If you are as sickened and outraged by the events that have occurred during the past week in our country as I am, you might be asking yourself a couple very important questions.
How did we get here?
What can I do to be a positive force for change?
The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was an injustice at the hands of police caught on video. It can’t be unseen. As saddened as I am to see peaceful protests turn into violent riots in in the streets, I am not surprised. The economic boom has benefited some of us, but not all of us. It also created an ever widening gap between the life we lead and those who are similarly disadvantaged by the same economic, political, and justice system.
You need only look at the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is killing African Americans at a rate that is ~three times higher than white people, according to a nonpartisan APM Research Lab study.
In Michigan, black people make up 14% of the state’s population, but account for 41% of coronavirus deaths.
In Illinois, black people make up 14% of the population, but account for 32.5% of coronavirus deaths.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just depriving black people of their lives – it’s taking away their livelihoods at a far greater rate. The economic toll has been hardest on the people who make the least money, and who are most vulnerable in our society.
Even in good times, African American unemployment is usually about double that of white Americans. During the pandemic, that gap has narrowed. At first glance, that may appear to be a good thing. But it’s deceiving, because it is actually because blacks are over-represented in low-wage jobs — mail carriers, fast food workers, health care auxiliary staff, etc. — who are more likely to stay on the job because they are deemed “essential.” Many of these people, while taking home poverty-level wages, are being asked to put their own health on the line every day to keep our society running.
If you study your history, you will find that this type of injustice is the key driver behind most revolutions. Seeing anger and outrage pour out into our streets when another black man is killed senselessly on video, is to me, an expected result of an unfair system. It was sure to happen sooner or later.
So what do you and I do?
The time for thoughts and prayers, or expressing outrage on social media, or talking to friends about how terrible things are, is over.
Those days of passive caring are in the past.
If you are not actively looking to make changes to the system that is producing these results, then you are complicit with the results it is producing.
This is a hard thing to say out loud. It’s even harder for some people to hear. Many of us benefit greatly from having things stay the way they are, and tend to go about life without seeing this kind of deep, painful injustice on a regular basis.
Events like the killing of George Floyd can propel us to take the kinds of hard action that must be taken to dismantle systemic racism. During times like today when we are all saddened and frustrated with what we see as a broken system, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how much we really care to see a different result. Those of us who look in the mirror and think “I’m not a racist” but are only passively supporting change, need to take another look in the mirror and think harder about what it’s really going to take to achieve the change we need.
The good news is that I know a lot of people want to care actively. Many people of good faith truly believe that the status quo is not acceptable. They just don’t really know how or what to do about it.
As an African-American man past age 50, having grown up working class in Los Angeles and now having had a successful business career, I have a pretty unusual lens to look at both sides of this rather large gap. I know people are striving for better, and looking for effective ways to do so.
Here are a few tangible ways to make a real difference. The list is nowhere near comprehensive, but at least it provides some ideas:
As I’ve written previously, I believe that discrimination based on racial, gender, sexual orientation and other prejudicial lines needs to be a litmus test issue. Candidates for elected office who are not committed to basic human equality need to be voted out, regardless of how much we agree with them on other issues (taxes, etc). America has a long history of forgiving monstrous behavior in favor of supporting those who benefit our economic and social status quo.
If you want the system to change, this type of individualistic “what’s in it for me?” type of thinking has to end.
If you want to care even more actively, then work to help those who are disenfranchised to register and vote easily.
Our political system has a long and sad history of suppressing the votes of people of color. In Milwaukee, some central city voters had to wait in line 2.5 hours to vote, because so few polling stations were open during the pandemic. How many of you would wait 2.5 hours to vote? I wouldn’t. No one should have to. This is not what our democracy is about. By the way, in nearby Madison, Wisc. – a smaller city with a much higher percentage of white people — three times as many polling stations remained open on election day. People there didn’t have to wait 2.5 hours.
This is wrong. It shouldn’t happen again in our country.
Many of us are walking examples of the American dream. We have great jobs, and have been given the chance to compete and succeed in the greatest industry in the world. For many of our brothers and sisters in underserved communities, access to the same dream is simply not available. Every time you hire from the same schools, from the same referral sources, using the same system, you are perpetuating the income gap that purportedly causes you so much frustration. Here are some tangible ways to break the cycle, and narrow the gap:
- For every intern you hire from a family friend or colleague, from your alma mater, or from the usual ways you find young talent, add one person of color, or person from an underserved socio-economic community to fill a similar role. Each time privilege and contacts are used to perpetuate the system, break the cycle by allowing someone in who would not have access otherwise.
