(Updated – 7/14) Romney, NAACP,Obamacare, Bain, Obama, Harvard and all that: Notes from the Midstream of an Internationalist African-American Harvard JD-MBA

By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

(Update:  Other than Romney and Obama, I am avoiding using names of others here to respect their privacy.  I sent a copy of this post to some of my old HBS classmates and one has pointed me to another article on Romney that, unlike the bio on his campaign site, points out that Romney was a Baker Scholar (alone an extraordinary achievement) at HBS and, while not Harvard Law Review like Obama, he graduated with honors from HLS (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/us/politics/how-harvard-shaped-mitt-romney.html?pagewanted=all).  So he superfits the mold of the person my high-school classmate described who was hired at Bain.  Also, have found that in the 1979-1981 period, at least one African-American worked at Bain as an consultant.  He came to Bain after Harvard Law School (no indication on honors or Harvard Law Review) and three years with a lawfirm in New York and was promoted to partner before he left to  go in a business (http://www.businessweek.com/1998/51/b3609001.htm).  I also saw an analysis of Managing Directors of Bain and Company on the web which, based on the photos shown, counted heads recently and did not find any African-American Managing Directors (as opposed to the lower level Associate Consultant or Partner I described below).  Given we are speaking of today and 2200 African-American alumni later from HBS, that would suggest it was unlikely that there were any more than the one African-American consultant noted above at Bain back in the late 70’s and 80’s.(http://open.salon.com/blog/rogerf1953/2011/12/22/does_romneys_firm_discriminate_against_african_americans).  Might be a scoop to get interviews with that African-American about his years at Bain when Romney was there but I would imagine that would be a hard get as he is said to be tight-lipped about discussing race in his rise in corporate America.  Still do not know if any African-Americans were hired directly out of HBS or HLS alone and, whether all hires directly from HBS were at least First Year Honors and possibly even Baker Scholars at HBS.). 

Recent events including Romney speaking at the NAACP, the Obama ads on Bain (strategic business consulting firm that was a spinoff of the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970’s),  seeing Brian Terry’s mom on Anderson Cooper, the “Romney, at Harvard, Merged Two Worlds” article in today’s New York Times and life serendipity have come together the past couple of days to make me think that I might add a perspective on all of these things based on the quirks of my own career path as an Internationalist African-American. 

As it turns out, I was in Cambridge in the 1973-1983 period at Harvard College ’77 on the other side of the Charles River when Bush 43 MBA’74 and Romney were in Harvard Business School and a JD-MBA’83 just after Romney JD-MBA’75 and before Obama JD’91 at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School.

I understand that, according to the New York Times article “one of the most exclusive clubs in academe is a Havard University dual-degree program allowing graduate students to attend its law and business schools, simultaneously, cramming five years of education into four.”  Only twelve or so of us came out a year.  Obama, former President of Harvard Law Review (alone an extraordinary achievement) joked at the Annual Press Club dinner that Romney had two Harvard degrees calling him “a snob.”

What the New York Times, Obama and Romney may not realize however is that the snob thing is at a different level.  The old adage “you can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much,” may be well known.  But, one other point in the lexicon at Harvard is that the only true Harvard man is one who has gone to Harvard College – or what people who go to these places call the College, (and for the grad programs the Business School, the Law School, the Med School etc as people who went there are wont to do with studied absentmindedness).  So, to those who have gone to the College, we are happy that Harvard takes the grad students’ money but they are not “real Harvard men.”  Now, I am sure that there are those who have several generations of ancestors who have gone to Harvard who add another level to this snobbery  that might be “a real Harvard man is one who is a legacy.” And those who have donated large amounts of money and have buildings named after them may also be part of that in another way – and on and on.  I am sure that snobbery and selectivity can extend far beyond this College vs. Grad School distinction.  However, as I am unaware of those other levels a – being the first Harvard and so far only Harvard grad in my extended family – I only can write of what I know.

I start this way because I am finding several intersections with both Obama and Romney these days that are remarkable.  As a foreign service brat born in Liberia when my father (with the US Department of State) and mother were stationed there, like Obama, much of my early years were spent outside the United States though more in Africa and Europe.  Born in Africa of American parents, I have been amused by the birther movement questioning of Obama’s legitimacy as a President alleging he was born in Africa.  My birth certificate clearly states I was born in Liberia, while my American parents were serving the United States in the diplomatic corps – surely a good deed.  That was not American territory similar to the Canal Zone where John McCain was born, so just maybe I am punished for the good deed by being ineligible to run for President of the United States.  I feel I should want to rephrase Harriet Tubman’s plea here into “Am I not too an American who could run for President?” but I have long ago (to my mother’s chagrin no doubt) given up any hope or desire to do so. 

