George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota
sparked more than outrage. It also sparked a resurgence of support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) and spurred the Instagram campaign Pull up for change that asks corporations to “pull up, or shut up!” by backing their claims of solidarity with real change within their four walls and—in particular—their boardrooms.
African-Americans and their supporters of other races are now actively monitoring and reporting on whom these companies hire and promote to the C-suite. African-American consumers are also expecting more and are looking under the hood—performing a 150-point inspection of brands—to see if their solidarity stance matches the actual percentage of black leadership within their companies. Pull up activists are also organizing boycotts of companies that can’t show a real and measurable commitment to diversity, and it’s working.
For me, these recent occurrences have resulted in many discussions with white executives at major corporations who have been complacent and fearful in the past, but who now want to do better to support the cause and be a force for change. Understandably, they are unsure how to do it without offending those they are trying to help.
As an African-American man who has owned a marketing agency for over 23 years, I’m in a unique position to help these companies navigate the pitfalls of their messaging. But I also want their leaders to be accountable and to understand the depth of the problem and the need to make real changes, including hiring and promoting more young, Black professionals—even those who do not have a college degree. So, I share with them, and I’ll share with you, a little bit of history about the spirit of young Blacks in the U.S., and why they are born leaders who should be taken seriously by corporate America.
1960, Ferguson, Virginia.
Young, Black activists undergo harassment training to survive lunch counter sit-in demonstrations.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, African-Americans were banned from eating at the same lunch counters as whites. This was true in cities and towns across the U.S. and especially in the south. In protest, sit-ins were organized by the N.A.A.C.P., Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian leadership Council at Atlanta University. These sit-ins, in which young Black activists ignored the signs and took a seat, were a non-violent, civil-disobedience tactic. In 1960, Life magazine wrote about the following exchange at a counter in Ferguson, Virginia:
“We don’t serve Negroes here,” a waitress behind the counter said.
“We are going to sit here until we are served,” one of the students Jibreel Khazan* replied.
However, these non-violent protests were not met with equally non-violent reactions. Instead, the young men and women brave enough to take a seat were subjected to harassment and abuse by whites. So, Black communities began providing formal harassment training to prepare their youth for the hostility and violence that might ensue. This training included subjecting them to the same abuse they might expect after sitting at an all-white lunch counter, including having cigarette smoke blown in their faces, having their hair pulled, their chairs jostled, coffee spilled on them, being hit with wadded newspapers, and being called racial slurs. It is unimaginable that young kids should have to endure such training, but these were the behaviors whites were subjecting Blacks to at the time.
The need for young men and women to prepare themselves for harassment and violence in such a way points to a long history of non-violent protests being met with dehumanizing treatment and outright brutality. These young men and women were being trained to overcome adversity in a fight for their human and civil rights. And they still are today.
Fast-forward to America in the year 2020 we’re still being denied a seat at the corporate table
The sit-in protests were successful in integrating lunch counters in the 60’s, but now young Black men and women are being denied another seat—a seat at the corporate table. Though African Americans can now boast $1.3 Trillion (and growing) in buying power and are the very consumers many companies are trying to reach, they are still left out of corporate decision-making, regardless of their abilities or credentials. Black men and women are still being elbowed, jostled, and shoved in our quest for diversity and inclusion at board rooms tables. The promise of career growth made by corporations to employees is still unfulfilled for Black high achievers.
African-Americans train all of our lives for survival in a society that targets us based on skin color. We train ourselves to use this suffering to achieve success.
From the time they are little, Black children are told by their parents that they must be twice as good at everything to get a portion of what they deserve, because even when we have the ball in hand and we are moving toward the net, there are people who will actively work to steal it from our hands just to see us fail. For this reason, it’s instilled in us that we must always punch above our weight to get ahead, and once we do, we can’t ever punch down because the only place you go is down.
This understanding causes us to constantly be looking over our shoulders for purveyors of sabotage. Those in power see us as the enemy, so they continuously raise the bar to heights they know we can’t clear! The accumulation of experiences with corporate micro-aggression can make it feel like we are allowing someone to hold a gun to our head while hoping they don’t pull the trigger. According to the Harvard review article, the corporate climate and culture reflect the unspoken beliefs of senior executives and middle managers who are working to become senior executives. They conform to these “norms” until an attitude of sabotage permeates entire organizations.
Because of these and a million other subtle and not-so-subtle ways that America pushes us down when we try to rise, young Black people spend as much time training for survival and conflict than training for success. That has to end! Companies that want to hire the next generation of multi-cultural leaders need to recognize the drive, humility, patience, and grit it takes to become a young, Black professional.
Not only is it harder for African-Americans to graduate high school and afford college, it is also harder for them to complete college and earn a degree because they are more likely than other ethnicities to have to work part or fulltime while pursuing their education. Once they have a degree, it can also be harder to land a job. One study showed that by “whitening” their resumes (i.e. removing racial cues like black-sounding names), 25%of black candidates received callbacks while only 10% got calls when they left ethnic details intact.
Companies that are committed to diversity will need to consider these things during the hiring process and be willing to focus more on the degree of talent versus the college degree. Many African-American children have always worked harder and done more with less. Appreciating that fact can lead companies to recognize their innate potential and nurture their growth while benefitting from the unique viewpoint and work ethic of African-American employees. To truly develop a pool of talent this may mean going to 8th and 9th-grade career days and junior colleges to help students with potential find their way into your industry.
For instance, young Black people have a lot to offer advertising agencies like mine, but how many of them even know that working for an ad agency is an option or how to go about doing it? And if they do know, why is it a necessity for them to have a college degree when creativity and the ability to connect authentically with others are the skills most needed there?
As Daniel Jeffries of Jeffries Consulting put it in an article on this topic, “If all agency staff have a degree, that means that they were able to afford to go to school — they may have racked up some debt on the way but they were able to borrow that money in in the first place — and that means we have created a wedge between rich and poor as a result of educated versus less educated.”
All companies must be aware of the segregation that happens in corporate America. Such terms as “urban” have been used for decades to keep African-American workers in particular segments of a company and away from the mainstream work and opportunities. John P. might be made the V.P. of urban sales rather than a V.P. of sales simply because of his race. This is not a compliment—it is another river to cross, a subjugation and career suppression in its most subtle form. According to the Harvard business review article (A Dream Deferred) “The psychological contract made by corporations is unfulfilled for black high achievers. We’re dealing with a breach of contract.”
Non-Black leaders in corporate America have a duty to start understanding how oppression happens inside corporate walls and make an active plan to battle it. Posting a feel-good ad about standing with the Black Lives Matter movement is not enough. Neither is having one or two “token” employees in your midst. This is about more than hiring a few Black executives. It’s about repairing the broken culture of companies that didn’t value real diversity in the first place. You can never fix a problem inside the company by going outside. Eyes are on corporate America and how it walks the walk of diversity. Now, it’s corporate America that must sit at the counter and train for survival as they are finally forced to help young African-Americans train for success.