We are in uncharted territory. The world watched for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as a man was murdered by the police. The U.S., indeed much of the western world, is in a spin trying to figure out the appropriate reaction to what they saw. In all 50 states and 18 countries, protests, that started with this murder, are quickly escalating to encompass grievances about oppression in its many forms. Corporations, nonprofits, and institutions are responding fast and furious. We have seen an unprecedented number of statements on the murder of George Floyd, companies aligning themselves with social justice, anti-racism, and declaring “Black Lives Matter.”
Some of the statements have been eloquent, admitting that enough isn’t being done to suppress racism and police violence, vowing to do their part in dismantling systems of oppression. Others have been as cringeworthy as the House and Senate Democrats sporting African Kente cloth during a moment of silence honoring Floyd, bearing symbols appropriated from cultures and traditions for which they know not. So here we are. Promises are being made, and equity is on the table, sometimes as a first offering. The question isn’t about sincerity, I believe many of these organizations and individuals rushing to put their statements out in press releases want to do more. But what happens when the passion dies down. What happens when we all “go green” and everyone is back to work in organizations long baked in quiet racism with sides of microaggressions. Will these statements fueled by both horror and marketing savvy hold up? Will dollars be invested in measurable DEI initiatives that move from fledgling to mature culture changes?
I offer that looking at the size of the protest, at the race and age diversity of those in pain, and watching them emerge with a tardy and sudden awareness of the size of the problem America has with racism–these folks will be looking at your promises with a more discerning eye. Indeed if statements were made because they were the right thing to do, are not followed up with behavior changes in terms of policies and practices, companies risk moving from malignantly apathetic to actively being seen as racial and cultural obstructionist. Those systems of hiring that always result in 90+ percent white faculty, companies who tout racial diversity but relegate black and brown bodies to the call center instead of the corporate suite, philanthropic organizations whose major investments are to White-led organizations while Black community organizations languish–they may find themselves in the hot seat.
COVID-19 has people at home and with time on their hands. Suggested readings on anti-racists behavior are actually being read this time around. People are forming book clubs, equity-focused Zoom meetings, and new volunteer advocacy organizations with lighting speed. This work is giving people a new lens in which to view America and the companies in which they work and many don’t like how it looks and are vowing to change it. Some leaders will find themselves in the crosshairs of folks intending to disrupt long-held standards. Is your organization ready or will your response be to rush back to “normal,” a place that is often not safe for Black employees or others marginalized by your norms?
Maybe all of this is more hope than reality-based. I have received so many calls, emails, and DMs from White people wanting to discuss meaningful next steps that I may have slipped into a fantasy world where we move from promise to reality. I have been sending out anti-racism toolkits, suggesting books, and conducting online discussions for those who profess an interest in doing things differently. It has struck a chord in me I’ve not played before and it is hopeful. Floyd’s murder and the extreme loss of life from COVID-19 have revealed our ugly racial fault lines so clearly that even those who have chosen not to see it cannot make it go away. Some have realized that rightness of Rev. King’s statement, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds could not be denied like so many others not caught by the camera’s eye. Those minutes and seconds cast a bright light on the U.S., a country that has for too long lived in the fallacy of its exceptionalism. It would be nice to see it function as promised.