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Corporate America’s public responses to racial inequities is not enough

“People think this is about George Floyd, but we are still crying for Emmett Till.”

Last week was a whirlwind. Hundreds of CEO’s and corporate leaders publicly opposed and condemned the actions of the police officer in Minneapolis who murdered George Floyd, and made promises to revisit, or reinforce company values and aspirations to create safe places of work for Black employees. I’ve been pondering two questions over the past week. But, why now? And, more importantly, now what?

I’m currently enrolled in a Master’s Certificate program at UNC Charlotte: Anti-racism in Urban Education. This has been a life-giving educational journey for me thus far, as I’ve been able to engage in conversations with other professionals, faith leaders, and educators on all matters related to anti-racism. We often discuss how best to incorporate anti-racism education and initiatives in our work-places, our school-places, and our church-places. We recently had a dialogue on the very question of: why now? I think it boils down to three main areas:

  1. We saw the footage: The murder of George Floyd, in broad daylight, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was broadcast across the world. We saw the death of an innocent black man on television, unlike the way we saw Michael Brown or Breonna Taylor or Freddie Gray or Philando Castile and the countless other victims of policy brutality. It was visually real.

  2. COVID-19 pandemic: This is unprecedented times. The combination of social isolation, economic stress, and trauma associated with the pandemic has been a shared experience across the nation. People are being forced to slow down, and pay attention. Perhaps there’s a heightened sensitivity to death due to over 100,000 lives lost in the U.S. alone.

  3. Interest convergence: A theory coined by the late Derrick Bell, a law professor who was well-versed in critical race theory, stipulates that black people achieve civil rights victories only when white and black interests converge. While this is still a debated theory, this does beg the question: Will CEO’s and business managers actually follow-through on their promises to intentionally pursue the work of racial equity and anti-racism in their corporations? Or, will this be another “hot topic” that was given attention to protect corporate reputation, but will soon pass us by?

Now what? It is impossible to get to the heart of diversity, equity and inclusion work-for yourself or an organization-without having an understanding of the history of racism, the social construct of race, the origins of white supremacy in America, and the structure and dynamics of privilege. So, let’s start with a few definitions.

Racism: White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of peoples of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and peoples of Color (Sensoy and DiAngelo, Is everyone really equal?)

Categories and Levels of Racism:

  • Systemic: 1) Institutional- social institutions (e.g. government, courts of law, schools, corporations); 2) Structural- public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms that work to perpetuate racial group inequity.

  • Individual: 1) Interpersonal- occurs between individuals; 2) Internalized- racist attitudes towards members of their own ethnic group, including themselves.

Why do these definitions matter? Because, the solution to achieving racial equity is not just about Employee Resource Groups. It is not just about public statements regarding the commitment to diversity and inclusion. It is not just about a company forum to hear from Black employees (I actually caution leaders that this activity, while well-intentioned, puts additional burden on Black people, and can cause further harm without the recognition of the need for inner-work and systems-work of white colleagues and corporations). It’s a combination of both individual and systemic approaches that need to be well understood and well planned. And, that requires an understanding of the ways systemic racism and white supremacy show up in your workplace.

So, are you ready? Let’s DO THE WORK!

For more education, resources and tips for leaders who want to incorporate a racial equity lens into their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, be sure to visit my website, and sign-up for my newsletter here!

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