On the morning of Oct. 10, in a vault-ceilinged room on the University of Chicago campus, the enthusiasm was barely containable. At the podium stood a highly successful black professional -- James H. Lowry, an authority on minority business development. On the agenda was a topic of burning interest -- the need for more black-owned businesses in America. In the audience was a sea of young blacks in sober pin-stripes -- the participants in what was billed as the ``first annual conference'' sponsored by the university's Black MBA (Master of Business Administration) Association. And on the schedule for a lunch-time talk was the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The announced subject for the conference was ``Pioneering the Business Frontier.'' But an unspoken agenda stretched like a thread between the go-get-'em capitalism of Mr. Lowry and the high moral fervor of Mr. Jackson. For beneath the applause and the laughter lay the dilemma facing the brightest members of America's young black community -- a dilemma which non-blacks can hardly grasp. It pits the new pragmatism of solid economic success, which has been such a long time coming to so much of the black community, against the old civil-rights idealism of community involvement. It asks, in ways that the white community can barely appreciate, a powerful question: Is one's loyalty to one's community, or to one's career?
Mr. Lowry's message was straightforward. ``There is a new wave of interest in minority procurement,'' he told the MBAs, referring to efforts by many corporations and municipalities to buy goods and services from minority-owned firms. As an example, he talked about one of his own clients, whom he identified as ``one of the big three'' Detroit automakers. By 1990, that corporation plans to spend $1 billion in purchases from minority-owned firms. The motivation, Lowry said approvingly, is not abstract do-goodism but sound business logic: The black community will prosper as more black businesses arise, and will therefore become a better market for cars.
Minority procurement was also on the mind of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Minority firms, he told the group, currently get 40 percent of the city's professional contracts and 29 percent of its construction contracts. In particular, he said, minority businesses (including businesses owned by women) have received ``one-fifth of the expansion work at Midway and O'Hare airports during the last 3 years'' -- an expansion program involving some $2 billion.
For both Lowry and Washington, however, one major obstacle to minority procurement remained: the relatively small numbers of qualified minority businesses. Blacks, said Lowry, ``have been basically a speck on the horizon of American business.'' He noted that blacks own less than one percent of the nation's firms -- and that ``the numbers are getting smaller.'' That's bad news for the nation: As Lowry said, there is ``no way'' his automaking client is going to be able to reach its 1990 minority procurement goal. But it's music to the ears of the black MBA -- since, as Lowry noted, there will be ``unlimited opportunities for [black] entrepreneurs'' between now and the end of the century.
Jesse Jackson, taking the microphone to surging applause after lunch, did not disagree. What he called ``the Afro-American side of the American economy'' is worth, he said, more than $200 billion -- making it larger than the economies of most other nations. He did not dismiss the audience's ambitions for financial success, noting that ``with the same degree of vigor we fought for civil rights, we must fight for civil economics.''
Instead, he simply alerted his listeners to the dangers of becoming what he called `` `byuppies,' black yuppies'' and forgetting the community from which they came and the moral base upon which it needed to stand.
``When I was a little younger,'' he mused, ``[I would hire] people who were intelligent, bright, and qualified. That's not true any more for me. I first get people who have integrity, who are trustworthy. I can teach them the rest of it, if they've got basic skills.''
``There is nothing more basic than being trustworthy,'' he went on. ``Anybody who is so blind in their ambition, in their drive to get somewhere, that they cannot be trusted -- their brain-power is neutralized by their moral deficit. There must be a sense of self-control.''
His fundamental point, he reminded his audience, was to insist that in their rising careers these bright young businesspeople not forget the black communities on ``the other side of the tracks.'' Likening those communities to colonies, he noted that ``the first mission for this generation is to de-colonize where we live.'' And that, he insisted, requires not only legal and economic power but a sense of moral strength. ``The community control,'' he insisted, ``will take place by people who have self-control and training.''
In the end, Lowry's muscular capitalism and Jackson's community-minded civics complemented one another nicely. Lowry, cheerleading for economic self-help, insisted that ``It really isn't that hard to be successful'' -- and promised to help any black with an MBA and sufficient entrepreneurial drive to make his or her first million in five to ten years.
Jackson, looking beyond the first million, urged his audience to discover ``the worth of African-American ghetto USA.''
``If you do not know its worth,'' he concluded, ``then you may not think it's worth fighting for.''
A Monday column