I’m sure there are people already offended, so let me address the imaginary conflict between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” right at the outset. In business, we measure programs and processes by outcomes. And here we are, nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the outcomes, frankly, suck. By every measure I can see, all the programs and processes designed to ensure equal protection of the law to people of color and women are failing. No where is that problem more severe in American society than with regard to the African-American community.
African-Americans were the only group enslaved in America, and today, in 2020, we find they are still disproportionately poor, disproportionately sick, disproportionately jailed, and disproportionately killed by law enforcement. For that reason alone, it is 100 percent appropriate to focus our efforts on making sure that every segment and every level of our society internalizes the message that Black Lives Matter. The outcomes clearly indicate we have not internalized that message, and the consequences of our failure to do so going forward will be fatal to the American republic, at least insofar as that republic is supposed to represent the fulfillment of the promise of the United States Constitution.
Some will say that the problems are all related to individual choices, and I think that is completely inconsistent with the evidence I see. I have a friend about my age who, like me, is a West Point graduate and a retired infantry officer. He went into a store in downtown Denver a few years ago and security stopped him on the way out so they could check his pockets for stolen merchandise. That has never happened to me, and I suspect it never will. He is black, and I am white. Remember Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? He was arrested on July 16, 2009 after police responded to a 911 call about an attempted burglary. Gates was just returning from a trip to China, and had enlisted the help of his cab driver when he found the front door of his house stuck. What should have been a three-minute conversation resulted in the arrest of a Harvard University professor. I can guarantee that would not have happened if Gates had been white. In these two cases, distinguished individuals with a record of making great choices were harassed unnecessarily because they were black.
Some will correctly point out that the two cases I cite in the preceding paragraph provide only anecdotal evidence for my thesis. Here’s some more anecdotal evidence: Watch the video of George Floyd being murdered by police. Watch the video of Terence Crutcher being murdered by police. Read about how Philando Castile was stopped for a broken taillight and then shot to death in the front seat of a car in which his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter were passengers. Read about the 2015 Charleston church massacre where nine African-Americans were murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study. Read about the 2017 neo-nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. You could keep reading and watching for a long time, but at some point you should just stop and consider the statistics. What is clear is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that we have a serious race-relations problem in the United States, that the policies intended to solve that problem have failed, and that we all—regardless of our race—have both individual and collective duties to do something to fix the problem.
This essay deals with racism at the individual level. The next essay will address the society-wide dimensions of racism. That essay will address issues such as how we should deal with controversy over monuments, the issue of reparations, and practices that disproportionately harm the rights of protected classes. This essay, in contrast, addresses what racism is, our individual duty in combatting it, the concept of white privilege, and a brief discussion of the long history of racial inequality.
I begin this discussion of racism at the individual level by reminding the reader of what I have said in a previous essay about bias in general: we all have it. It’s part of how we are constructed as homo sapiens. A recent training on implicit bias cited a statistic from a Harvard University study: our brains process approximately 11 million pieces of information every second, and we can only process about 40 of those consciously. Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow is a superb overview of how our minds use models to simplify what we experience and how our models are biased by experience and evolutionary factors.
Implicit bias does not have to cause racism. We can define racism as discrimination or antagonism directed against others on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Another definition that I like is based on outcomes: racism is whatever perpetuates inequality that persists on racial lines.
Our first duty as individuals in combatting racism is to force ourselves to consciously surface and interrogate our propensities, likes and dislike to try and understand our bias. Stanford social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Ph.D., makes this point in her book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do. Forcing ourselves to be aware of our bias is especially important when making decisions that affect others.
Building systems with checks and balances helps. We are social animals—we should seek the input of others to mitigate our personal bias wherever possible. This does not mean we cannot make individual decisions. It does mean we are likely to make better decisions when we consider the perspectives of others.
Another duty in combatting racism is to confront it, peacefully and persistently, when we see it. We should all insist that the people around us show proper respect for others, in word and deed. We should never tolerate disrespectful language or conduct based on race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
Once, shortly after taking over management of a warehouse (and publishing my expectations for all employees), I discovered an employee had used a racial slur—directed at an Asian co-worker—on our hand-held radio network. I immediately contacted the supervisor to bring the employee to my office so I could fire him. The team arrived with the Asian co-worker as well, who insisted it was all a joke. He assured me he was not offended. I told him that the behavior was clearly against my policy, and that the behavior offended me. Then I fired the employee who had used the slur. All of us, especially when we are leaders (but even when we are not), must confront racist behavior. It is far too easy for people to rationalize bad conduct under the guise of friendship or teamwork.
In the introduction to my 2013 book Accountability Citizenship, I wrote “For both my father and myself, I see a combination of both hard work and luck as the main features of a tapestry spanning nearly one hundred years…. I am the American dream fulfilled.” If you would have asked me then what I meant by “luck,” I would have said that I was lucky to have had the parents and siblings that I have, I was lucky in my military career to have survived a few near misses, and I was lucky to have met the future CEO of the company where I would eventually go to work. If you would have then asked me what I thought about the role race played in any person’s ability to live the American dream, I would have said something about the Civil Rights Act and the progress that we have made since then. I would have concluded that racism was still a problem in some places, but, by and large, people of all races could achieve the same level of success with the same amount of hard work and luck. And I would have been wrong.
