“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.
Business as Religion
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. My dad made his living managing the wealth of many of the 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.
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, or that this dynamic was dissonant with our faiths or our nation’s purpose. The "business of business is business" battle cry empowered us to offer a Panglossian dismissal to our discriminatory, anti-labor and environmentally disastrous practices. As far as anyone I knew knew, U.S. style capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.
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 there was any 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, 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 between tribes and with the earth.
With a few exceptions, this 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 2 political parties, or 3 lifestyles (urban, suburban, rural), or 5 distinct generations or 100's of ethnicities we are divided. Or whether we view ourselves as George Packer does, as 4 distinct nations - Real America, e.g., Sarah Palin, Free America, e.g., Milton Friedman, Smart America, e.g., Sheryl Sandberg, and Just America, e.g. Angela Davis (Atlantic, 2021). Or if we examine the 12 distinct socioeconomic tribes, as Dante Chinni and James Gimpel do in Our Patchwork Nation (2012). As a rule, 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 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). 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).
These divides in many cases 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 participate 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 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% and 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 dominating going on, we can take our pick of folks who started it - 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, and 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 the genocide, rape and torture of native people and the genocide, slavery, rape, and torture of African peoples, 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, 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 we, white people, continue to benefit from white supremacy, 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 us in some fashion. Further, staying out of 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 twin 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 crime to provide for oneself and family, and we would 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, 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). Perhaps this is due to us not liking or trusting one another as we did in the past, as 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. This points to an age old truth - money, screens, drugs, alcohol, and consumer experiences don't give us what we need, acceptance, 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 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 leaders are overwhelmingly white, wealthy and male, business is the only institution regarded as both ethical and competent, 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).
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 on one’s family - these things are unique to the workplace. Culture change isn’t a matter of learning new information, but rather a sustained commitment, requiring self-inquiry, modelling, practice and 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 industry.
You are likely aware of organizations in your industry who have gotten the memo, e.g., Thomson Reuters, AirBNB, LinkedIn, Patagonia, Ford, Johnson & Johnson, PwC, etc., and have invested heavily in robust purpose and belonging initiatives. They know that culture eats strategy for lunch. 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.
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 and liberate our people from oppression.
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 bitter 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.
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