Leadership on Race in America

Jun 26, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

I have been in a state of speechless outrage and despair since the murder of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis nine days ago. But my colleagues on our ALN Board have collaborated for several days to draft this note, and their efforts, along with the demonstrations of people around the world, have compelled me to try to add my thoughts to their words. To organize my mind, I have turned for context to my understanding of history. I’m not a scholar of this history, so please take this as just my own narrative distilling enormous human complexity.

Black lives have always been discounted in America. The ancient and widespread practice of slavery usually meant enslaving conquered peoples for limited generations until European colonial powers produced the economic innovation of Racism to scale up slavery. To make slavery work at this scale, however, racism needed to become, not just an economic practice, but a deeply enculturated matter of identity, religion, education, and social relationships that prepared the mind and hardened the heart to varying degrees throughout the Americas to strip captured African people of their humanity and social existence, enslave them for endless generations, and render them fugitives when they made efforts to be free.

Therefore, to say that black lives matter is to challenge profoundly the views, practices, and policies in which nearly all of us in the Americas have been culturally embedded for generations.

The US Civil War set black people free from slavery in 1865, but it did not change the economic push to recapture black labor on the cheap and the strong tendency to reinforce white cultural assumptions of identity and social relationships – through Jim Crow laws that segregated, criminalized, and took away the right to vote, widespread lynching for generations that aimed to terrorize and control black people into submission, false sociological and statistical analysis from our best northern universities to reinforce the notion that black people are prone to crime and not fit to be educated, and banking and real estate policies that segregated black people into ghettos as they migrated to northern cities in the twentieth century hoping for a better life.

White people in the north who fought against slavery often had not also weeded out of their cultural identities and social relationships racist assumptions. After all, the “Jim Crow” train car was a designation first used to segregate black people on a local railroad in and out of Boston in the 1820s, though slavery was abhorrent to many white people there. After the Civil War, the deep desire the heal the traumatic rift between northern and southern white people, many of whom shared family members, business relationships, and religious practices, created not only a permissive context for the new Jim Crow forms of racist control and diminution of black people in the South, but also made these cultural assumptions more widespread across the north and west. White people yearned to reunite with white people, but they did so by sharing more widely and deeply cultural assumptions and policies that discounted, restricted, and violated black people. Sometimes these reunions were largely strategic but were made with the deliberate willingness to reinforce racist culture, as when Susan B. Anthony, head of the women’s suffrage movement, began in the 1890s to exclude her friend and fellow activist, Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching journalist, along with black women in general, in order to join hands with pro-suffrage southern and midwestern white women with racist views; these tensions remain today.

As we know, the events in Minneapolis are part of a pattern. Racism is endemic. It is part of the American fabric, and to fight it, change it, end it, will require sustained leadership across all walks of life.

The Covid pandemic illustrates powerfully the need for widespread adjustments in everyone’s way of life, from the micro of each individual and family to the macro of each organization and political community. Changing racism will, I think, require distributed leadership and widespread adaptive work, but without the shared external challenge of a disease and on a time scale of lifetimes rather than years.

As a network, we have responded to the Covid crisis by creating resources and safe spaces to “hold” those who are holding others, and a means to view more systemically the chaos and forces changing our world, with the intention of helping it tip in the direction of progress.

To practice Leadership on Race in America and Leadership on Enculturated Prejudice in countries around the world, we must anticipate work that both inspires and breaks our hearts.

So, we need each other. We need to discover together how to practice leadership on deeply endemic cultural injustices. And we need a support system that can pick us up when we fall and help us figure out how to stay in the game and make the next effort.

To begin, our plan is to generate some groundbreaking conversations, to serve a purpose for which we are uniquely positioned, where we can apply ideas that make our leadership approach richer and more promising in bridging divides to create sustainable change. We envision co-creating this space with you by naming the most urgent and provocative questions and topics, including dispatches from the field, and making room for collective personal expression that breaks down barriers and leads to discoveries and collective action.

We invite you to join us in building a resilient space to do this heated work, to discover how to practice leadership on race and inequity by each of us from each of our locations.

Ron Heifetz


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