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In Corner Office, Race Issues Take Subtle Forms

Stanley O'Neal, by any measure, is a man who has arrived.

He looks out at the world from a corner office at one of the biggest, most successful firms in one of the richest, most competitive industries in one of the world's most prestigious addresses - Wall Street.

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Mr. O'Neal co-manages Merrill Lynch's investment banking activities - which means overseeing 12,000 people worldwide. And he is one of the highest-ranking African-Americans on Wall Street.

He is reluctant to talk about racial diversity on Wall Street, but in addition to his comments in the story above, he had this to say:

Have you experienced racism in corporate America?

I think there are some cultural issues. They're subtle by and large. They're difficult to articulate exactly, except for some dramatic examples, which tend to be the ones that are most publicized.... I've handled them, but if I tried to articulate to you exactly what it is I think I face day in and day out, it either comes out sounding trivial or overly dramatic, and neither one is really descriptive....

Were you surprised by what was caught on tape in the racial discrimination lawsuit against Texaco?

I think those attitudes exist in some people in American society full-stop. And any organization of any size is going to have some of those attitudes embodied in some individuals.

I would hope that the culture of the firm would weed out most of those individuals over time.

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But even in the best of firms, I think you will still find that there are individuals with attitudes that are not dissimilar but maybe more subtle and sophisticated.

Does it matter if a company has a diverse work force?

Thirty-five or 40 percent of our revenues come from sources outside the US....

Increasingly we want to be a local firm, not just a global firm doing cross-border business.... It's very hard to execute that strategy ... without having both knowledge and expertise in a local market, and some of that has to be through the people.

Now all of them don't have to be of that local market. But having a better understanding [of that market] through people who have grown up [there], we think, is critical for our success.

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