[Editor’s Note: Steve Graham of Fenwick & West is one of biotech’s leading corporate attorneys. His book, “Invisible Ink: Navigating racism in corporate America” was published in April.]
I spent my first few years of elementary school in segregated schools. Beaches were segregated. The drinking fountains and restrooms were labeled. At movie theatres, colored people were directed to the balcony. At the amusement park, the sign said don’t even think about coming in.
Fifty years later, the signs are down, but has the heart of our country changed fundamentally? I would like to think so, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Racism and bias have become less loud, more polite. We take that as progress and perhaps it is. But that’s not good enough.
Modern racism is a virus that has grown clever at avoiding detection, often operating without articulation and beneath awareness, lulling us into a false sense that all is well. I have had the good fortune to have spent the majority of my career closely associated with the biotech industry, working side-by-side with brilliant individuals more interested in creating therapies that improve quality of life for people of all races and geographies and cultures than worrying about the color of my skin. Anyone sharing similar good fortune risks being further lulled into the false sense that nothing sinister lurks beneath the surface of our social fabric.
When I was a kid, 12 or so, I remember seeing a news program on TV. I was fascinated by the mother who appeared on the show. She was white. She was with her two small children. She was teaching them. Giving them a lesson. Showing them the way. A lesson parents and others have been teaching children in America for hundreds of years. She asked the children, “Who do we hate?” As I recall, the children weren’t entirely sure, so she would answer for them, “Niggers and Jews.” She then repeated the call and response. I was mystified. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know why anyone would want to teach hate. Call me crazy, but I still don’t.
Many of us see Charlottesville and its aftermath, and we are shocked and saddened. But we find some measure of solace by telling ourselves that’s not us. We have no part. These are not things we do. These are not people we know. But I wonder how many of us can rightly take comfort in that conclusion. Not those of us who have stood silent in the face of bigoted remarks by family, colleagues and friends. Not those of us who have failed to even acknowledge their own bias. Not those of us who have ignored racism in the pursuit of profit. The cumulative effect of these “minor” transgressions across our society lead us to Charlottesville. It is all connected. If we are not working to end bias, we are working to preserve it.
Charlottesville doesn’t anger me. I have long ceased to be angered by racism. I feel sadness, but I don’t feel anger. And perhaps one reason why is that I continue to be optimistic about our future, even while being terrified and sickened by the present. It will take leadership, but it is leadership we all can provide. Each of us, in our own way. We don’t need our elected officials or anyone else to tell us how to care, how to show courage in standing up to what is wrong, how to show humility and empathy. We can follow through on our own. And, in time, the cumulative effect of all of these small acts of leadership will lead us to a better place. We will get there.
Stephen Graham is co-chair of Fenwick & West’s Life Sciences Practice and is managing partner of the firm’s Seattle office. His book, “Invisible Ink: Navigating racism in corporate America” was published in April.