Rising to meet the moment

Jul 27

An abbreviated version of this appeared as the lead letter in the Florida Times Union, Jun 12, 2020

After acts of racist violence, from the gunning down of worshipers at a Black church by a White Supremacist to the murder of a helpless Black man by police, there have been protests, vigils and marches. And yet no meaningful change came about. But this time could be different. The brutality and brazenness of the murders of George Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor has ignited mostly peaceful protests in all 50 states. In addition, large rallies have broken out in cities as far flung as Auckland, New Zealand. Sensing deep anxiety among their constituents, many educational institutions and some businesses are speaking out.

The President of my university called out the “systemic oppression” that has impacted “our students, faculty and staff of color.” He asked people with privilege, those not from underrepresented minority communities to, “self-reflect, educate yourself about your biases, whether they are conscious or subconscious, and use your knowledge to help make a positive difference.”

While many businesses, including but not limited to Nike, Netflix, Disney, have spoken out, none has been more direct than Ben and Jerry’s. The brand, which is owned by Unilever, said that the killing of George Taylor was the result of, “inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy.” It went on to say, “What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning.”

We as country stand at a perilous crossroad. One path leads to the continued erosion of democracy and constitutional rights. Not even my worst fears envisioned an American president using tear gas to clear out peaceful protesters for a photo op in front of a historic church. Images of national monuments in the nation’s capital being guarded by unidentified military personnel further points to a level of dystopia, hitherto unseen.

The other path is being blazed not only by a rainbow coalition of protesters on the streets but also by thoughtful policy advocates, such as Campaign Zero that laid out explicit action items to stem police brutality – end “broken windows” policing that target black bodies for offenses such as loitering or jaywalking or marijuana possession that do not threaten public safety; end racial profiling that leads to stopping and frisking civilians on mere “suspicion” based on their blackness or brownness; establish effective civilian oversight of police forces, such as a Citizens Review Board; review use of force protocols and ban maneuvers like choke holds or knees on neck; end  the federal program that provides military weapons to local police departments; institute mandatory training on implicit biases. This well researched list of reforms can reduce police violence by nearly 70 percent. Educators and businesses can play a crucial role in advocating such commonsense reforms.

In addition, higher educational institutions can retool their curriculum to make critical race and ethnic studies a general education requirement. Institutions must ensure that their student body is representative of the population they serve. But it will be hard to recruit minority students unless the makeup of faculty and university administration reflect the diversity of its constituency. The study of racial disparities in wealth or health must be integrated across all disciplines. Without such urgency to reform, we can remain hopelessly stuck in our status quo.

Business leaders need to lean forward. They should not solely use stock price to measure success. Sustainable business practices must integrate social responsibilities. Watching the current disconnect between stock markets and society can give even experienced market watchers a whiplash. While 40 million Americans are out of work, a pandemic is raging and there is social strife on the streets, the stock market keeps ticking up. This cognitive dissonance needs correcting via greater public and private investments which addresses the structural inequities that undergird our system where privilege accrues to a smaller and smaller slice at the top of the economic and social pyramid.

In this moment, silence is complicity. Inaction is hypocritical. We are all in it together, cannot be a mere slogan. To make it our lived reality, our institutions must do better.

[Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. is Professor of Finance and Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Coggin College of Business, University of North Florida]