One night while I was in college, eating dinner at my fraternity house, somebody in the crowd told the following joke:
Q: What are the three shortest books ever written?
A: “Italian War Heroes,” “Jewish Business Ethics” and “Negroes I’ve Met While Yachting.”
On my honor, I still don’t know who told the joke. I just remember the entire room laughed at it, and then, as things died down, one of the brothers gleefully repeated the final line, “Negroes I’ve met while yachting!” It was right then that Willard Dumas, the student body president at the time, running for re-election, announced his presence to the room. Willard is black.
“Gentlemen,” he said, and he began his pitch for votes. Everybody went silent and listened to him, and then he left. I don’t know how long he had been there. I don’t know if he heard the joke. All I do know is that I had a lot of respect for Willard. He was smart, eloquent, with real charisma. He carried himself like he came from a family with means (which many of my fellow students did), but he didn’t flaunt it. He was good-looking. He was an academic standout. And he was the butt of this stupid joke. If he heard it, he did not let on.
My school had a serious racism problem. It probably still does, in truth. But as Willard left, and the entire room had that awkward silence that follows being busted at something, I thought about how well Willard took it. I thought about how well he probably took it every single day. I thought of how many people in that room who didn’t have the courage to own their racism and accept the consequences for it. I thought of how many people in that room, like myself, didn’t have the courage to call anybody out for it. And I thought about how all of that was just the tip of the iceberg.
There are some life insurance companies doing great work with multicultural outreach, from firms that are aggressively recruiting a diverse workforce to those that are selling to otherwise under-served ethnic markets. And while I applaud these efforts, I can’t help but think that this industry still is a whole lot of white people selling to a whole lot of white people. It’s certainly what I see whenever I attend an industry event, or speak with industry figures outside of the office.
On the one hand, I have been told directly by minorities in this industry that this is a great line of work for them. They can set their own limits, and their carrier support has been great. On the other hand, this industry is not doing nearly enough to reach people who, by a mix of outright societal racism and the economic consequences that follow it, have been largely denied the benefit that life products offer to families looking to build multigenerational wealth.
Case in point: A lot of minorities are in the same middle market now that most agents and brokers simply do not want to serve because the economics of it do not work. Why grind out 100 dining room pitches to make three sales when you can make way more money selling to five high-net-worth clients? That makes sense, but it is also leaving an entire swath of people unserved, when they have already gone unserved for so many other reasons. Obviously, the industry needs to fix its middle market conundrum if it wants to sell more life insurance to more people. And maybe it will. But perhaps the spur of knowing that, until they do, they’re fueling a residual effect of generations of racism will speed things along.
So says the white guy who has never once been hurt by racial discrimination. Maybe I’m full of it. I trust my friends will let me know if I am.
For more from Bill Coffin, see: