“It’s the only way to treat a white man.”
I was 16 when I heard these words. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I joined in the laughter and nodded in agreement. I had just finished a round of golf at my all male and almost all white country club (except for a few Japanese businessmen with whom we never interacted). As a kid, I enjoyed the game of golf, and at the urging of my father, became a junior member of the club. We were sitting around a card table, smoking cigars and watching sports. Tony, the Cuban bartender, had just brought us our drinks.
A friend of my father then said these lamentable words and we all laughed. I didn’t think anything of it and we continued our conversation.
In the 20th century, clubs like this one were where business got done in America. The relationships that form in these wealthy white enclaves, from the Harvard Club in New York to the University Club in Chicago to the Olympic Club in San Francisco, have been the engine oil of American capitalism. This is not to say you couldn't do business without belonging to such a club, it was just a lot easier as a member, as trust was assumed among members within each club, and between the members of these clubs via reciprocal guest agreements. My dad made his living managing the wealth of many of our club’s members. I was counselled to do the same - hang out with rich white people, ingratiate yourself and do business with them.
And there was no sense of anything lost or wrong in joining or wanting to join these exclusive and primarily white male communities. As the thinking went, what was good for business was good for the nation. As business just happened to be controlled by white men, so white men in business in the 1980's and 1990's were revered and idolized. Men like Michael Milken, Jack Welch and Ted Turner adorned magazine covers, bought jets and estates, offered us a gospel of prosperity, and in so doing, they filled the hole previously occupied by religion.
Business as Religion
During my childhood, business was revered as an unqualified good, as what helped defeat Hitler and the U.S.S.R. and put a washing machine in every home and a car in every driveway. There was an implied nobility in it, and it never bothered us that women or BIPOC folks weren't really involved. Friedman's "business of business is business" battle cry empowered us to pursue wealth as a moral good. It also meant, all was fair in love and war, sanctioning our discriminatory, anti-labor and environmentally disastrous business practices, with quips "It's just business", "Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette". As far as anyone I knew knew, U.S. style capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.
What I did not know was that because business had become the driving force in culture and politics, that it had become the theater for the soul of our nation, between the desires of the individual (the energy of the eagle - the solitary hunter and our national bird) and those of the commonwealth (the energy of the bison - the tender of the people land and our national mammal), between capital and labor, between matter and spirit
For every new product and and service created, a large eagle fortune was made, and often at the expense of the people and planet (bison). This gave rise to new social and environmental movements, protections and institutions, e.g., child labor laws, the weekend, the right to organize, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Organization (EPA), Medicare, National Parks, Bureau of Land Management, etc. I did not know that the business environment I grew up in during the 1980's and 1990's was the result of the battle between individual freedom and collective responsibility, between the eagle and the bison.
I, of course, wanted to fit in and followed the path laid our before me. I picked one of the whitest majors (finance), joined the top white fraternity on campus, bartended at the top white bar, dated white sorority girls, played sports, made the Dean’s List and held leadership positions. Like most of my fraternity brothers, I wanted to be successful, and used college as a resume polisher for my destiny - a career in white professional services, a house in the white suburbs, complete with a white housewife, 2.3 white kids, membership at a white country club and white church, and plenty of BIPOC folks to serve us.
Business as Villain
To bring us drinks. Mow our lawns. Clean our houses. Wash and valet our cars. Carry our bags. Raise our kids. Make our food. The weird thing was that no one talked about it. No one seemed to notice that if you squinted your eyes, the Chicago suburbs looked a lot like plantations. Not that I was privy to overt malice or secret meetings, but the centuries old relationship between white folks like my parents and our BIPOC "help" continued.
While it was working out nicely for us, it obviously wasn’t working well for Black folks. Black men earn $.56 (BLS, 2019) and Black women earn $.63 for every $1 a white man earns (US Census, 2020), and Black families have $.01 wealth for every dollar a white family has (Northwestern, 2020). Although none of us actively sought to oppress and exploit people of color or women, the net effect of our jobs, biases, marriages and our suburban lifestyles did exactly that.
Our collective actions (giving contracts and jobs almost exclusively to other white guys, cutting taxes education and social services that benefit women and BIPOC folks) and inactions (ignoring the rising poverty, addiction and crime in BIPOC communities) ensured that we kept the power and wealth for ourselves, while women and people of color made a lot less money serving us. Our kids are now making us feel more uncomfortable about it, but nothing has really changed.
Granted, we do have increasing diversity in boardrooms, media and political leadership and overtly racist attitudes have subsided. Unfortunately, our country remains segregated, geographically, politically, racially and generationally. As anyone who has ever been to grade school knows, its not just white people finding new ways to oppress non-white people, its everyone trying to oppress everyone else.
Since the first ships of oppressed, dehumanized, and traumatized Europeans arrived, we’ve inculcated an ethos of dominance over nature, natives, women, and each other. This is not to romanticize indigenous or African peoples - they also had politics, fierce warriors, injustices and skirmishes. However, what they had and we Europeans did not, was an intact culture, where war, peace, spirituality, economics, culture, love and friendship existed in relative harmony both within First Nations, between them, with the earth and the great spirit.
What native cultures on Turtle Island had was security and relative ease. They had purpose and belonging. In an only recently unearthed 1942 paper from Abraham Maslow on the six weeks he spent in 1938 with the Blackfoot people in Alberta, Canada, one of the few intact native communities that had yet to be decimated by poverty, alcohol and state-sponsored assimilation, Maslow found a society marked by:
"...feelings of being liked and loved; the perception of the world as a warm and friendly place; a tendency to expect good to happen; feelings of calm, ease, and relaxation; self-acceptance; a desire for adequacy with respect to problems rather than for power over people; 'social interest' (in the Adlerian sense); cooperativeness; kindliness; interest in other; and sympathy... Children are not humiliated by their parents as tey are in our society... Inferior men are not humiliated by superior men, nor are the poor humiliated by the rich... The typical personality of the Northern Blackfoot Indian is on characterized by dignity and friendliness and containing like insecurity, suspicion, envy, jealousy, antagonism and hostility or anxiety..." (Stone Brown, 2014)
It is of course, a great irony that we ginned up a narrative that First Nation's people were backwards, in order to justify taking everything from them.
With a few exceptions, our eagle ethos of dehumanization, dominance and oppression has driven us away from each other and into homogeneous tribes. Whether we look at ourselves as a country of:
It appears the eagle is winning. We seek to amass wealth (eagle) to protect us from the cold realities of the market society, versus seeking solidarity and shared prosperity (bison). We isolate ourselves from those who are different, diminish and dominate others, and come together only in the face of special circumstances like an economic depression or to stave off a genocidal maniac.
The net result is that 74% of us don’t have any friends from different ethnicities, 69% of of us don't have any friends from different generations, 63% of us don't have any friends with different levels of education, 62% of us don’t have any friends who vote differently and 56% don't have any friends from different income brackets (Barna, 2015). It appears that white folks are the most segregated, as 92% of people in the networks of white people are white (American Survey Center, 2021). And it is getting worse, as our education system is increasingly segregated along the lines of race, class and politics (PBS, 2014). Over half of our children now attend deeply segregated schools (NYT, 2019).
Many of these divides overlap and enforce a dynamic of “Christian white male ableist heteronormative supremacy”, or for short, “white supremacy”. Today, being a part of a white supremacist system doesn’t just mean lynching and burning crosses, although there are a few thousand white nationalists still actively perpetuating in domestic terrorism. It means that we all participate, regardless of whether we lean towards the bison or the eagle, in an interlocking system that keeps wealthy white men on top, and deprives others of their rights, dignity and the fruits of their labor.
It is no longer a conspiracy by overtly racist white folks, but continues as a symptom of our lack of moral imagination and our failure to activate a bison-led vision of shared prosperity. Without moral imagination and a vision of collective flourishing, we turn on one another. We dehumanize each other. White supremacy just happens to be the main way we do that in the United States, and it runs through every institution in our nation - every church, company, school, non-profit and local government. It is in every American heart. Yours, mine, everyone’s.