- Mentor one person. In this time of virtual connections, this is as easy as it has ever been. Just find the time to connect with one person, electronically and voice to voice. Help them to understand your journey, and give them access to the same privilege that you provide to those who are currently in your circle of family, friends and colleagues. If you need help finding someone, Life Science Cares can help.
- Find talent everywhere. As a proud graduate of Cal State Los Angeles, I am continually irritated by the notion that the only smart people worth hiring are those who attended the “top” schools. There is no question that most students who attend the “top” schools are bright and worked their butt off to get there.But to assume that kids who are at state schools, community colleges, etc. are not as bright or talented is an absolute fallacy. If the hiring system of your company relies on school brand as the proxy for whether young people are smart and talented enough to succeed in your company, you are fooling yourself, and perpetuating the system of inequality that exists today. To stop it, you need to change that system by allowing access to your jobs to those students from the lesser-known schools who are not only just as smart, but who have proven to have the grit that correlates well to success in virtually all fields.
- Add a parallel hiring process. If your current system for hiring women and people of color is not producing the diversity that should be demonstrated in your workforce, don’t try and completely change your current system.Add a new one. I often hear people defend status quo hiring practices by saying it would take too much time, effort and money to completely revamp the way talent is brought into the organization. I get it. Keep the process you have in place, but add one or two unique activities that are specifically designed to offer opportunities to those who have little access to your jobs. (For a list of ideas, check out this previous blog.)
Every one of us had someone, or likely numerous people, who were willing to take a chance on us before we were proven. It is easiest to do that when the person we are entrusting look like us, and remind us of younger versions of ourselves.
While that is completely understandable, it serves to reinforce the status quo and create barriers that people may not even realize exist. To see real change, find one person who is different from you in your professional circle, and be their benefactor. This could mean advocating for their professional advancement, approving their project even though you’re not sure it will succeed, or standing up for them when they are being treated (consciously or unconsciously) unfairly.
The disparity between how students of color and white students are educated is a cornerstone of the current system. No tool is as effective in reducing the income gap than making high quality public K-12 education more accessible. Your ZIP code should not dictate your future earnings.
There are numerous programs, schools and organizations whose mission is to help students from underserved populations have access to quality education. Support them. Instead of giving your economic abundance to the schools and organizations that already have overflowing resources, (Harvard has a $41B endowment!) direct them to those that don’t, and those who are educating students who need a bridge to cross this divide. Instead of joining in the fund raising effort at your kids’ private school to build the next new gymnasium or library, how about giving to an organization that makes private school education accessible to a student who could never experience it otherwise. THAT creates a new system.
*****WARNING, WARNING….SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD******
Signing petitions is nice. Writing checks is even better.
Caring actively requires more than this.
If you really want to change the “system”, you must engage. Find an organization that seeks to make real change and spend some of your time getting your hands dirty. This will look different for all of us depending on where we are in life, but this is not the time to remain on the sidelines cheering. All of us have to get on the field and do something.
Our mission at Life Science Cares, in Boston and in Philadelphia, is to be a vehicle for our biopharmaceutical industry to do just that. We are connected to nonprofits that do the best work in our cities in fighting poverty, enhancing education, and otherwise serving the most vulnerable people. We know that the people in the biopharmaceutical industry are extraordinary, and care deeply about humanity. We also realize that these extraordinary people are super busy, with their careers and with life, and likely don’t have the time to seek out the perfect organization that is worthy of their time and treasure.
If that is you, and you really want change, give us a call or drop us a note. We will work tirelessly to connect you to an organization that will not only satisfy your desire to change the system, but also make a meaningful impact on those who that same system has left behind.
If you already have a way to engage, terrific! Give it as much of your energy as you can muster, and encourage others to do the same. If you have other ideas on how folks can care actively, please post a comment to this blog, tag me in a Twitter note on your suggestion, or somehow make your ideas heard.
There is no better time than the present to change the world, and no better reminder than this week that it really needs changing.