I now think that answer is incomplete, because I now believe that part of the “luck” that enabled my success was what people are now referring to as white privilege. I have rewritten that sentence a few times. I want to be absolutely clear that I do not believe any race is superior to any other race. I have never sought preferential treatment based on my race, and have always taken pride in earning my way based on my skills and merit. I would never have approved of a system that gave me an advantage because of the color of my skin, especially if that system disadvantaged others because their skin color was different. But regardless of all that, it is now clear to me that American society, in general, even in 2020, offers a multitude of advantages to white people that are not available to people of color. I have benefited from the white cultural orientation of American society. That is to say, I have benefited from white privilege.
I believe we all have a duty to work toward a society where no one is privileged based on the color of their skin. At the same time, given the failures of policies and programs designed to produce equitable outcomes for Americans of all races, I do not think we are anywhere close to a society that can function fairly without government oversight programs like Affirmative Action. In addition to the duties to combat racism mentioned earlier in this essay, it is my individual responsibility to articulate the need for such programs, to participate in the dialogue about how to make them effective, and to use my vote to support racial justice.
It is our duty to make a reasonable effort to understand diverse perspectives. We can do this by reading, through dialogue, voluntary exposure to cultural events sponsored by those with different backgrounds, and by sharing elements of our own heritage. These individual duties apply to people of every race. Even if kids are more comfortable sitting with other kids that look like them in the school cafeteria, all kids should make an effort to include people of all races in their social circles. The fact that this may be uncomfortable for some makes it even more important.
The Roots of Racial Inequality Are Much Older than the United States
Years ago, textbooks rationalized colonialism, conquest and exploitation of indigenous populations with the argument that the conquering powers brought technology and improvements to the quality of life of the conquered people. Buried in this proposition was the assumption that native peoples were somehow inferior to the conquerors, adding a racist rationale to the raw profit motive of economic exploitation. The racist notion that colonialism was a duty to lift up people of color was known as the “white man’s burden.”
The question of why technology and social organizations grew at different rates among different peoples is a reasonable line of inquiry. To paraphrase the words of UCLA Professor Jared Diamond, why did Europeans arrived to conquer the Incas rather than the Incas arriving to conquer Spain? In Guns, Germs and Steel—The Fates of Human Societies, Diamond provides an excellent description of how environmental factors shaped the speed with which civilizations emerged, developed various technologies, and projected their power on other peoples.
First, and most importantly, Diamond provides a clear rationale for why human societies developed at different speeds that debunks the racist idea that white Europeans developed faster due to inherent superiority. “In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species.” (Diamond, p. 401) Guns, Germs and Steel offers a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of these factors across all regions and peoples.
Diamond makes the case that homo sapiens moved more rapidly from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture-based societies in areas where there were higher concentrations of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication and food production. In turn, the ability to generate a surplus of food in a reliable fashion enabled the rise of cities, classes of people who could focus on something other than survival, armies, and technology. Population-dense groups living in proximity with domesticated animals suffered from new forms of communicable disease, to which many developed immunity. All together, these factors gave farming societies the ability to expand, displacing or conquering hunter-gatherer societies in their path.
Second, Diamond points out that the pattern of expansion, conquest, displacement, enslavement and brutalization of conquered peoples occurs all over the world among all the races of homo sapiens. For example, the Bantu expansion in Africa, the empires of Mesoamerica and South America, and the expansion of societies in Asia and the Pacific all ended badly for the people who were conquered and displaced. Just as being conquered does not imply intellectual inferiority, neither does it confer moral superiority. Power corrupts, it seems. Across all races, people with the power to expand, conquer and dominate their neighbors have done so.
The differentiator, according to Diamond, is the original “luck” that accrued to peoples living in areas with sufficient biodiversity to give them a head start on the path to guns, germs and steel. These peoples moved more rapidly to the stage of expansion and conquest by virtue of the geographical and ecological factors of their original homeland. Therefore, we can say that “white privilege” has its roots in a much older “Fertile Crescent privilege.” Neither privilege was ever deserved, earned, or intended by most of the people they have affected (positively or negatively).
The problem with white privilege in the United States lies primarily in areas where we can see that privilege has been leveraged, extended and caused to persist through injustice and with intention. Those of us who have remained unaware of privilege, as well as those who have passively accepted it, are also at fault. It is far past time for a comprehensive evaluation of social systems and processes to achieve justice for all.
Racism—defined as either discrimination directed against others on the basis of their race or whatever perpetuates inequality that persists on racial lines—is evil. It arises from bias. We all have bias, and we should acknowledge that fact. But bias does not become racism until we either engage in or tolerate unjust behavior. It is our duty as citizens of the United States to ensure our personal conduct neither creates nor enables racism in any form.