It is the water we swim in. It's why luxury cars and strip clubs exist. It's why Jack Welch boasted about culling the bottom 10%, why women live in constant fear of sexual assault and why we've clear-cut, monocultured and poisoned our land. It continues largely unabated to this very day. There is so much eagle at play, we turn on each others and can take our pick of folks to blame for our suffering - the media, the other political party, "kids these days", capitalism, white men, immigrants, etc. Unfortunately, when blame each other, we miss the deeper dehumanizing narrative of our nation's history. We think it’s the nearest sheep dog or shepherd who is responsible for the culling of the sheep and not the system of exploitation and culture of dehumanization.
This is not a persecution nor an exoneration of the sheep dogs, e.g., academia, media, corporations, politicians, clergy and police, or the shepherds, e.g., wealthy white families, just a metaphor that explains the power dynamics in a country rich in resources and poor in moral imagination. Without the guidance of a shared vision and our "better angels", we do the only thing we have been trained to do with our sharp elbows, e.g., pay subsistence wages, beat the competition, find the angle, maximize return, plunder nature, “get the girl”, capture market share, “make it rain”, etc.
Since 1619, white supremacy has evolved from a "forever war" against native peoples, including their genocide, rape and torture, into the genocide, slavery, rape, and torture of African peoples, and into gems like the ⅗ compromise, broken treaties, Black Codes, contract lending, Jim Crow laws, payday loans, redlining, policy brutality and the preschool to prison pipeline. The mechanisms of white supremacy have evolved, but the outcome remains the same - white men on top.
“Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” - Malcolm X
What else can explain why Black families only have $.01 of wealth for every dollar a white family has? Either we’d have to say that there is something deficient in Black people or their culture, which is both explicitly racist, and factually incorrect, as it can be argued that much of our nation’s finest writing, music, legislation, science, technology, athletics, art, spirituality and cuisine came from the minds, bodies and souls of our BIPOC brethren, or we admit that our system creates better outcomes for white people as a function of the system, not as a bug in the system. If we admit the latter, we at least can be factually correct.
Now comes the hard part. We then must acknowledge that, regardless of our racial, ethnic, religious and sexual identity, that we depend on white supremacy to survive, and that “staying out of it” or doing nothing is a vote in favor of it. Remaining neutral ensures hard working BIPOC folks, no matter how hard they try, will not succeed, and eventually will be forced by the market to serve wealthy whites. Staying neutral is both a vote for further oppression, also dissonant with our wild-eyed, rambunctious nature. It is fundamentally anti-American, as anthropologist Margaret Mead observed…
“One characteristic of Americans is that they have no tolerance at all of anybody putting up with anything. We believe that whatever is going wrong ought to be fixed.”
While it’s understandable to not want to face the music, it is not honorable to make the inquiry itself wrong, e.g., ignore it, ban it, deflect, engage in doublespeak or cancel people. That’s the work of cowards. A courageous person is willing to have the discussion, accept the facts, admit his wrongs, face her accuser, and make satisfactory amends. Yet, few leaders are willing to answer this call.
Answering the call is a hard and long road, which makes it tempting to ignore. Due to the volatility and competition in our economy, and the great fear of screwing it up, it is tempting to lower our sights on what is possible. It’s easy to snack on small, surface-level wins like diverse TV shows, board members, entertainers, Olympians, politicians and scholarship winners. It's easy to comfort ourselves by saying it's not as bad as it used to be. It’s uncomfortable to face the reality that little has changed. Although racist attitudes of white people have dropped remarkably over the last 100 years, life is considerably less free and equal for BIPOC folks today than it was 50 years ago (Putnam, 2021).
If we continue to ignore, and thus damage, our sacred purpose, we do so not just at the expense of the flourishing of our multicultural commonwealth and our biosphere, but at the expense of white flourishing as well. White people also have trouble sleeping. White working moms are also stretched thin. White people are also hustling for subsistence wages and struggling with obesity, addiction, and lack of education and healthcare. Had we decided to activate our shared purpose and made our society and economy caring, inclusive and equitable, and continued the social and economic policies of the 1950’s and 60’s, we would all have been better off.
We would have generated an additional $16T in our economy over the last 2 decades (Citigroup, 2020). This is because the policies that liberate our BIPOC brothers and sisters from oppression and empower them to make their highest contribution, such as those that guarantee access to the basic necessities of life - living wages, affordable healthcare, family leave and education, safe communities -, also benefit poor and middle class white people. More white Americans would get what they need to become healthier, wealthier, more fulfilled, and more productive. This would mean there would be less incentive across the board to turn to vice to escape and numb, and crime to provide for oneself and family. We could end to the preschool to prison pipeline that is currently laying waste to 2.2 million of our nation’s souls.
