Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race and Society

BOND: As you look at your own life, are you trying to advance the interest of African Americans? The interest of the larger society? Are these compatible? Are they in conflict ever? Can you do both?

FLAKE: I think in advancing the agenda and strengthening African Americans in terms of their capabilities and talents and putting them in a plane of excellence, it gives the world a better view of who we are. Because all too often in the current society, we have been reduced to -- people have reduced us to thinking that none of us are capable, none of us have the ability to rise above what they would see as the limitations of race because they define race in terms of poverty. They define race in terms of a need for constant social support. And the reality is, the more people you bring out of that need for social support, the more people you bring to a level where they understand that they can -- there are African Americans who can articulate and can function at their level and perform equally well or better than. Which is why I get so excited about the current modalities as it relates to black power with people like Richard Parsons and Ken Chenault and Stanley O'Neal and Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Because I think what it does is, though they don't go around saying, "I'm black," they demonstrate that race ought not be the precedent that makes the ultimate determination of whether you give the opportunity. And given opportunity, that if that door opens, they will prove that they can do as much or as great as anyone else doing the same job.

BOND: Have you ever had the occasion in your leadership to find that advancing the interest of African Americans and advancing the interest of the larger society are in conflict? And if so, how did you overcome the conflict?

FLAKE: Well, yeah, I've seen that I guess most pronounced when I started running for Congress. When I -- when I made the announcement that I would run for Congress, I had natural reactions from many whites whose position was, because the district was a mixed district, that the first question that the average black politician faces when they are going to represent a body of people that's mixed is, "Can you represent the interests of white people?" And then they began to try marginalizing based on what you have historically done. But what my position was, if I had built homes – affordable homes for people, although my community is an African American community and although those homes were bought by African American people, I can do the same thing for you. Because home ownership is the dream of every American. If I can build a school in my community and build a standard of excellence in education, then I can share with you how we did that. Because it is not only African American schools that are suffering, it is also schools in Far Rockaway and schools in Ozone Park and other parts of my district that are not predominately African American. So that it seems to me that your concern ought not be whether I as an African American can represent your interests as it relates to race. Because if I can enhance the quality of education, enhance the quality of your lifestyle by creating jobs, enhance the quality of the environment in which you live by building homes, enhance the quality of your environment by bringing resources that create small business and entrepreneurship, then that is not a racially colored kind of environment anymore. But in reality, it becomes almost the means by which we create level playing fields for everybody. They actually bought into it and, of course, kept re-electing me. Because I kept bringing resources and they had no color on them. And the only thing that mattered at that point was, "This guy's bringing jobs. This guy's bringing more housing. This guy's helping to improve our education."

BOND: But did the point ever come at any time in your career, in Congress or in the ministry or even professionally in these non-ministerial jobs -- Xerox, Boston University -- where the interests of African Americans and the interest of the larger society seemed to be in conflict?

FLAKE: Not really. At Xerox, because I was in marketing and in seven, eight months, I had the top territory, performance-based. My theory was "I will out perform everybody here." So that was driving me racially. But it was not -- it was not something that was on my -- that I wore on my sleeve. They didn't know that's what it was. What was driving me was, "I'm going to prove I deserve to be in this environment. I'm not here because I'm black. I'm not here because of affirmative action. I'm here because I'm competent and because I'm capable." So, in my mind, it had a place. I don't know that it necessarily had a place in their minds after a while. Because on my team, they knew I would be the top producer. And therefore, the team -- the team on which I was the only black was, at the end of the month, going to be the team that was celebrated. So the bottom line for them was no longer about whether this was a black guy. It was about the fact that this black guy is able to produce.

BOND: But was that part of the bottom line for you that you wanted to show this black guy -- ?

FLAKE: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. And I think all of us, if we've ever been in those environments, bear that burden. Some cave under it. I tend to think the majority who look to that as a challenge that they can overcome, thrive on it. Because, you know, I want to be able to show within myself to myself and to my children that I can function in any environment.

BOND: Have you ever felt that this is a burden that you don't want to carry all the time? That sometimes you want to say, "Well, forget it. I don't have to be the best"?

FLAKE: I wish it didn't have to be.

BOND: "I don't have to be the top -- "

FLAKE: There is no question I wish it didn't have to be, but it is still reality. I mean, even in Congress, imagine this: I'm driving down the street. I've got a license plate on my car that says U.S. Congress 6. That's my district. And a white cop stops me in the street, does not see my license plate initially. And starts calling me names because he was waving for me to stop. He did not have a uniform on. I did not stop, obviously with my position, in the street for anybody. You just don't do that. Especially in the moment when I'm driving alone. And then he started this whole thing, "Nigger, didn't I tell you to pull over? Didn't you see me? Blah, blah, blah."

"No, I didn't, sir. No, sir." I mean, I'm talking, I'm fifty-some years old. And I'm saying to this kid, "No, sir. I did not see you. And then when I did see you because you did not have a uniform on, I did not now you were a police officer. I pulled over because I thought you may have had an emergency need. And that's when you have now flashed your badge. And so, sir, you have to forgive me. I did not know." So then he takes my registration. He looks at the license plate, comes back and hands me my billfold and said, "Sir, I'm very sorry." It should not have been based on the fact that he recognized that I was the congressman. The fact that he pulled me over and began calling names upset me so much. But I just put it in the portfolio of things that keep me going. And, yes, I wish it did not have to be that way.

BOND: Is the portfolio full?

FLAKE: No, it's not full. I suspect that as time has gone on, those incidents have diminished. And I must say, a number of police have stopped me since then and recognized me and they don't do that. But I want them to be where you don't recognize me for who I am, but you recognize that I am anybody you stop, whether they're black, whether they're white, whether they're female or male. And you ought to treat everybody the same.

BOND: Although it's obvious you have drive and ambition, I'm going back to this Xerox story. Was there ever a time then when you were working for this company where you're saying, "Why do I have to hustle so hard? Can't I just be the average salesman? Can't I just, you know, be okay?"

FLAKE: No, I thought that's what I'm supposed to do. I was driven to want to do it. No, I did not. I didn't feel pressure. I just felt that within me there was this spirit that I had.

BOND: That it was inescapable. You couldn't get rid of it.

FLAKE: Couldn't get rid of it. Couldn't get rid of it.