“A riot is the language of the unheard.” — Dr. Martin Luther King
“We have to end racism.”
I’ve heard and read this sentiment countless times. Believing it might just be the, or at least a reason George Floyd is dead.
And yes, what follows matters to you as a business leader and manager. Bear with me.
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I grew up in a Chicago suburb that was so Jewish, as a child not only didn’t I know anyone in the world was anything else, I didn’t know there was anything else for them to be.
When an older me did encounter antisemitism, I found it quaint and comical. Serious, violent antisemitism was, I thought, something everyone had grown out of, except, perhaps, for some laughable yahoos who were barely worth ridiculing. I’d thought it was like smallpox — eradicated except maybe for a few lab specimens.
Now, it’s a growth industry.
If we still haven’t eradicated antisemitism, why would anyone think we can end racism and other bigotries?
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Nobody is a bigot. Nobody looks in a mirror and sees a bigot looking back out at them.
Where I see bigots, the bigots might see themselves as protecting a way of life against an invading force. They might seriously believe they’re fighting a secret cabal that runs the world … never mind that they hated the group that runs the cabal before they ever heard of the cabal.
They might believe, with evident sincerity but no knowledge of population genetics or cognitive development, that racial mixing is a thing, and a bad thing at that.
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In just the past few weeks we saw the videos of Amy Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery. Now we have George Floyd, who followed Eric Garner as a black man choked to death by police officers. If you’re a young black man, to you the police are exemplars of lawlessness. If they don’t have to obey the law, why should you?
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Imagine you’re Medaria Arradondo, the chief of police here in Minneapolis. You aren’t stupid or unperceptive — you know racism and other forms of bigotry are entrenched in the local police culture. Heck, your entire career depended on you having a thick enough skin to shrug off the occasional tasteless race-oriented “joke.” Or not so occasional; these things aren’t generally reported.
You know you have a problem with bigotry in your workforce. You know you need to fix it. You also know you can’t just fire all of the 800 police officers who work for you and start over. It would be a bad idea even if you weren’t the city’s first black police chief and weren’t willing to deal with complaints about reverse racism.
What’s your plan?
What your plan isn’t: Tell everyone to stop being a bigot. Even if your plan is to tell them over and over and over again … “And I mean it!” you might say … there’s no point. Nobody looks in a mirror and sees a bigot looking back out at them.
Which is why I blame “we have to stop racism” for George Floyd’s death: Trying to end racism is futile. It wastes energy and accomplishes nothing. Better to focus on what can work.
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Let’s get to it: You aren’t Medaria Arradondo. You probably don’t have 800 armed employees reporting to you, nor do you have to deal with a history of your employees killing other people in questionable circumstances.
If you’re leading and managing a workforce of any size, what you and Arradondo probably do have in common is entrenched bigotry. Telling everyone that bigotry isn’t okay won’t accomplish anything for you either. And for you, like Arradondo, identifying even the worst bigots in your workforce isn’t easily accomplished. Nobody wants to be thought of as a whiner or a snitch. A minority employee who already feels like an outsider is even less likely to complain.
It’s your workforce and your problem. What are you going to do about it?
Organizations run on trust (see Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Chapter 4: “Relationships precede process.”) And as trust and bigotry can’t coexist, bigotry will hurt your organization’s productivity.
So even if we ignore the question’s obvious ethical dimensions, doing nothing is still the wrong answer.
The right answer? I’m not a fan of zero-tolerance policies, so how about a one-tolerance policy: If an employee says, or even hears something and doesn’t say something, and you learn about it, that’s one. One earns that employee a spot on your You Can Think What You Want but You Can’t Say What You Want task force.
If overt bigotry happens again and they’re in earshot, that’s two.
But it’s your workforce and your problem. What are you going to do about it?
Please share your thinking in the Comments.