“Maybe that works for y’all out in California, but we’re sitting on a powder keg right now.”
I was talking with a friend of mine who is the head of DEI of a 300,000+ person global technology company.
“How do you mean?” I inquired.
“We’ve got All Lives Matter MAGA folks here. Good people who do a great job, but who create this constant political hostility and resistance to anything DEI. We can’t put them in a training with people of color. It’ll re-traumatize folks. They’ll leave, I’ll miss my DEI targets, and then I’ll have to leave. I’m already seeing disproportionately high early retirements and leaves of absence for women and people of color. If we start a big culture change effort, I think it will only get worse.”
And she was right, it was July of 2020 and the political tension and racial unrest was at a fever pitch. She knew she had to do something beyond providing mental health resources and public statements, and that even a public statement was going to kick the All Lives Matter hornets’ nest.
This is because no American likes being told what to do or what to believe or how to feel, especially by the wealthy and powerful. Historically, DEI, with its unconscious bias trainings, anti-discrimination trainings, anonymous reporting systems, employee resource groups (ERGs), and hiring quotas, has had an elitist, corrective and shaming feel. This has resulted in many white folks consciously resisting or tuning it out and subconsciously deepening the sense of feeling attacked and the need to settle a score. As we explored, the field of DEI has failed to deliver positive outcomes in hiring, retention and promotion of diverse candidates.
So introducing new or expanded DEI efforts at any time, given this history, is a giant risk. In the wake of multiple videos documenting the murders of BIPOC people by police, a summer of protests and one of the most consequential elections in American history, that risk just expanded 10x. However, there is hope.
If there is any silver lining in 2020, it is that it shook the tree of liberty, and a bunch of aspiring white allies fell out to defend it.
That certainly happened to me and Mike, my conservative CEO friend. We were part of 2020’s bumper aspiring ally harvest. Many of us deepened our learning, reading “White Fragility” and “How To Be An Anti-racist”, formed book clubs, joined ERGs as allies, took allyship trainings, joined our local SURJ Chapter (Showing Up for Racial Justice), donated to organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM), National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and took to the streets alongside our BIPOC friends and family.
Unfortunately, much of this allyship harvest rotted on the truck. Most of it was performative and short lived. Public support for Black Lives Matter jumped dramatically to 67% in June of 2020, up from 43% in 2016 (Pew, 2016). However, it then fell to 55% by September of 2020 (Pew, 2020) and then 50% by March of 2021 (USA Today / Ipsos, 2021).
Equally illustrative is that only 60% of people believed George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin in June of 2020, and that number fell to 36% by March of 2021 (USA Today / Ipsos, 2021). This means that by March of 2021, 64% of people who had seen and/or still had access to the footage of the actual murder, said it wasn’t murder. Just as disturbing are the empty promises of corporations. They promised to spend $50 billion on racial justice initiatives in 2020, but by March of 2021, less than $250 million (0.5%) had been spent or committed (FT, 2021). Further, the USA Today / Ipsos poll suggests that support for racial justice among white people may have already fallen below 2019 levels.
While some white folks opened their hearts and began the journey to allyship, many dug their heels in. What’s telling is that support for BLM is at 88% among white Democrats and 16% for white Republicans (Pew, 2020). What’s telling is that 91% of all Democrats say black people face a lot of discrimination in American society versus 42% of Republicans (American Survey Center, 2020). This suggests that the topics of diversity, race, equity, and inclusion are likely to ignite these deeper racial/partisan identities and further aggravate the wound. My friend was right, DEI is indeed risky business.
Death to the Tyrants!
Unfortunately, these aren’t just caddy clicks and scornful frowns. Many believe that the other side should suffer and die. 54% of us believe our fellow Americans are the biggest threat to our country (CBS News, 2021). 33% of us now justify the use of violence for political gains (American Enterprise Institute, 2021), with 15% of Democrats and 20% of Republicans believing it would be a good thing if a bunch of folks on the other side just died (Kalmoe, 2019).
This is the powder keg my friend was talking about. Workers who feel culture, race and/or politics play a role in them being passed over for promotion or in their dismissal could resort to violence. Of course, this threat wouldn’t be such an issue if AR-15’s and ammonium nitrate were not so easily accessible. This is way more than a business risk. It’s more than people not getting along, or not wanting to collaborate with or promote diverse colleagues. This deep tear in the moral fabric of society is a risk to our bodies, minds, souls and democratic institutions.
In the summer of 2020, my wife and I wanted to show solidarity with the BIPOC community in San Diego. Like many folks, we painted our windows and put up a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard. After a few weeks, our sign was defaced, so we fixed it. Shortly thereafter, we learned that a neighbor had taken a photo of our home and posted it along with our address on the Instagram feed @DarkNightSD. He had public discussions about bringing death to the tyrants and forming a militia to take us out, along with the other homes in our area voicing BLM support. Let me repeat - he wanted to take us OUT.
