An Open Letter to Corporate America on Addressing Race

Dear C-Suite,

We spent this summer inundated with images of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Daniel Prude, Elijah McClain; black lives that were murdered or brutalized by police and emboldened racists.  Their tragic fates flooded advertising campaigns, news channels across the political spectrum, sports venues, ice cream containers, merchandise, even motivating the reorganization of streaming service offerings to educate the country on what it means to “live while black”. It was exhausting witnessing the complicated experiences of black people in America treated as new news or, more painfully, academic topics. And as inexplicably as it may seem, it did take a pandemic to render America a captive audience to force white people to reckon with the country’s need for a moral awakening on race.  In light of this, social amnesia in future corporate practices will be unacceptable and inconceivably offensive.

You can no longer hide behind ambiguous company wide emails in the wake of the country’s open public debate on racism.

There is no question that many companies have acknowledged the events surrounding black deaths in the past.  Carefully crafted messages were issued, supporting “peaceful protests.” The bodies remained nameless as “unrest” erupted in front of government buildings, directing our attention to the “events”, “actions”, and “conflicts” that were “painful reminders” of continuous “division.”  Understanding the country’s unwillingness to accept the possibility of systemic oppression motivated by racism, many of us forced ourselves to read between the lines, painfully searching for a shred of compassion buried behind the lukewarm corporate press releases.  Yet, the time spent in quarantine has changed us – made us tired and you more awake – and there no longer exists a reality where you can hide behind wide-spread ambivalence and ignore the psychological trauma of being black in America.

Let us be clear:  A concert is an “event”.  Crossing the street is an “action”.  A black father shot in the back 7 times by police in front of his children is a “tragedy.”  Officers allowing a lunatic to waltz away as a crowd yells yells that he murdered two people exercising their 1st Amendment right, is a failure of the system.  Ahmaud Arbery being called a nigger before being shot in his own neighborhood by a white man is a hate crime no matter how much we want to debate the legal definition.  The police suffocating Daniel Prude after being called to help him is a double standard.  Breonna Taylor dying in her home while police called to assist their own is monstrous.  George Floyd suffocating while police smiled during his pleas is inhumane. Elijah McClain rendered lifeless is the demonization of mental health issues in black and brown communities.

I understand that firms must serve a spectrum of opinions and it is neater to shroud harm done to black people as incidents detached and far removed. But if my husband dies at the hands of police tomorrow while picking up our son from daycare, my employer’s statement better say his name and who killed him, in recognition of my pain even if the details are developing.  Details mattered in a world that pretended racism did not exist.  But now the country acknowledges the real fears of your black employees who neurotically plan their steps to avoid becoming the next dead unarmed black person on the morning news. By choosing not to say “racism, police brutality, police accountability, racial profiling,” or any form of the term in your future messages (because more black people will die) it impresses upon us that your white employees’ comfort level about real events is more important than acknowledging the real pain of marginalized communities. I believe companies can handle the messaging of society’s heightened awareness of racial injustice with the care it deserves, without making their white employees feel like they are being called racists. To do anything otherwise, leaves the impression that the firm has not decided were it stands on race relations.

Be prepared to revamp your diversity training programs.

It isn’t difficult to attain an award for diversity and inclusion in the 21st century. In part this is because the scope of diversity has been stretched beyond its original intention so that companies made up of 1st generation Italian white men could be considered diverse outright.  Even if a company truly embraced a range of diversity categories, for some the award thresholds are so basic that merely interviewing a quota of black people could earn recognition worth displaying on a company website.  We (black people) knew this but settled for the participation awards unable to find a basis convincing enough for you to do more.

Recruiting diverse professionals is an easy box to check, allowing firms to creep up in diversity card rankings with loosely defined standards.  But retention and promotion (the heart of inclusivity) are typically compromised in an environment where no one is willing to question the blindingly whiteness of the old boy’s club mentality.  We compensated by forming our own underground railroad – informal mentoring networks, advocating behind the scenes for more substantive work – hoping to create the inclusive environment required to encourage continuity in our professional careers (instead of running from one white elephant in the room to another).  All we asked was to include voluntary training program on micro-aggressions and unconscious bias in the annual budget to give the illusion that you cared, even if the lack of attendance was disconcerting.

But now as your black professionals return to work and sit in their offices, it is going to be hard for many of them to continue playing this game refereed by white fragility. Having mandatory programs geared toward identifying unconscious biases within your four walls is the bare minimum, unless you too believe such education is divisive, anti-American propaganda. At the end of the day, overt racists exist in our board rooms, serve on our committees, veto recruiting decisions, vote on partnership promotions, and oversee annual reviews.  Between emboldened shouts to build the wall and federally applauded neo-nazi counter-protests, the question is no longer whether racism exists.  Summer 2020 has shown that corporations can no longer cheapen inclusivity and treat race theory and white privilege as academic questions. The question becomes will the firm continue to excuse the nuances of racism as harmless banter? Be prepared to answer the difficult questions.  Do you track your retention rates? Why aren’t you making training mandatory? Do diversity events extend beyond social gatherings? How are you holding your partnership accountable? What does it mean when you say a candidate does not fit the “culture”? It is time for you to start thinking critically about retention and promotion because accolades for attainment does not mean you have beaten racism within your walls.

Choose to do nothing at your own risk.

The recent attention to the historical marginalization of black people has been accompanied by all sorts of “movements” including those that distort the call for justice.  Alllivesmatter, bluelivesmatter, alt-right, neo-nazism, all are trying to create solidarity under the banner of patriotism, however their messages are geared toward silencing the pain of marginalized communities rather than resolving racial injustice. Particularly after this summer’s brief moral awakening, continued flirting with vagueness whether in internal communications and loosely defined diversity “initiatives,” dangerously obfuscates your company’s position on racial injustice and threatens to lower morale.  I understand saying black lives matter is controversial, even if the phrase inherently makes sense.  But without an affirmative stance on this matter, it would appear you suffer from a nostalgia of a time when black people quietly knew their place. Understand this letter comes from a place that believes your industry wants to be more inclusive of diverse voices and is actively working toward that goal, as your website states.  Otherwise, if your firm has not decided how it will join in on the community dialogue, its vague calls for solidarity embolden the very people, causes and movements that threaten to deepen the chasm that is tearing our country apart.  Choose to do nothing, it may not matter, just do not be surprised if the basis for your diversity accolades take their talents elsewhere.

 

Sincerely,

Your Black Employees