The Good Black

Born in Harlem, raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Larry Mungin was an American success story. Taught by his mother to believe that he was “a human being first, an American second, and a black third,” Mungin earned his way through Harvard and returned for a law degree. After several years at other firms, Mungin was hired in the Washington office of the Chicago-based Katten Munchin as a bankruptcy expert but, within a few years, found himself in a courtroom suing his employers for racial discrimination. What went wrong?

Author Paul M. Barrett fills in the full background of the case he covered as a reporter for the WALL STREET JOURNAL, and with the special insights he gained from having been Mungin’s roommate at Harvard. He shows that Mungin played by all the rules, and tried to rise above race to become successful. The problem, as Barrett describes it, is that law has become a business, and especially at the corporate level. Mungin was marginalized by colleagues too busy with their own careers, treated callously and with a double standard, and given insignificant work because he was black. The promises about salary and partnership were never fulfilled.

After a short but dramatic trial, the jury found in Mungin’s favor. Mungin’s victory was short-lived, however: an appeals court of three judges found the jury’s verdict “unreasonable,” and reversed it. Today Mungin works as an hourly temp-lawyer, but talks about getting out of law and moving to family land in rural South Carolina.

The value of Paul M. Barrett’s analysis is that it shows the great divide that still defines racial issues in America. After years of affirmative action, discrimination against blacks continues to exist, especially in a corporate America unable to accommodate difference.