One week ago, following the video of George Floyd’s murder, I posted on Twitter: “Again … I’m exhausted.”
Like many this weekend, I watched the news and social media outlets, saddened. Yet I’m more saddened by the fundamental lack of recognition of its root cause: Racism, created by centuries of slavery, nurtured by dehumanizing coded language and imagery that reinforces irrational fear of Black men, perpetuated by practices and customs that continue to oppress Black people long after immoral laws were changed.
Protests and civil unrest begin after events like Floyd’s execution — again. Breonna Taylor shot eight times and killed in her own home by police serving a “no knock” warrant — again. Atatiana Jefferson shot and killed through her bedroom window by unannounced police — again. Ahmaud Arbery chased, cornered and murdered by armed white men in February, who were not arrested or charged until a video emerged in May — again.
But for phone video and social media, these could easily have been swept away. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott — the roll call is too long. (Need more? Read NPR’s “A Decade of Watching Black People Die.”)
Then, in the usual sleight of hand, focus is drawn to the subsequent violence and looting, as if perpetuated by legitimate protesters of unjust, targeted acts of aggression. “Why can’t they protest peacefully?” “They’re hurting their own cause …” many say.
The reality is most of the looting is by bad actors with other motivations that take advantage of the unrest. Moreover, the reality is peaceful, nonviolent acts of protest. Think Colin Kaepernick, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, even Muhammad Ali, yet they were also met with derision and contempt by those who would obfuscate the core issue by focusing on the protest itself, whatever its form.
There is a huge, historical problem with policing of Black and brown people in America. As a young adult in Chicago, I was pulled over, stopped and frisked, pockets emptied more times than I can remember. Occasionally the seat cushions were pulled from my car and the trunk emptied. Then, I was left on the side of a road to put it back together. I was scared and helpless.
I naively thought that as a maturing adult it would stop. It didn’t. Even while I was a T-Mobile executive, my wife and I were followed by the police until we reached our destination, and the white colleague we were visiting waved to them that she (so by extension now we) were OK. She never realized what was happening. Only a few years ago, after walking into a shop in Bellevue (where I reside), police rushed in after me and demanded my ID and wanted to know why I was there. The shopkeeper said I was a regular customer. Then they said I fit the description of a suspect. A 50-year-old, well-dressed Black man? Yeah, right. If the shopkeeper hadn’t known me …
Even in retirement, those are things I think about every time I leave my home until I arrive at my destination. The stress-levels of driving, jogging, walking and just being Black are immeasurable. If you don’t have a frame of reference, don’t assume you can even imagine what that’s like. Don’t castigate or talk about protests and even riots by inauthentically referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent message when you haven’t read or heard the whole of his truth. In his 1967 speech, “The Other America,” Dr. King said: “America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots … And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
So, what can you do? Drive the progress. Go beyond town halls, forums and open dialogues. As leaders, look around and consider the decisions you have and will make. When you look at your direct report teams and don’t see Black and brown people, make up your mind to immediately change that and promote some. Give them the same privilege: Looking past their imperfections just as you have others; give them the opportunity to fail just as you have others; directly coach, mentor, sponsor them as vigorously as you have others (even if you don’t hang out with them after work or on weekends as you do others); believe that they have that indescribable “it factor” as others have; finally, trust them to be able to handle a role two to three times larger than their prior one as you have others. In actuality, these are the same opportunities that you’ve been given, too.
Edmund Burke wrote in 1770: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [people] to do nothing.” It’s even truer today. It’s time for you good people with the position and power to do more. It’s time to go beyond the words and walk the talk.