Racial injustice in America: embracing potential opportunities

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Adjectives like “institutional” and “structural” have been used to describe long-standing racism and racist practices in America. The recent protests in scores of American cities, sparked, this time, by the ghastly murder of George Floyd while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers, seem to suggest that a significant cross-section of Americans are ready for transformational change. This time, the anger is visceral. The anguish is deep. The desire for real change resonates at the deepest emotional level, among a broader cross-section of Americans. So, also, in many countries around the world. This one feels different—and it’s long overdue.

So, how could we embrace the potential opportunities this situation presents?  

Mutiu O. Fagbayi

A quote attributed to Albert Einstein says: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In other words, no lasting change can happen only at the level of effect; lasting change originates from the level of cause. Therefore, to be systemic, our responses to institutional and structural racism must address bothmindset and behavior; both thought and action.

It is heartwarming to see the level of individual introspection and collective action underway all across America and around the world, focused on expressing outrage and searching for a fair and just way forward, especially for African Americans

While “every small, positive step is helpful,” it is imperative that the solutions proposed include policies and practices that address racial injustice at its roots and at scale. I don’t have a specific roadmap to that new society that is affirming of all people. I’m still in my own “listen and learn” phase. A framework that could help some people think their way to potential lasting solutions might comprise these steps:

■ Listen and learn: Learn about and reflect on the areas where people of color—especially African Americans—have experienced structural and institutional barriers for decades; for example, in education, housing, access to health care, and living-wage employment (see table below).

■ Stand up, step out: Select one (or more) of the racial/social justice priorities that have been documented to impact African Americans particularly adversely (see table below). Choose an area that is in your “wheelhouse”—because of its emotional resonance for you, because you have personal access and leverage to effect change, or because it is personally challenging for you and offers personal growth opportunities, etc. In other words, stand up and step out into an area that matters to you yourself and, perhaps, unsettles you a bit.

■ Set measurable goals: Commit to concrete actions and measurable outcomes, within your immediate sphere of influence as well as the broader sphere where you and/or your organization have access and leverage. For example, a major company could make the commitments within its corporate boundaries, as well as through structures where it has direct and indirect leverage to facilitate change on a larger scale (e.g., the political class; professional associations like the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and American Medical Association; grass-roots community groups; unions).

■ Build in incentives: What gets measured and rewarded, gets done! This step is about accountability for results, where accountability is defined as standing up for the results we produce individually and collectively. However, what we choose to “count” matters—a lot.  

There are countless examples of well-intentioned initiatives that failed because of a focus on the wrong metrics; the No Child Left Behind education reform initiative is a case in point. Other metrics were just plain perverse, with built-in implicit and explicit malice towards certain groups; the structure of criminal citations in Ferguson, Mo., or stop-and-frisk in New York City come to mind. Even disciplinary referrals for “defiance” in many of our nation’s schools, which disproportionately snag black and brown students.

The point is this: It is far wiser to emphasize metrics that “catch them doing good,” rather than those focused on “punishing” people for coming up short on perverse incentives and implicitly biased indicators. Tread meditatively yet boldly when defining the metrics.

FRAMING SYSTEMIC SOLUTIONS Actions to influence institutional policies and practices
Racial Equity / Social Justice PrioritiesPersonally, and within your team/organizationWithin the larger society or your broader spheres of influence
Racist Beliefs & Implicit Biases  
Health & Wellness  
Employment & Training  
Economic & Entrepreneurial Justice  
Policing & Public Safety  
Criminal Justice  

Another quote attributed to Einstein says: “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” There is a role for each of us within our own spheres of influence. The breadth and depth of the response to the brutal murder of George Floyd is a clear sign that fewer American citizens are willing to tolerate and encourage evil in our society, especially against African Americans. 

Only equals can be at peace! The shared resolve that is emerging from recent protests, followed by purposeful action, holds many gifts for all of us. The just world we envision will not happen overnight. However, the shifts in mindset, attitude, policy, and practice to create that new world must take institutional and structural hold now in order for it to happen at all.

Mutiu O. Fagbayi, president and CEO of Performance Fact in Oakland, Calif., coaches educational leaders and their teams at the national, state, and local levels. Before launching his firm in 1997, he spent 14 years at Eastman Kodak Co. as a research scientist and in several management positions at Kodak headquarters in Rochester. After leaving Kodak, he served as chief operating officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center on Education and the Economy.

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