Bruce Jackson has been a lawyer at Microsoft for the past two decades, which happens to be the same company that employs me. But his time at the tech giant is a small part of his autobiography - "Never Far from Home: My Journey from Brooklyn to Hip Hop, Microsoft, and the Law." Instead, Jackson takes us on a trip through his life growing up in the New York City projects, attending Hofstra University and Georgetown Law School, and running a successful entertainment legal business before joining Microsoft.
His life is a success story in which he escaped the cycle of poverty common among many raised in a single-parent home in the inner city.
He points to a strong work ethic that helped him succeed, whereas many from his background did not. Still, he also acknowledges the advantages he had that many of his childhood neighbors lacked - not the least of which was a supportive extended family. With few opportunities in the lower-income black neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn, many of his friends turned to drugs and ended up dead or in jail. Few were able to overcome the systemic racism that stood in their path.
After law school, the author worked in the entertainment industry, representing many of the top hip-hop artists in America, such as LL Cool J, Heavy D, and Busta Rhymes. He founded one of the country's most successful black-owned entertainment law firms. From there, he accepted a job as an attorney at Microsoft, rising in the ranks and using his position to promote diversity and inclusion within the company.
Jackson immediately grabs the reader with a story of when police pulled him over and jailed him overnight because of an unpaid parking ticket. He tells of the time he was arrested at age ten when a policeman chased him through a subway tunnel because he vaguely looked like a crime suspect. He recounts another arrest and another night in jail years later - this time because he did not have physical proof that his car was insured. Such encounters underscore the differences between my life and Mr. Jackson's. It is almost unthinkable that police would choose to incarcerate a white man like me on such trivial charges. But they were suspicious of a black man in an expensive car playing hip-hop music.
Few people of color existed in almost every environment into which he arrived. Jackson found few people who looked like him when he started at law school, in the business side of the entertainment industry, and in the corporate high-tech world. Conscious and unconscious barriers existed both professionally and socially. He worked to change things - providing opportunities for qualified minorities within his organization and within the broader industry. Jackson is now the associate general counsel for Microsoft. But the legal department looks very different than it did when he began over 20 years ago.
When faced with an obstacle like institutional racism, you can approach that obstacle in multiple ways. You can use it as an excuse to remain where you are, or you can figure out how to get past it. Jackson chose the latter approach. But he did not stop there. After he found himself in a position of influence, he used his position to change the system.
Jackson is the lead character in this rags-to-riches story. His professional success shows we can rise above our circumstances through hard work. But we need to acknowledge that the playing field is not level. Jackson succeeded with an almost obsessive work ethic - one that cost him multiple personal relationships. The system includes barriers for African Americans that white people in this country often do not acknowledge or even notice. It is up to all of us to recognize this and address the issue.