In the stacked deck of American society, the race card is a joker. The boundless convolutions and intellectual knots that have been inspired by race in America make it ever difficult to separate reality from hoax, fact from fiction, truth from propaganda. To read the Icarus tale of bankruptcy lawyer Lawrence Mungin’s life in Paul M. Barrett’s The Good Black is to confront a set of racial circumstances that is both dizzying in its complexity and painfully, tragically obvious in its consequences. This is a story that indicts both the Horatio Alger beliefs pushed by conservatives and the pathetically defeatist attitudes brandished by a few hiphop simpletons.

When Mungin, a pedigreed barrister with double Harvard degrees (undergraduate and law), filed a discrimination suit against the blue-chip firm of Katten Muchin in 1994, it marked the beginning of a spate of legal wrangling that called into question nearly everything in which he had believed in his 32 years of life. Raised in a housing project by a single mother, Mungin had developed a personal code that held that there were no obstacles—financial, racial, or otherwise—that hard work could not overcome. In a series of stunning successes, Mungin had stiff-armed the life trajectory that seems preordained for fatherless black boys born in the projects. He had become the first black senior-class president at a majority-white high school, earned a coveted position in the debate society, and, in his greatest coup, gained acceptance to Harvard University. Along the way, Mungin had developed into the proverbial safe Negro, one who avoids association with other blacks, speaks in perfectly conjugated English, and allows racial slights to slide off his Teflon-coated soul. So skilled was he in the last that he failed even to remember instances in which he was called “nigger” by the unofficial high school welcoming committee.

He had also picked up his grandmother’s particular disdain for blacks who were obsessed with racism and those who displayed poor social skills or work habits. In fact, the idea that racism could negatively affect blacks who were, in fact, hard-working people seemed completely foreign to the Mungin household. This same grandmother had been proud of her daughter’s nearly white complexion and enamored of the Yankees, because they were New York’s “high-class” baseball team (and, coincidentally, among the teams to sign black players).

At Harvard, he had avoided black organizations and dorms in which black students tended to congregate. And for a while at least, these things seemed to work in his favor. In law school, he secured prestigious summer internships, and after graduation he won a series of jobs in Houston and Atlanta in bankruptcy law. His life seemed to prove the validity of the Protestant work ethic as a cure for black poverty. How, then, did this man, a “striver,” to use the old term, become one of the “complaining blacks”?

In April 1992, Mungin interviewed with Katten Muchin, looking for a position with a fast-growing firm where he had a good prospect of making partner. Chicago-based Katten Muchin had begun an experimental “hybrid” office in Washington, D.C., that combined insurance and bankruptcy law. With his years of experience in handling bankruptcy and his Ivy League lineage, Mungin seemed perfect for the job. He was willing to overlook the fact that there were no other black attorneys in the D.C. office and that the sole black lawyer in the Chicago office had left amid charges of racism. From the start, colleagues warned Mungin that Katten Muchin was a difficult work environment. (Indeed, the firm later used the defense that it was not racist because it treated all its employees like dirt.)

The first inkling of things to come was the invitation to a legal conference in early 1993. Although Mungin’s presence wasn’t an absolute necessity, he was ordered to attend. Later, he strongly suspected that he had been brought simply to carry and operate a heavy piece of projection equipment. The crucial issue, however, was that of professional achievement: Though Mungin became the sole bankruptcy attorney in the office after several defections, he was still given only scut work and thus effectively barred from partnership contention. He was denied access to clients; it was difficult for him to establish important professional relationships. In an effort to gain more challenging assignments, he flew to Chicago, only to be blown off by the partner with whom he had a meeting. When he was overlooked for a routine salary increase, the handwriting—at least in his view—was on the wall. The official raceless Negro finally had to face the conundrum of racism.

Early on, Barrett reveals that Mungin believed the discriminatory treatment given him at his law firm was particularly offensive because he was one of the blacks who had “done all the right things.” But the corollary to this belief is that everyone else had done the wrong things, that racism is caused by the failure to achieve—not vice versa. The implication is that everyday people, those who drive cabs, work construction, deliver packages, type letters, fix cars, and clean buildings, deserve discrimination more than their upper-crust white-collar counterparts. Mungin was stunningly naive and willfully condescending.

Nor was he alone in his faulty logic. Within the past few years, journalist Ellis Cose published The Rage of a Privileged Class—a pathetic whine about the racist treatment that many middle-class backs have experienced—and Lawrence Otis Graham, another alum of Harvard Law School, wrote Member of the Club, in which he went undercover at a country club and was actually shocked to find racism there. None of these men can be criticized for discussing the ongoing frustration that racism presents, but it borders on self-delusion to believe that class status should somehow make one immune to racial discrimination.

We know—or ought to know by now—that racism of all varieties functions to create the illusion of superiority where there is none. In the case of a white CEO interacting with a black maintenance man, there is a very real superiority in terms of power and authority, but in the case of a black lawyer interacting with white peers and competitors, things are not so clearly defined. Even so, Mungin should perhaps have expected to encounter a degree of racism among some narrow-minded whites who were intimidated by his obvious talents. In this regard, Mungin’s habit of avoiding social connections with other blacks—whose experience might have been useful to him—backfired. Although Mungin was a snob, he was not exactly the standard-issue self-hating Negro. He appears to have had a genuine concern for a young black attorney who was hired shortly after he was, and following the death of Thurgood Marshall, he considered practicing civil rights law.

Ironically, Mungin hired a black firm to handle his lawsuit—and then proceeded to question its attorneys’ competence. The impact of the suit, as he was well aware, would be disastrous to his career, but he admirably refused all offers of settlement. Not only are discrimination cases notoriously difficult to prove in court, but Mungin was challenging a powerful corporate practice with a legal team that had a fraction of the larger firm’s resources. In classic underdog fashion, the upstart law firm actually won a guilty verdict from a majority-black jury and $2.5 million in damages—only to see the verdict erased by an appellate court and its client reduced to the status of legal pariah.

The Good Black is ultimately a race parable: a story about the unmaking of an exceptional Negro. Mungin’s life, in an odd way, is neither circumscribed by race nor completely free of the constraints posed by it. Rather, it is proof that even the most accomplished African-American can be dealt a card from the bottom of the deck. CP