Our founding documents speak to a powerful purpose - a deep call for equality, justice and liberty, a healthy marriage of the eagle and bison, a commitment to welcome and treat everyone with dignity and respect. In 2021, our purpose means a living wage, which is $25-50/hr and less than a 30 minute commute, depending on the area (MIT, 2021). It means affordable healthcare (<5% of income). It means a safe, loving, stable and inclusive community. It means clean water, air and soil. It means healthy and affordable food. It means small class sizes. It means sustainable and affordable public transit and housing (<25% of income). It means we are free from oppression and have the right to vote. It means we do not get murdered by the police during a routine traffic stop.
Our nation’s purpose means that no matter what color your skin is, who you love or worship or who your daddy is, you deserve dignity and respect. You deserve equal treatment under the law. You deserve the opportunity to discover, live and prosper from your purpose. You deserve to belong and realize your full potential in your life and career.
Unfortunately, help isn’t coming. The very people we hire to ensure that our rights, dignity and purpose become reality are on the take.
Landmark research at Princeton University on the state of our democracy has revealed that we are a democracy in name only. We are an oligarchy, ruled by largely white, wealthy, male and corporate interests who ensure their power and wealth expand at the expense of the well-being of our nation’s diverse citizenry (Gilens, Page, 2014). And this isn’t some left-over vestige from long ago, some antebellum hangover working itself out. These mechanisms are still being actively implemented by our elected officials. 389 restrictive voting bills in 48 states have been introduced since the 2020 election. As of June 2021, 17 states have enacted 28 new voter suppression laws (Brennan Center, 2021), the majority of which are designed to suppress votes in diverse, urban populations.
In other countries, when these dynamics exist, we call it what it is - an apartheid. Here we just offer heartless quips like "May the best man win", “You make your own luck”, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, “To the victor, the spoils”, etc. But the secret is out, and unfortunately our government seems unable to listen, feel or do anything about it.
Business as Savior
As a result, many of us have stopped believing in our nation’s promise. Black and white folks alike who have spent decades trying to achieve some level of security increasingly believe it will never happen, as over half of Americans now believe it is unattainable (One Poll, 2020). As such, it is no wonder that our trust in government has fallen dramatically. Only 24% of U.S. citizens trust the government, down from the high of 77% in 1964 (Pew, 2021).
Well, at least we have each other, right? Nope.
In the struggle of our poverty and the growing shame and resignation that we will not achieve our dreams, we suffer alone. Only 47% of us belong to a spiritual community, down from 70% in 1999 (Gallup, 2021), 61% of us are lonely, up from 46% just a few years ago (Cigna, 2020), 33% of us have only 1, 2 or 3 close friends and 17% of us have no close friends, double the number from 2013 (American Social Survey, 2020). 41% of us don't have a best friend, up from 23% in 1995 (NY Post, 2021). Trust in our fellow Americans has fallen to 32% from 57% in 1968 (Vallier, 2020).
Further, this dynamic seems to be impacting men disproportionately, in what has been called a "male friendship recession", the number of men reporting zero friends has increased 5x since 1995 (NY Post, 2021). Given that we laugh five times less when we're alone versus with others (Proveen, Fisher, 1989), the argument can be made that more alone we are, the more our "pursuit of happiness" is unrealized. It seems individual happiness (eagle) depends to a large extent on our connection to each other and the land (bison). This points to an age old truth - money, screens, drugs, alcohol, and consumer experiences don't give us what we actually need - meaning, belonging and connection. Individual experiences cannot replace social experiences. To fulfill on e pluribus unum and our pursuit of happiness, most of all, we need each other.
There is hope.
Business is in the perfect position to intervene, as organizations are the only place where we have sufficient diversity across gender, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and age, with 5 generations now intermingling in the workplace (Purdue, 2021). Although religion, non-profits and academia are well-regarded and highly trusted, the diversity in most of these organizations reflects the aforementioned geographic, political, economic, and racial segregation of the nation, and thus they are insufficiently diverse to nurture the necessary empathy, trust and belonging across differences.
