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Dr. Boyce: Study Says that Black Men Don’t Benefit Much from Mentorship

A new study conducted at The University of Georgia shows that black men do not benefit from having mentors in their

dr boyce watkins speaks on black men in corporate america

Dr. Boyce: Study Says that Black Men Don’t Benefit Much from Mentorship

organizations in the same way as whites.  Lillian Eby, one of the study’s co-authors, says that mentorship has value for African Americans, but tends to be limited by the types of mentors that black men choose or the ones that are made most readily available to them.

“If African-American men are picking mentors who are like them, then they’re more likely to be networking with people who have less power and influence within an organization,” Eby said, “which may be why mentoring is not predicting career success for them.”

The study is going to be published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, using data from 250 college-educated black men.  The goal of the study is to find out what factors are more likely to lead to success in corporate America and similar environments.   Another co-author, C. Douglas Johnson, from Georgia Gwinnett College, was also involved.

The study found that the greatest predictors of success were the level of education, training and willingness to move for new opportunities.

“The study shows that if you are willing to put forth the necessary effort and obtain the education and appropriate training, then you can achieve career success,” said Johnson.

The study measured success by annual compensation, number of promotions and managerial level.  They also mentioned that other measures of success might include personal satisfaction and work-life balance.  The researchers recommend choosing multiple mentors in order to reach your career objectives.

While the authors seem to support the idea of mentoring, they do not believe that organizations should formalize mentoring based on specific racial, ethnic or gender groups.  They claim that this can promote the perception of favoritism or stereotypes implying that minorities and women need extra help to succeed.

“Especially in a bad economy, having a climate that encourages learning and development is probably a better strategy than programs that are targeted toward a particular group,” she said.

The study’s authors make very good points about the value of mentorship.  As I worked to obtain my PhD in Finance, I can specifically pinpoint two black men (Tommy Whittler and WC Benton) who were literally the difference between my getting a PhD and never having one at all.  Through the years, I received other opportunities to have mentors who were white, black and otherwise, but I wasn’t quite sure of the difference between good mentorship and pressure to assimilate.

One of the greatest challenges for black men in predominantly white organizations is that there are few mentors available who are able to understand or appreciate the uniqueness of our cultural identity.   After you spend years learning how to be a white man with black skin, you may wake up one day and not appreciate the person you see in the mirror.  A deep racial inferiority complex is developed because you have come to realize that who you are intrinsically is not good enough and that it is a professional crime to simply be yourself.

Another challenge yet to be met by many organizations is a willingness to empower women and minorities to have paths to career success that afford some degree of cultural authenticity.  There’s nothing wrong with black men wanting to be  mentored by other black men, and some of us might be offended by the notion that I have to reject men who look like me if I truly want to be “successful.”  That’s no different from those who believe that marrying white or avoiding black people will help them to get what they want by catering to a racist society.

Finally, black men must learn the value of creating and maintaining their own institutions.  Rather than thinking about education as a pathway to a higher-paying pimp, the ultimate goal of education is psychological, financial, social and spiritual liberation.  Sure, not all of us can create our own multi-million dollar company, but anyone can find “side hustles,” producing a diverse set of alternative revenue streams that can serve to help you get away from the constraints placed on you by corporate America.  It’s hard to move into someone else’s house and expect them to let you move around the furniture.

Many corporations, universities, law firms and other institutions were created for white males, by white males with a cultural infrastructure that was designed long before black people were ever invited to the table.  Making matters worse is the fact that many institutions have learned how to speak highly of diversity without ever truly understanding what it means.   It’s easy to pop in a few black faces in powerless positions, demand that they act just like you and then say that you’re “diverse” (just take a look at the faculty at the Harvard Law School during the reign of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan).  It is a much more difficult exercise to truly embrace diversity of thought and to admit that your hiring practices of the past have served to cripple your organization’s ability to present a managerial structure that truly reflects the melting pot that is America.  Sometimes, you have to go backward in order to move forward – meaning, we can never correct the mistakes of America’s forefathers if we continue to hold onto racist norms, traditions and structures that they themselves put in place.

For black males who are trying to analyze what it means to be “diverse” and what it means to “succeed,” one thing must be made clear:  ”Success” is rarely measured by a fancy job title, a big salary, a giant house or a fancy car.  Success is more accurately measured by your ability to think, act and live independently, and to fulfill a life mission that is productive for your community.  So, if you’re the first black CEO of IBM and you’ve sold every ounce of your soul in order to get there, you may one day look back on your life and realize that you’ve lived someone else’s dream and not one of your own choosing.

It’s hard to win a game if you’re playing by someone else’s rules, on their home court and using their referees.  I learned this years ago when the white teachers in my white school had white guidance counselors give me tests written by white psychologists telling me that I wasn’t as smart as the white kids in my class.   It was only when I was able to obtain more accurate assessments of my intellectual ability that I was able to find my own definition of success and achieve it.

Black men can be as good, decent, hard-working and productive as anyone else in America.  We are not failures just because someone didn’t give us a promotion. So, we can probably help black males become more “successful” by helping them to find an entirely new definition of “success.”


Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.

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