It was inevitable.
Amid the horror of everything last week, someone posted on Facebook: “Where is MLK when we need him?” MLK was, in many views, that passionate voice that calmed and gave hope to the madding crowd, and served as an acceptable emissary to a reluctant white America of its stake in the racial injustice that had riven our nation for centuries.
Until a white supremacist put a bullet in his neck.
We don’t need another MLK. While the current passions have mutated into a bewildering chaos, the basic social injustice at their core is not a black problem. It is a white problem.
We need a white person. A lot of them.
I’ll start with me. I’ve been writing for years — books, blogs and public speaking — on nearly every dimension of leadership. One of my central models of leadership even talks about being the moral compass of your organization. As invested as I felt I had been in the issue of racial equality on a personal level, I never once punched the keyboard on the need for leadership on the most basic threats to human dignity, respect, and — yes — physical and social safety that far too many black Americans face every day.
While Arbery and Floyd and Cooper are in stark focus right now, I’ve long heard the stories from black executive clients, black team members of some programs I have run, black friends rich and poor: a constant buzz of both subtle and overt indignities that serve to remind them that, despite all our efforts, they are somehow less — less trusted, less heard, less safe. While we can rightfully abhor and despair at the destruction now being wreaked by some on the streets of our cities, the smoke cannot obscure the stubborn, stark profile that we are still yet two Americas. Through the course of our history, often sanitized, we built this.
It is not just one or two or even a stream of headline-grabbing incidents; it is the totality of the black experience in America. If you’re not sure, not convinced, or even at least curious, ask some blacks what their experience has been. Then come away, as I have, with the sober realization that I never had to teach my white kids to display their wallet or purse up on the dash of the car so they don’t risk getting shot by reaching for it in the glove compartment when stopped by a cop; or remind them to wear some color coronavirus mask other than black so someone doesn’t report them to the police as a suspected burglar; or tell them if there is ever a police action near them to lie face down with their hands over their heads and don’t move. Or don’t take it personally when they get suspicious stares at a jewelry store. Or be careful about being too passionate about some issue of parity in the business lest they be branded an “activist.”
Exaggerated? I thought so, too. Until I asked. Of all my black friends, there is not a one who did not have such a story, and often told (and heard) with tears. More than anything, all of them told me they are tired — tired of living with it, tired of trying to get people to understand, tired of being left to feel it is their problem.
Our nation is on fire right now: race riots, COVID-19, record unemployment, and a government — at least at the federal level — that has abandoned its post. It’s a fragmentation bomb going off right in front of us.
To be clear, we have tremendous black leaders in every area, but one part of this is not theirs to fix. We don’t need an MLK to make the case. We need white leaders to take a stand, to speak to white America and get people to the table. This is not something to delegate to HR or a diversity officer alone. We need white leaders to speak of their own journey on this or begin the steps toward it, make it their personal priority for their organization to at least be a safe place to dialogue, learn, rebuke racism in all its insidiousness, and be a force to lean hard on the creaky institutions of government to get back to post and be a strong voice of hope and unity.
Look out the window. There is way too much at stake to leave this to someone else.
Leadership is a calling. We don’t always get to pick the mission. Sometimes it calls us.