Like Romney, I was only interested in going to Business School, but my father (like Romney’s father according to the NYT article) kept pushing the idea on Romney of doing a joint JD-MBA program.  It was an economist at my first job just after college at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston who opened my mind by giving the advice that during one’s twenties, it is best to do all the advanced studies one imagines one might want to do.  One trades on that experience the rest of one’s life, is what he said.  And his advice has stood the test of time.  Like Romney, though I hear he hides this, I learned French (as a child in Tunisia and Switzerland) and lived in France for a period of time (2 years for him and 17 for me – more on this in due course).

Where things get really intriguing is in the early 1980’s after my first year at Harvard Business School. Unlike most people in the JD-MBA,  I did the Business School Year first rather than the Law School Year and so I was looking for summer jobs the summers of 1980, 1981, and 1982 and a permanent job in 1983.  Fundamentally, as a foreign service brat I was resolutely an internationalist and I also saw the high-paying hot jobs at that time were in consulting and finance. 

My summer after my first year of Business School, I “walked across the street” in banking to then best bank in the world – J.P. Morgan. (for more trivia, Jamie Dimon was in my corporate finance class second year at Harvard Business School – sat in the upper right corner – and there seemed to be a great deal of deference by the teacher to this other student.  Turns out he was working on deals with Sanford Weill – a great Wall Street financier.)

I can not remember the exact  time in my second year in the program and in my first year at Harvard Law School,  but I remember seeing a high school friend (we had sat next to each other in assembly at Phillips Exeter Academy) who had gone to Oxford for a year and was also at Harvard Law School.  He was working as a consultant at that time at Bain and Company.  I asked him, using the old boy’s network, how one might apply for a job at Bain.  He asked whether I had first year honors and said the people hired as consultants usually had first year honors or were Baker scholars at Harvard Business School or Harvard Law Review.  To have first year honors one needed to have three Excellents in the First Year Classes at Harvard Business School and I only had two.  (Later, I was an editor with the Harvard International Law Journal and  had come close to writing on to Harvard Law Review (final 50 of the 220 who tried) but did not get that cigar.)  Not meeting the First Year Honors grade,  I just let that Bain idea go. 

Now, many people may not know this but Bain was a spinoff of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which was one of the top three strategic consulting firms along with McKinsey and Company at that time.  There were other consulting firms like Booz Allen and Hamilton and I think some of the accounting firms were getting in the business but these three were THE three strategic business consulting firms – THE hot jobs.    While I did not interview at Bain,  I did interview with BCG and with McKinsey and Company and got through the first interview, but did not advance. 

At this time, in those interviews, I never was interviewed by an African-American working at any of these three places.  It was years later that I learned that another African-American in my time had interviewed at Boston Consulting Group and raised the question of “whether they had any black consultants?” during his interview.  Their silence, of course, meant there had never been such a queer animal as an African-American BCG consultant at that time.  That appeared to have had an effect and he did get an offer from them from what I remember from the lore.  Having lived in Boston since 1973 (the busing stuff) and worked in Boston from 1977-1979 I was well aware of the way race could play in the work environments even at (or should I say especially at) rarefied levels like these so the lack of any African-American faces at these places does start me wondering about what I might have been up against at that time.

Now, I did not have the chutzpah to put the issue of race out there like my friend did  when I did these job interviews – maybe the difference between getting an offer or not is having that chutzpah.  I have always had a difficulty figuring out the “secret hand signals” of making it in this life and have some empathy for Romney’s supposed  tonedeafness as a politician.  At the College, I was a housemate with the current Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick and I know I did not have then nor do I have now his smoothness.  I salute those with that skill set.

Recently, as I read the discussions in this election on Bain and learned that in that period there were no black consultants at Bain, I have thought back to those times and wondered whether, even with chutzpah, it would have made a difference.  From what I can find on the web, Bain and Company was spunoff from BCG in 1973 and Romney went to head up Bain Capital in 1984 from Bain and Company.   From Romney’s resume it does not indicate whether he had first year honors when he got hired at Bain or was a Baker Scholar nor does it say whether he had honors at Harvard Law School or was on Harvard Law Review.  I do not know if all the Bain people who were JD-MBA’s at that time or just the poor JD’s and MBA’s alone had first year honors, were Baker Scholars and/or were on Harvard Law Review at Harvard Law School.  All that I know is that, from current reports, no African-Americans were at Bain back in that time.  I went to the Bain and Company website http://www.joinbain.com/life-at-bain/diversity/blacks-at-bain.asp and noted today there are some African-Americans that were Harvard undergrads and there is one black partner who is noted with an MBA who was hired as an experienced professional (i.e. not out of the MBA – there I go doing that thing – program).  I have also gone over to the Bain Capital website (www.baincapital.com) and the outreach kind of diversity pages at  the Bain and Company website are absent – suggests something about them already.  One can go through the lists of Managing Directors etc and see names that are of South Asian, Asian and Hispanic origin but I am unsure if those persons are Americans (or non-Americans working at the company).  And, quite honestly, I do not have the energy to go through all of these resumes of these people today, because what interests me is the early 1980’s when Mitt Romney was at his zenith through 1999 (sorry – now I see it is – 2002).

