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by Kiara Ashanti

For many in America, racism is a thing of the past.  Everyday they turn on the television and see a black man who, having garnered a wide swath of support, sits in the White House.  Surely, we have come a long way.  But even as diversity has reached the highest office of the land, it continues to lack a foothold in many corporate offices.

Cyrus Mehri has dedicated his professional life to changing that.  Since 1993 he’s been laboring in the trenches of discrimination law.  He’s taken on some of America’s largest companies, challenging the likes of Texaco, Morgan Stanley and Coca-Cola.  Now Mehri has set his sites not on a single firm, but an entire industry that he considers is the most discriminatory.  Now, Mehri is out to show advertising agencies that when it comes to talent, they need to start promoting black.

Did you seek out to specialize in discrimination cases or did you fall into this field?

I always had the sensibilities to do this type of law, but the opportunity to do so happened in 1993.  Two Texaco African-American executives, Phil Roberts and Bari Ellen Roberts, hit the glass ceiling, really more of a brick ceiling, and needed a serious lawyer to take on a company of that magnitude in a discrimination suit. That was my first Title 7 case and it led to a landmark settlement.

More recently you have taken on the industry of advertising, rather than a specific company.  Did people come to you directly to complain?

Yes, people came to us, and whenever they told us how egregious the conduct was within the firms, it was very compelling.  So we decided to look into it, and what we found is that quite often the conduct was actually worse than what was reported to us. These are some bad boys.

What are some examples?

Right now, African-Americans are paid 80 cents on the dollar for the same jobs within this industry.  That’s a 20% percent cut.  Just imagine as you’re sitting down to pay your bills, your paycheck is 20% less than people with the same job.  That was perhaps the most stunning find in a 100 page report we co-sponsored with the NAACP. That’s the first thing that stood out to me.

The second thing is that, within the industry, there is a short fall of 7200 jobs. When you compare the pool of available African-American talent and then look at the placement of that talent, those shortfalls [indicated that] the African-American community [is being robbed] of high paying positions.

Within the context of the investigation, we’re finding people with incredible talent that should be being begged to be hired in the industry, but the doors are shut to them.  One position that stands out in my mind is creative director. There are few, if any, that are African-American in the mainstream part of the industry.  That is like saying there are no black coaches.  Right now, there are more black CEO’s than black creative directors.  Many African-Americans are shunned because of their color.  They are not invited to the meetings, or given very few work assignments because people are just not comfortable with the African-Americans in that industry.

You bring up an interesting point.  Let me play devils advocate.  As you get up higher in any corporation, it becomes less about technical skills and more about relationships.  If you don’t feel comfortable with someone, you don’t want him around no matter what color he is.

First of all, in this environment, these creative type positions by definition draw on people with eclectic and diverse backgrounds. It’s an environment that in all ways, except with respect to color, is a positive.

Second, you cannot tell me that African-American professionals are not good at relationship building. I mean we have a black President that led a movement of millions of people with thousands of relationships, so I don’t buy that relationship building is a skill set that is lacking. So there is no excuse for the lack of representation or lack of opportunity.

When did you get an idea that this was a problem on Madison Avenue?

In mid-2008, someone in the industry contacted us and we launched the project in January of 2009.  So it’s still pretty new.

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