I called the San Diego Police Department to see if a crime had been committed and to file a report. I had proof of @DarkNightSD being linked to the personal account of my neighbor, which also showed him marching at Trump rallies without a mask. After I told the dispatcher what had happened, and described the evidence I had in my phone, she said, “So what did these Black Lives Matter people do to you again?” I was shocked. Had she not heard anything I said? How could she think this white supremacist had anything do with Black Lives Matter supporters?
Three hours later, two units showed up and I told them what had happened. I offered to show them the evidence in my phone and they declined to look at it. Instead they invited me to take down the signs. They told me there is violence and intimidation on both sides of the issue. Both sides of what I wondered? Then it clicked for me why the dispatcher thought it was BLM supporters who were suspected. It was clear that SDPD viewed BLM negatively, and it was likely that their sources of information were the same ones painting BLM as a domestic terror organization - which is literally the opposite of what it is - an organization to mobilize support for stopping the domestic terror rendered upon communities of color by police and white nationalists.
I was advised to report the incident to the FBI, which I did. A friend at the Department of Justice talked to her friends working on domestic terrorism (covertly of course, as the Trump administration officially ignored it and allocated no resources to stopping it). I learned that politically and racially motivated domestic terror incidents are popping up all over the country, such as the blue dots spray painted on the curbs of Biden supporters in Roseville, California (Independent, 2020) to the lynchings in Palmdale, California (NYT, 2020) to the nooses in Connecticut (NYT, 2021). She also told me that nothing was going to happen about it unless there was a change in the DOJ’s policy on domestic terrorism.
Luckily for us, a new administration was elected.
However, there is only so much the government can do. And as the surveys reveal, many of us likely have family and friends inclined towards the use of violence, even if they’ve never said anything about it to us. We also are clear that this is the beginning of something far worse. 51% of us expect an increase in violence (CBS News, 2021), 71% of us believe democracy itself is in jeopardy (CBS News, 2021), and 93% of us recognize that our hatred for each other is a problem (Civility in America, 2019). We are perhaps in what Boston University professor and former Reagan administration State Department Official, Angelo Codevilla, has called a “cold civil war.”
We need only recall the Rwandan genocide to see how quickly things can escalate from disinformation and hate speech to genocide. There were months and months of vitriol on the radio, while tens of thousands of machetes were quietly distributed. Then the long-waited for cue, “Kill the cockroaches”, came over the radio. Within the next 100 days, 500,000 to 1,100,000 Rwandans were dead.
It wasn't that long ago that our nation tore itself apart over our differing views on race. 750,000 of us died in the Civil War, representing 2.5% of the population. If 2.5% of our nation died today, that would be 7 million deaths. Was the 1/6 insurrection a dry run for Civil War II, like Hitler's 1923 failed coup? It is hard to say. But what is clear is that polarization and racial animus aren’t just harmless societal trends.
Nor do they operate independently from the economy. They are enmeshed in the economy. These people are our investors, employees and customers. Many of us see the news, and assume this is only happening to other people, or in other states, not to us or near us. There are 838 registered hate groups in the United States (Southern Poverty Law, 2020). The odds are good that there is one near you and that your organization counts their members as investors, employees or customers.
These are the people representing your brand, holding your shares, servicing your customers and buying your products. As it turns out, our vicious cycle of media hyperbole, social outrage and political entrenchment, has significant economic consequences as well. According to a Harvard Business School Faculty Report, political dysfunction is the #1 barrier to our nation’s economic competitiveness (HBS, 2016).
It’s clear our approaches to culture, such as DEI, must be re-envisioned in the wake of this deep and increasingly violent tribalism. Like everything else pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd’s murder and pre-insurrection, how could it not evolve?
As even the words “diversity”, “equity” and “inclusion” raise the hairs on the backs of many white necks, we can no longer address inequity and racism with only a frontal DEI approach, e.g., mandatory one-time trainings, hiring quotas, etc. We can’t keep punching resistant white folks on the nose with it - it just doesn’t work. It never did. We have to treat the problem holistically and systematically. To do so, we must get at the root of the tribalism that endangers our organizations, social and racial progress and is rotting the roots of our democracy.
How We Got Here
It’s a mix of loneliness, hyperindividualism, mistrust and lack of purpose. As we explored in chapter 2, individualism has been part of our identity and culture since the 1800's. However, in 1960’s, we through gas on the fire, each of us coming to believe that we are on our own, and not connected to anything larger than ourselves. As we’ve explored, we have few close friends, we don’t trust our neighbors, and our participation in faith communities is on a multi-decade decline. Because of our social isolation, the eagle / bootstraps / rugged individualist myth and the endless opportunities to disconnect from people to turn to screens, we feel increasingly distant from our friends, families, neighbors, community, workplace, faith and nation. The result is that we are conditioned to believe that we are on our own to get our needs met, to find meaning and purpose, and succeed. And if we fail, it's our fault.
