Only four blacks will be left running Fortune 500 companies after Stan O’Neal’s abrupt retirement from the top spot at Merrill Lynch & Co. last week and Time Warner Inc. Dick Parsons’ announcement Monday that he will retire at the end of the year.
That leaves Aylwin Lewis at Sears Holding Corp., Kenneth Chenault at American Express Co., Ronald Williams at Aetna Inc. and Clarence Otis at Darden Restaurants Inc. as the only black chief executives among this list of the nation’s largest companies.
To some, the departures of O’Neal and Parsons underscore that all CEOs, whatever their race, have a short shelf life.
“In the best situations, these are not jobs you hold on to for more than five to seven years,” said Alfred Edmond Jr., editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise magazine. “The bulletproof CEOs of the ‘80s—those days are long gone, even for white men.”
Twenty years from now, Edmond predicts, there will be double the number of black CEOs, but that will still bring their total to fewer than a dozen. “The numbers are so small that any improvement will seem like a giant leap forward,” he said.
The reasons why so few blacks reach the top ranks are tangled.
“When African-Americans enter the corporate arena, they enter with a trust deficit,” said Jessica Faye Carter, author of “Double Outsiders: How Women of Color can Succeed in Corporate America.”
And when blacks enter corporate America, they often find it unfriendly.
A survey of 19,000 people conducted by The Level Playing Field Institute found that people of color are more than twice as likely as heterosexual white men to have left a job because of “unfairness,” such as being passed over for a promotion due to personal characteristics, being stereotyped or being subjected to offensive jokes.