So, from my unique perspective, I raise that issue of whether Romney had any honors at the schools.  I know that George Bush did not.  I know that Obama was President of Harvard Law Review and suppose – if he had wanted to – he might have been hired by Romney at Bain Capital if  Obama had been so inclined and being on Harvard Law Review is the requirement.  I just do not know what the requirements are.

I did note that Bain and Company is a strategic partner of the World Economic Forum – the prestigious international meeting place for all the movers and shakers each year.  It turns out that in my years working with the International Chamber of Commerce I worked with one of the people who helped to create the World Economic Forum.  At one point, she explained to me how they got it started.  They hired the sons and daughters of the movers and the shakers in the world to come to Davos each winter and figured that doing that would encourage the top business and political leaders to come there and get together.  Then, the discussion sessions, small dinners, etc that are the World Economic Forum experience could be carefully pulled together to create the juggernaut that we know about today.  A brilliant idea – start with the kids.

Harvard has something similar to this – it has been said that Harvard admits students who will be successful and takes credit for their success the rest of their lives.  Obviously, Harvard is a network space, and each student who is there brings their own network to help themselves and the people who are in their networks.  The structure of this network was brought home to me in Paris when I was a member of the Harvard Business School Club of France and there were all of the means to help members seeking promotions or seeking jobs to advance in the French corporate structure.

I have to imagine that being the son of the former Governor of Michigan and President of American Motors could not have hurt Mitt Romney in this period.  That is part of the human capital that he could bring to each of the positions that he had.  And, maybe, that kind of thing counted as much (or even more than) the good old “smarts” to get one in there.  For whether at Bain and Company or Bain Capital, being able to bring in consulting business would surely be a key quality.

In the summer of 1982, I had a summer job in Paris with a lawfirm and fell in love with an American woman I met there.  My heart’s desire was to move to Paris directly after finishing the JD-MBA program.  I looked on the JD side and received two excellent offers to work with lawfirms in New York that both had significant Paris offices.  I broached with each of them the possibility of moving directly to Paris emphasizing my international side (I spoke French) – the business logic argument for the move.  I could not argue “my future wife is French” because I had not yet decided to ask this woman to marry me and she was French but originally American.  Memo to aspiring internationalists, I learned later that the “(future) spouse is (other nationality)” is a better pitch to American firms to get abroad then “wanting to be international.”

The New York lawfirms said, “Come and work with us two or three years, and we’ll see.”  This language is a code with which others may be familiar.  My understanding was that this language really meant, “No.”  With hindsight, of course,  I realize how outrageous my request might have seemed, but at the time, I had no clue this was not doable.  Usually, a senior partner or a young partner with a set of skills (someone who had been groomed for years) would be a person sent to Paris – a prime spot.

So, I turned to my MBA side.  I came across a development consulting firm in my four years of grad school and they were willing to hire me at a much lower salary then those in strategic consulting but would put me in Paris working down in Africa.  I also interviewed with a French strategic consulting firm, it like Bain also a spinoff of BCG.  I went through several successive levels of interviews with them, meeting finally with the name owner of the firm.  Ultimately, I got to the last round but was not hired.

Following the advice of my contracts professor (“After law school, do what you think you want to do.”), I went with the development consulting firm that got me to Paris 6 days after graduation and to Togo three weeks after graduating.  After passing the bar February 1984 and realizing I was not a development guy like my Dad (his son, but not “that much” his son), I recontacted the French strategic consulting firm now from Paris where I resided.  This time,  I was hired in 1984 and worked there two years with French and Belgian clients until I went to do even more international work using my lawside of the JD-MBA and my New York Bar membership as a counsel at the International Chamber of Commerce International Court of Arbitration in Paris – truly international work.

I think of this because the same year that Romney led Bain Capital after working at Bain and Company as a strategic consultant, I was able to break into strategic consulting through this other BCG spinoff run not by fellow Americans but rather by a Frenchman.  In fact, that Frenchman gave this African-American his shot at being a strategic business consultant when the American strategic consulting firms discarded me early in their process.

