Blacks as Peers - White Responsibility | OP-ED
Systemic and institutional racism, white privilege and unconscious bias (“Systemic Racism”) are American cancers and monetized norms, punitive to Black and brown Americans (“Black”), but enriching for whites.
Like climate change and COVID-19, Systemic Racism is a life threatening force that fuels Black frustration, impatience and anger. Alternately, Black Lives Matter, a movement with diverse international traction, inflames white insecurities, rather than inspire substantive change. Now is the time for Philadelphia’s white business, institution and political leaders to act with courage and conviction to reverse field and tackle, not defer, Systemic Racism. Change requires more than undefined Black equity pursuits and Philadelphia being the most equitable city in America. The latter is a relatively low bar, when you consider Black demographics in comparable cities. Change also requires more than narrowly focused programs that have little potential to produce transformative outcomes. The current status quo should be mutually unacceptable.
Although Black women and men have power that must be more focused on transformative outcomes, white men disproportionately control the power necessary to dismantle Systemic Racism. A fact symbolized by Joe Manchin and an empowered hand full of white senators (infrastructure bipartisanship) demonstrating no concern for Black America, unless it coincides with white self interest. They, like many Philadelphia leaders, are preventing the perfect from getting in the way of the good. Translation, Black America, WAIT, Godot is coming.
In an ideological, social and racially divided America it is wrong, dangerous and negligent to continue delaying America’s response to Systemic Racism. CEOs failing to bring “A” games against Systemic Racism (low priority) and allowing affirmative action to underperform with respect to Black employment, leadership and procurement is not an accident. Aggressive corrective steps would be taken, if Systemic Racism was believed to impact profit margins or budgets. CEOs are misguided by aggregate spending reports with protected classes that are accurate, but camouflage bias and discrimination. Reporting aggregate numbers fails to disclose the wide gap between white women and Black employment and contracting percentage participation.
CEOs should hold C-Suite and executive leadership responsible for putting in place cultures, core values and norms that produce representative diversity outcomes in the normal course of business. How swiftly can CEOs respond? TV commercials, featuring Blacks, flooded the airwaves days after the murder of George Floyd. Self interest, not social responsibility.
White leaders and CEOs must become change agents on issues that transcend white self interest. JPMorgan Chase CEO, Jamie Diamond, recently called on his peers to come out of the shadows to engage politicly and publicly. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who managed the Supreme Court to a unanimous Brown vs Board of Education decision; John and Bobby Kennedy, who sacrificed their lives in part to fight Systemic Racism; and Lyndon Johnson, who choose to fight poverty over preserving political power in southern states are role models, who did more than stick their toes in the pool. Courageous white leaders must fill the current vacuum, if the racial divide is going to be navigated nonviolently. Where have you gone Mrs. Robinson?
Time is of the essence! Fear, police misconduct, gun violence, insurrection and dysfunctional politics are challenging American values. Corporate advertising supports TV personalities, who are free agents with the truth. Social media provides unfiltered platforms. Extremists applaud the Taliban, threaten Afghanistan refugees and advocate civil war to protect white control. The Supreme Court undermines a woman’s right to choose and circumvents precedent without serious deliberation. Climate and pandemic atheists misinform the public, leaving a trail of avoidable death. Republican voter suppression contradicts the constitutional values they profess to love. An irrational response to Critical Race Theory has ignited opposition to teaching Black history. All occurring under the umbrella of a deafening white silence and expectation of Black tolerance.
Richard Rothstein in “Color of Law,” paints Systemic Racism as a white cash register, profiting from Black exploitation. Thomas Jefferson foretold white self interest: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Philadelphia’s white leaders must distinguish themselves from Jefferson, the cash register and history. Philadelphia needs a team of Black and white business, civic, political, faith based, labor and community leaders, across generations (the “Team”) convening to confront Systemic Racism with the tunnel vision of Philadelphia’s hospitality community or the business community’s pursuit of life sciences. There is considerable research making the case that unraveling Systemic Racism would be an extraordinary economic stimulus for America. Black leaders should showcase the research and ask why it is being ignored, politically and commercially.
Philadelphia should stop looking to cities with signature success initiatives, but no record of overcoming Systemic Racism or achieving vibrant Black communities and businesses. Let’s lose the inferiority complex and lead.
Philadelphia should establish a Black Think Tank to respond to the impact of Systemic Racism on poor and middle class Blacks, small and mature Black businesses. Systemic Racism does not have a one size fits all solution, and history has proven low hanging fruit and incremental progress are not the answer. The Think Tank would propose comprehensive solutions and monitor progress. Although not a think tank, John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, combined with purchasing the Navy Yard, building stadiums, expanding the convention center and continuing to grow center and university city demonstrated the transformative impact of comprehensive planning and visionary leadership. The upcoming mayor’s race creates an opportunity to make a statement about Philadelphia’s future and private sector leadership.
Although I endorse a diverse and recognized power center, which does not exist, it cannot be the singular voice or center of power and influence. Philadelphia is a diverse city with a variety of important and contributing leadership communities, which are not all housed in center city.
Philadelphia’s Black demographics confirm the need to address Systemic Racism and its consequences. For every Black women, child or man escaping poverty, over the last quarter century, a replacement has immediately filled their vacated chair. Black demographics have remained unchanged, despite commitments to inclusive growth. No serious leaders are taking the risks associated with rocking the boat every day until change comes (Martin & Malcolm). In fact Philadelphia’s leaders have replaced initial Systemic Racism discussions with the convenient pursuit of Black Equity (undefined) in the context of economic recovery, infrastructure spending and collaboration to avoid alienating friends. Black equity is convenient, because ti will be in the subjective eye of the beholder.
How can change be realized without a shared definition of Black Equity? How can unprecedented infrastructure dollars be spent inclusively by procurement personnel accustomed to discriminating against Black businesses? What are local businesses and institutions doing to reverse discrimination in employment, leadership and procurement? Doubling down on bad history and not knowing answers to mission critical questions is shortsighted, fuels inertia, rewards Systemic Racism and leaves the door open to the frustration Sadie Alexander complained about in 1963: “The great mass of our people are discouraged by years of closed doors.” Because Philadelphia’s leadership community is deferring Systemic Racism, its work is off base and will not open closed doors.
This memo challenges white leaders to purposefully confront Systemic Racism. However, dismantling Systemic Racism also is an individual responsibility. Individually we must challenge ourselves to objectively assess our race based behavior and not reach unjustified self-serving conclusions that you are not the problem. Like vaccines are necessary to reach COVID-19 herd immunity, changed individual behaviors are necessary to reach Systemic Racism herd immunity. For each of us this is a Michael Jackson Man (Women) in the Mirror challenge.