. Not to worry about


For the rest of the morning and early afternoon, Jack fielded angry calls. He also called the human

resources department and set up a meeting with Hope, Dillon, himself, and the regional HR director

for Wednesday morning at 10, as soon as Dillon returned from San Francisco.

He hoped he could hold things together until then. He would, of course, continue to field calls and try

to calm people down as best he could. But what else could he do? For that matter, what was he going

to do at the meeting?

What is Jack’s next step?