For Boomers coming of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, this individualism initially came with greater freedom, fulfillment, pleasure, prosperity and self-expression. They no longer had to live like their WWII / Spanish Flu / Depression-era parents, who were bound by duty, faith, prudence, hard work, self-sacrifice and restraint. They could love how they wanted, study what they wanted, smoke a joint, ditch their bras, drive a cool car, listen to rock’n’roll, choose their own path and be far more self-expressed than their parents. While this yielded many benefits for society, it also had a dark side.
By the 1980’s, greed was considered good, big was better, and gas was cheap. More champagne, more coke, more of everything, and it was ok because everyone was doing it. With the exception of the Freedom Riders and a few thousand college kids who protested in the 60’s, nothing really bound this generation together. It was everyone for themselves - liberty in overdrive.
The children of Boomers - latchkey Gen X kids like me, millennials like my wife and zenials like my cousins -, came of age in this individualistic and consumerist culture. With no moral code and no genuine elders (remember many of our Boomer parents are pleasure seekers who take no responsibility for the impacts they have on others or future generations), we grew up watching our leaders burn the planet, raise tuition, kill unions and flatten wages.
Although we have an abundance of choice, we lack moral clarity, common cause, life direction, and the faith that we would have a prosperous future. As mentioned we are not just confused and alone, but 67% of us are unfulfilled (Imperative, 2016), 75% of us are distrustful of our government (Pew, 2020), 84% of us are stressed (APA, 2021) and 97% of us are unhealthy (Mayo, 2017). Amplifying this fear, disconnection, resignation, resentment and confusion is the social media landscape that peels us off into inumerable eddies claiming to explain and blame away our problems.
Initially, this individualism, meaninglessness and isolation was good for business, as the core human needs for purpose and belonging that were traditionally met by family, friends, community service, religion, farm life and war, could now be readily, although not substantially nor sustainably, sold back to us via an ever increasing menu of consumer goods and experiences. However, as we explored previously, it has been taken to a shameful extreme. Combined with the last four decades of flat wages, we have become increasingly unable to buy ourselves back any of the meaning, connection and wholeness that we so deeply need.
Stripped of a social identity, deprived of genuine elders, and a shared moral code, we turn to anything to help us feel like we matter and belong. Increasingly, this void is being filled by racial and political tribalism and easily accesible firearms. Extremists pray on the lonely, poor and marginalized. As Hannah Arendt revealed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the source of political fanaticism is loneliness and spiritual emptiness: “Loneliness is the common ground of terror.”
Extremists give people a common enemy to blame for their suffering. Grievance becomes common cause. We are experiencing what is called the footballification of culture - my team is perfect, good and divine, and yours is a bunch of immoral, selfish and untrustworthy animals. I will defend my team to the death, even if it means yours.
How We Can Heal
Our last chance against this deluge of danger, despair, disarray, dehumanization, and democratic collapse is the organization. Work is now how many people try to get the majority of their needs met - income, healthcare, meaning, connection, growth and achievement. It is the plow, ale house, church, and hospital rolled up into one. While I think most of us would want it to be otherwise - having a fulfilling career, with affordable quality healthcare disentangled from work, and a shorter and flexible work week with time for friends, family, the outdoors, religion and civic engagement-, it is what is so right now.
As such, work has become the epicenter of all that is good and bad about our nation's culture. Which is also to say that corporate leaders are responsible for what continues to be good and bad about it. And with the clarity about what we know to be missing - purpose, belonging, connection and common cause - we have an incredible opportunity for redemption and resurrection. We have an opportunity to vanquish the eagle, lead our nation into the bison era and establish a meaningful legacy.
In times of peace, as leaders we have to look at the data dispassionately, assess the risk and opportunities and invest our time and resources wisely in accordance with our purpose. In times of crisis, however, we must not only take wise and purposeful action, but swift, substantial and sustained action. This is a time of crisis - we are unwell, impoverished, angry and heavily armed. 46% of us own guns and there are a total of 393 million guns in the U.S. (Small Arms Survey, 2018). We mobilized our economy once to defeat Hitler. We must now do so again to prevent a second civil war.
So how about that dieable why of yours? Do you hear the call? Do you feel responsible for the health, safety and well-being of the people in your care?
Before we dive into how you can transform your organization in service of your purpose, its purpose and our nation’s purpose, let’s get clear on the state of people initiatives - what’s working, what’s broken and what’s next.
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