The substantial and sustained time commitment that is required to build authentic relationships and for the transformation of beliefs and behaviors is low in religious, civic and neighborhood organizations (50-500 hours/year) and high in organizations (2,000 hours/year). Because U.S. organizations are already in action training and developing their people, spending $80B per year in learning and development, $8B per year in DEI and $6B per year in employee wellness, we also have existing channels and budgets, through which we can develop individual and shared purpose and create belonging.
As such, the responsibility of realizing our purpose increasingly falls upon the enterprise. While it may seem counter-intuitive, as
business is still regarded as the most ethical and competent sector, with 72% of us trusting our employer to do the right thing (Edelman, 2021). There is even greater trust in small businesses (<500 employees), where 47.3% of us work (USSBA, 2021), as 94% of us trust small businesses to do the right thing (Gallup, 2020).
Further, 68% of us expect business to fill the government’s leadership/trust void (Edelman, 2021). In part this is due the the immense power of business. Business knows no borders, has vastly greater resources than any other sector, is unencumbered by term limits and the need to constantly engage in media spectalces. People expect business to step up, because it can do so much good in the world.
It's needed and it's time. As you'll explore in the next chapter, your employees, customers and investors now demand it.
To change behavior and beliefs, people need a reason, a commitment worth changing for, such as the impact of one’s work, the love of one’s craft, or simply the impact of one’s paycheck and health insurance on one’s family - these things are unique to the workplace. Culture change isn’t a matter of merely learning new information, but rather a sustained commitment, requiring self-inquiry, modelling, practice, support, and the network redundancy (Centola, 2020) that organizations amply provide.
What this means is that to effectuate any change in beliefs and behaviors, the mechanisms of change must come from multiple people in a network, versus top down, learned in a class, sent out in an email or painted on a wall. They must be continually modeled, developed and expanded over time. The good news is that once 25% of a population adopts a belief or behavior, it soon becomes the norm (Centola, 2020).
In a sense, an organization is like a sovereign nation, with its origin stories, values, mission and vision; its own economy and culture, with its own education and healthcare and environmental functions. From the CEO to the new hire, organizations are fertile gardens for the cultivation of thick culture, comprised of strong ties (close friends) and weak ties (acquaintances), criss-crossing a company and sometimes an entire industry.
You are likely aware of organizations in your industry who have begun to integrate the eagle and the bison, e.g., Thomson Reuters, AirBNB, LinkedIn, Patagonia, Ford, Johnson & Johnson, PwC, etc., and have invested heavily in robust purpose and belonging initiatives. They have embodied the wisdom in Peter Drucker's adage, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." They know their cultures cannot serve only 25% of the workforce (Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white men). They know that 70% of people want to live their purpose at work (McKinsey, 2021). They know how much better they perform when 100% of their employees feel safe, like they belong, can grow, activate their purpose and do their best work. Especially as artificial intelligence (A.I.) makes the rote and analytical, cheap and easy, if there is to be any hope for our nation and species, we must remember and unlock what makes us uniquely human - purpose, creativity, our bonds to each other.
Imagine each employee you work with being connected to their purpose, bringing that sense of belonging and fulfillment back home, impacting the health and resilience of their families and neighborhoods. Imagine the culture and economy of a nation where this is the new normal. Imagine 330 million souls alive, activated, curious, creating, caring and connected. Imagine the sense of fulfillment you will have in helping bring forth this future.
These ripple effects are what can make America’s sacred purpose real, and not just words. Just as our nation's business leaders rose to the challenge in the 1940's to ensure our survival, mobilize the economy and defeat Hitler, we are being called upon again to activate our purpose, liberate our people from oppression and create a shared prosperity that is on the whole, greater than anything we have seen.
And so the question is, is your organization going to activate purpose and belonging, or will you let other players attract diverse talent, innovate, capture market share and fulfill on our nation’s purpose? The deeper question is,
"Knowing the stakes and what's possible, will your last breath be one of shameful regret or tearful pride?"
Before you answer this, let's explore the deeper truth of who we are as a nation, and claim a new future for ourselves, one that is a victory over our white supremacist past and present.
Ch. 1 Summary:
Ch. 1 Reflection Questions:
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