Racism Is a 400-Year-Old Virus

 Racism Is a 400-Year-Old Virus

Black employees DEIB Diversity & Inclusion Employee Experience

When a person says, ‘I love my son,’ we don't say, ‘What about your daughter?’ When a person says, ‘Black lives matter,’ we should not say, ‘All lives matter,’ to justify ignoring the real implication of the statement."     

 - AT&T CEO Randall Stevenson, September 30, 2016. 

Those who know me personally know that I’m an eternal optimist. I can make myself believe whatever I need to believe. Today, I need to believe that we’re on the path to finding a cure for the virus that has taken more lives than all viruses combined: RACISM-20.

Nothing has been able to stop it. This virus kills the young and old. It’s not limited by geography or socioeconomic status. It doesn’t matter if you wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands in hot water for twenty seconds, and use hand sanitizer. You can follow every written and unwritten rule and it will kill you anyway. 

Why? Because you’re Black. 

If you aren't Black, it actually kills you, too. You may not get hypertension, lung disease, or diabetes, but you’ll most certainly come down with guilt, anger, depression and anxiety. 

You’re likely to live a longer life than Trayvon Martin (17 years) or George Floyd (46 years) with less violence and physical pain, but dehumanization kills us all. You feel powerlessness, rage, confusion, frustration, fear, and less human and less connected to a large part of the population. 

Early on the morning of May 26, after a couple of video calls, I went to make more coffee and my son (sheltering in place with us) was doing the same. I asked him how he was doing. He said, "I was great until I read the news." I said, "Ok, hang in there."

I took my coffee and I went back to my next Webex. I jumped in a few minutes late while scanning the news. And then I saw it – the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.

That moment tore me in half. I might have been in that meeting, but I wasn’t in that meeting. As I looked at people on the screen talking, the whole world was on mute for me. I could not hear a thing. 

I instantly rocketed both into the future—lies, riots, more lies, why people will say he 'deserved' it—and into the past— remembering the video of Rodney King getting beaten with bats, kicked, and punched by police officers a month before my now 29 year-old son was born. 

And then, like many in the Black community, I had to go about my day.

We all have our way of rebuilding after trauma so we can continue to do what we are driven to do. Black people have especially had the burden of carrying the weight of their real pain and trauma with them into work and suppressing those feelings to find a way to be professional and get the job done. 

Except this time, it was different. I could see the “enough is enough” and “we’ve got to do something” spirit building in the community and leaders around me.

I was encouraged to see so many purpose-driven leaders reaching out to me to find out what we were doing at Great Place To Work® and what they could do to use their businesses and influence as a force for good. 

Here’s what I shared as my suggestions for the road ahead:

Start the conversation

Employees are hurting, even though many people we survey work at organizations that are among the Best Workplaces™ in the world. The mental weight of years of divisiveness, nationalism, COVID-19 and RACISM-20 is just too much. 

Check in with your people. Often. Many are still grieving personal losses resulting from COVID-19 and now are grieving the loss of humanity. Make sure they have what they need, including safe places to express what they’re feeling and your support to take care of themselves, their family, and their communities. 

As leaders, it’s especially time to take steps to create an environment where our Black employees and colleagues no longer have to suppress the trauma they experience almost daily and can bring their full selves to work. "FOR ALL" means Black people, too. 

Listen continuously

Keep this conversation going along the road to the election and post-election.

Black people are Democrats, Republicans, Independents and non-voters, but for all of them, November 3, 2020 matters. 

The heat is going up from here to there, and not the other way around. Things are going to be said every day by those focused on Election Day that will cause anger to move through your organization.

If you do not see a connection between the election and the Black community, then give me a call. You can't sincerely talk about one without talking about the other. 

For those leaders hosting "A Day of Understanding," I suggest you move to "Days of Understanding." This is a marathon, my friend. You’ll need listening and learning sessions bi-weekly, or at least monthly, from now through Election Day and beyond.

All people, not just Black people, will need these. This is a part of our listening strategy at Great Place To Work and if you want to know more about how to have these conversations, read this guide.

Check your motivation 

Stop before asking the one Black person in the room to share their experience and "moving" story. While it might create a feel-good moment for you (social media is full of these), rarely are these messages from Black CEOs, COOs or CMOs. 

It is usually young individual contributors or front-line managers who are called on to speak up about racism. But often they live to regret their openness, learning these were career-limiting moments. 

Instead, make it a priority to get Black talent recruited, developed, and promoted to the top and beyond (Board of Directors). Those are the “microphone moments” that they’ve earned and really want.

A ray of hope

A silver lining is that many people feel a new kind of care and a concern for Black people, far greater than they have known for years.

Shelter in place has created zero escape. We can't avoid our emotions by rushing to airports, hotels and meeting after meeting. We can't escape the impact on our families and communities. I have gone to sleep with sirens every night since May 26th.

Forcing the world to sit with this situation and access reality is a good thing, although the cause, COVID-19, is horrific. 

These circumstances have brought us to the tipping point. After countless unarmed Black people have been killed by the police, George Floyd's murder is the first time I have received notes and emails from white people (who don't work for me), letting me know they are thinking of me at this time. You know what? I'll take it. 

And something new is in the air with the Gen Xers and millennials. They are not looking backward or forward; they are looking at right now. They want this craziness to end and the protestors are diverse and inclusive. Support, encourage, and appreciate them.

If we can help you with any of this, let us know.

Prayers and best wishes to all affected by COVID-19 and RACISM-20…this means prayers and best wishes FOR ALL. 

Michael. C. Bush
CEO of Great Place To Work®

Michael C. Bush