This reminded me of the story of an African-American man back in the early 20th century who had wanted to be a pilot in the fledgling US Army Air Corps.  To have African-Americans in combat in the US Army was unthinkable then, let alone flying planes.  So that African-American man sailed to France and was able to become an aviator as part of the French Air Force.  Where America set up barriers, the French had other barriers, but still permitted this African-American to have his dream.  In fact, if one goes back to the ante-bellum period and free blacks in New Orleans (as detailed in La rive noire: De Harlem a la Seine of Michel Fabre), blacks had come to France in the ante-bellum period as a way to get an education that was prohibited in the United States.  American barriers being stepped around by going to France where, even with the French barriers, African-Americans were able to pursue some of their dreams.

So, as I watch Romney, I wonder whether inadvertently on my own American-French path, I was stepping out to be able to try my dreams that had no shot in strategic consulting space for my MBA side or the lawfirm space on my JD side as an African-American.

Now, once I came into academia in 2000, I wrote an article in the American Review of International Arbitration entitled “The Color Line in International Commercial Arbitration: An American Perspective.”  In that article, I contacted all of the top arbitrators I knew from around the world from my 13 years in different positions in the International Chamber of Commerce.  I asked them if they knew of any American minorities who had worked as counsel, expert, arbitrator or otherwise in international commercial arbitration over their years in the field (some with many decades in the field).  To my great surprise, I well remember one of them summing up the situation by saying, “Yes. You.”

That had floored me at the time that I was the one and only or, at the least, one of the very few African-Americans with substantial experience in this field that I loved working on the international plane.  And, having worked with many American lawfirms over those years, I had never seen an African-American acting in one of the other legal roles in arbitration.  I had seen very few Asian-Americans, no Hispanic-Americans, no Native-Americans and no African-Americans.  This international American space was essentially lily-white and male with a smattering of white females.

So when I watched Romney at the NAACP and read the comments about his speech and watch Obama I wonder to what extent those experiences in the late 70’s on for Romney and the early 90’s on for Obama reflect two points in the river of time both before me and after me.  At those points in time, the African-American opportunity space in America that had grown from the 50’s and 60’s was different at each of those points.

Maybe Romney and Obama might keep that in mind as they seek the Presidency: what do they do that shapes that opportunity space for African-Americans?  What does their history teach them about how to shape that space?  Is it a tokenism vision or is it true integration?

In a word, what is their sense of solidarity with other Americans that are not like them?  I think, in this difficult economic time, that might be the hardest question for both of them to get others to believe:  are you really in solidarity with me in the way the French use the word “solidarite”.

I came back to this idea as I thought about the reaction to Romney’s comments on Obamacare.  As luck would have it, the mother of a French au pair was here in Toledo last Sunday and I explained to her about the Affordable Care Act Supreme Court decision in late June.  I still have my old French National Health Insurance card and had recently been on television on the Catholic objections to the coverage.  In France, as long as one has been salaried for at least three months, one is in the national health system – whether working or on unemployment after having worked the three months.  All of your health needs including contraception are covered in the system.  The focus is on making sure everyone has health care wherever you work (church, catholic relief services, etc).  If one does not want to use a service one does not have to  use  it, but one has all health issues covered in the system.  One can get supplemental insurance to have “superduper” healthcare beyond the National Health Care and to have coverage for elective things like cosmetic surgery – but the broad swathe of health needs are covered. 

The French mother emphasized the concept of solidarity in the system where each person pays something.  Those that get sick get health care and do not have their lives destroyed by financial ruin when they can not work.  Those who manage to be healthy all their lives are fortunate.  All who are paying in are in a sense showing solidarity to all who get sick so as to make sure that no one is devastated financially when sick.

The Affordable Care Act is one of the steps in the United States trying to figure out the universal health care issue for a developed nation.  One can not know what will  occur with the Affordable Care Act, but one thing I have noticed in the nearly four years of discussion in the United States is the absence of the use of the word solidarity in the discussions by Republicans or Democrats.  Socialism I have heard, but solidarity, no.

So maybe Romney and Obama could be asked as two degree and one degree Harvard men, what is the degree of solidarity for all Americans that guides their vision for the future and how did they demonstrate that solidarity in their past.  Underlying the Affordable Care Act is the question of what is the level of solidarity permitted in the American system.  I do not have the answer, but have seen how, as an African-American, the solidarity in the French system has helped me to blossom at times when the American version of solidarity did not appear open to a guy like me – even with my three Harvard degrees.  I know that solidarity is not free.  And I know that it has made the difference between me getting to live my dreams and not.