“We don‘t do neutral here.“
A client made this statement a week ago today during a conversation related to his company‘s culture. It pierced me to my core. Later that evening, I sat quietly for an agonizing 8 minute and 46 seconds as the network channel I was watching ran a silent tribute to George Floyd. As I reflected on the injustice of George Floyd‘s homicide, these five words kept coming back to me – WE DON‘T DO NEUTRAL HERE.
I work hard to stay neutral, perhaps too hard. I take pride in my effort to honor my values while steering clear of offending. Emotional Intelligence (i.e. the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically) is not my natural state, but it is a learned skill.
E-I is failing me right now. I find it near impossible to contain my emotions as I acknowledge our failure as a society. Our country is fractured, and we are in desperate need of leadership to help us heal the crack. After a particularly low day last week, I awoke with the realization that we must be the leaders we are looking to serve us. That means speaking up, expecting more, demanding more, and most important – giving more. It means moving from neutral to full speed ahead to drive the change we seek. Now is not the time for playing it safe, avoiding conflict, or avoiding offending.
The Last 60 Years
You see, I was a child in 1963, listening to Dr. King with my Mom when he shared with the world his dream. He said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.“ Mom cried. I did not understand the importance of his speech at the time.
Mom was progressive for her day. She met her first non-white person at 32 when we moved to Illinois from rural Iowa. We lived in a diverse but segregated community. Our little home‘s back yard abutted the “colored section“ with an alley between us. My Mom‘s best friend was a beautiful African American woman who lived across the alley – Averne. Mom and Averne looked enough alike that they could pass for sisters except for the color of their skin. Arverne was a nurse and was the first person I would run to, to fix my bumps. Mom appreciated the diversity of her new friends, and we learned to love people without regard to the color of their skin.
Mom‘s perpetual pot of coffee provided an excellent spot for the neighbor ladies to debate the brewing integration decision. The community was at odds over the integration talk coming out of D.C. The argument against integration was simple in my white neighbor‘s eyes – everything is fine the way it is. I can remember many times playing on the back porch, with kids of all colors, listening to our parents argue over integration. We could not understand what the big deal was, weren‘t we all friends, why would it matter on what side of the alley anyone lived? Mom spoke up loud for integration.
It mattered to many in our community for conflicting reasons. Segregation was outlawed as a result of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Mom lost friends. Many of our neighbors moved away, and our community integrated. Despite the battle for racial equality heating up across the United States we were fine within our little community. Between 1964 and 1971, riots resulted in large numbers of injuries, deaths, and arrests, as well as considerable property damage concentrated in predominantly black areas. Many of us, myself included, joined in to protest against racial inequality at our local level. We may have hit our all–time low when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. The riots grew more violent resulting in some change but not enough. To learn more about the riots:
All the while the racial protests were going on; the U.S. was suffering under a second conflict. The Vietnam Conflict was in full swing. Vietnam was the first significant conflict in which blacks were fully integrated, and the first conflict after the civil rights revolution of the early ‘60s.
Like COVID-19, black men bore a heavy burden in the conflict we sometimes call the Vietnam War. Though the ratio of black combat troops to white ones was double that for the U.S. population, their rate of combat death was likewise higher. At the same time, there were disproportionately fewer African Americans serving as officers. African Americans made up 5% of the officers, but 10% of all Army troops. Civil-rights leaders like Dr. King made the case that Vietnam was an example of, “a ‘race war‘ in which the white U.S. Establishment is using colored mercenaries to murder brown-skinned freedom fighters.”
The riots of the 1960s led then–President Johnson to establish a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1968. The commission identified white racism as the leading cause of the riots. The report called out pervasive discrimination and segregation, black migration to the cities as whites left them, harsh ghetto conditions, the frustration of hopes, and a feeling of powerlessness on the part of many blacks.
There is no evidence that any real or sustainable efforts were made to correct the problems identified by the commission. The Johnson administration, and those that followed, viewed the riots as law-enforcement problems rather than signs of social imbalance. The commission made no positive change. In many ways, I suspect they contributed to system racism. If you are not familiar with the term systemic racism, here is a source that explains it well:
To add to the craziness, we were also going through a flu pandemic where 100,000 US residents died in one year – the 1968 pandemic. To be honest, I do not remember the pandemic, though my Canadian husband remembers it very well. I suspect we already had enough on our plates. If you are like me, and do not remember this pandemic:
Our country was as divided then as it is now. After Vietnam ended and Nixon left office, life seemed to settle down. I guess we thought we were healed. We never healed. We simply pretended all was okay. Many will say, and I agree, that the efforts then enabled systemic racism that continues today. We would have continued to pretend if it were not for the horrible, very public, killing of George Floyd by a police officer while one of his colleagues looked on while two others kept the crowd from helping. Protests ensued starting in Minneapolis and then world wide.
As of this publication, protests continue and are now on their thirteenth day straight. The protests are in demand for equality that we failed to deliver back in the 60’s. Fifty-seven years later, we are nowhere close to realizing Dr. King‘s dream or solving racism. Systemic racism is all around us. Black students are suspended and expelled from school three times more often than white students are. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Latino households.
Seven in ten blacks said they are treated less fairly than whites are in their dealings with police. A quote from the ACLU website says it all:
“From our public schools where students of color are too often confined to racially isolated, underfunded, and inferior programs, to our criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and incarcerates people of color and criminalizes poverty, to the starkly segregated world of housing, the dream of equal justice remains an elusive one.”
It is time to stop dreaming and stop pretending. It is also time to stop excusing. I am proud of the small role my Mom played in integrating our community. It took courage to offend her neighbors and friends. Now it is time for me to make Mom proud.
We are all in this together. We cannot change the channel. It will take more than a few bandages to fix our cracks, and it will take hard work by many. We can lean in and work together to heal the fissure that started hundreds of years ago. We can learn to listen and act in a way that is helpful.
Let us not make this a political partisan thing. Many are outraged against Trump and I am as well. As much as I would like to say this is all on Washington DC, it is certainly not. I hold Republicans and Democrats just as accountable as I hold us as citizens. So many of the empty words we hear now need to turn to active change. We need to hold our lawmakers accountable in the fight against white supremacy and racism. They did not fix anything during Johnson‘s administration or after. They owe us to fix it now. Most of all, we need to hold ourselves accountable and reject the acceptance of racist behavior and attitudes.
You can be assured; I will not do neutral anymore. At the very least, I hope I‘ve provided a bit of history along with reason to support us all to be better. If I have offended you, I will not apologize. Our fellow humans are hurting. Our community is hurting. Our country is hurting. I cannot pretend that everything is fine or that it will be okay. Pretending never leads to change. I stand in solidarity with our Black Professionals, Business Partners, family members, friends, and neighbors to fight against the injustice still happening today.
Will you stand too? Here are a few resources to help you get started:
Anti-Racism Library Curated by LeanIn.Org
31 Children’s books to support conversations on race, racism and resistance
Anti-Racism resources for white people
Stay safe as we continue this journey together,