Another Year Around This Damn Mountain: Why Is Race Still the Third Rail?

So here we are again. Black History Month. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a proponent of Black History Month. Don't get me wrong, I love celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans. In fact, I love celebrating the accomplishments of ALL people. Every day. Every month.

Of course, black people must be recognized and valued to the same degree as members of the dominant culture. Our educational system, however, must be challenged to teach our children to value black history authentically. That means going well beyond the standard recognition of the same people during one month of the year.

There's a fact that I'm well aware of in my own day-to-day life that slaps me in the face every February when Black History Month rolls around again. And that fact is the lack of progress and the unique challenges that people of color continue to face. It never fails to astound me. To stop me short.

In fact, of-late, every time I hear a comment about "taking our country back" it causes me to ask myself the question "Back to where?" or "Back to what time?". Are we seriously talking about going back to a time when America's demographic composition was more white than any other demographic? Is that the reality we face?

I, like many other black women, still get followed by clerks in any upscale retailer that I visit. Like many other black business owners, every time I pitch for business I have to be twice as good as other businesses applying (these others are most often white male owned with less expertise, particularly in the area of diversity and inclusion). And more often than not, they are awarded the business!

Last week I was in Los Angeles, California. Mike (my husband) and I went out to dinner to celebrate Valentine's Day. He booked a reservation at the beach. He knows I love to eat on the water. He specifically reserved a table right on the ocean. It was perfect. Perfect, that is, until it was time for us to be seated.

The lady who took us to our table wanted to seat us in a corner that was NOT on the water. We declined the space and told her that we wanted to wait for a table that was right on the water. Over the next 30 minutes we watched this same waitress seat members of the dominant group at tables directly on the water. I finally asked Mike to inquire as to when we would be seated. Another waitress came and this time she took us to a table even further back than the first one. Again, I refused. My husband, who is pleased far more easily than me, suggested that it was getting late and that we should be seated. I did take a seat but not before expressing my gross dissatisfaction with the fact that members of the dominant group were receiving tables along the wall directly on the ocean and had come in after us.

I get tired of attributing these kinds of experiences to race, but that is the reality. You would think that given what is happening with the Oscar's that there would be more awareness for how members of the non-dominant group are treated. Sadly, that awareness does not seem to be happening.

But maybe my story has become so commonplace that it no longer moves or stirs our spirits. If so, consider these stories. These realities...

In the February 1, 2016, issue of Fortune there's an article entitled, An Inside Look at What's Keeping Black Men Out of the Executive Suite: Why Race & Culture Matter in the C-Suite by Ellen McGirt. The article begins with Bernard Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, sharing a story about his first big promotion back in 1992. His physician partner was an elderly white man, Dr. Richard Stein. A man with whom he was constantly at odds. A man with whom most interactions ended in angry standoffs. Tyson explains that it was the most difficult relationship he ever had.

And yes, this occurred back in 1992, but there are several other more recent experiences shared by the African American executive men interviewed for this article. Their shared experiences and the lack of progress for African Americans is disheartening. In fact, as I was reading the Fortune article, so much of what I was reading sounded strangely familiar.

And then I remembered something. An article published in the Harvard Business Review back in May of 1986 entitled, Black Managers: The Dream Deferred.

In this article, written 30 years ago, a black executive was quoted as saying:

"There was strong emphasis in the seventies for getting the right numbers of black managers. But now we're stagnating, as if the motivation was to get numbers, not create opportunity. I get the sense that companies have the numbers they think they need and now don't think anything more needs doing. Some companies are substituting numbers that represent the progress of white women and camouflaging and ignoring the lack of progress for black managers altogether. Many companies hired aggressive, self-motivated, high-achieving blacks who are now feeling deep frustration. Some have left, others stay but are fed up. Some can take more pain, others just throw up their hands and say to hell with it."

And then this from the February 1, 2016, Fortune article mentioned above:

"Last year two black executives from Twitter abandoned their separate quests to dismantle the meritocracy trap. Leslie Miley, the highest-ranking black engineer (he won't give his age), and Mark Luckie, 32, the second-highest-ranking black employee, both quit. Loudly. Then, in separate posts on Medium, they went public with personal treatises on their experiences inside a company that they claim failed to recruit, hire, and develop black talent in any meaningful way. Miley's attempt to introduce more diverse engineering candidates into the hiring process who didn't have typical Silicon Valley educations or résumés triggered a laundry list of objections from colleagues, he says. When he proposed a new job to focus on onboarding and welcoming minority tech talent into the firm, he got an earful. After a particularly tense conversation with his boss about recruitment tactics, Miley claims he was told, 'Diversity is fine, but we don't want to lower the bar.'"

That is simply unacceptable 30 years later.

The facts?

There have been only 15 black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500 - five are currently in the role. (CEO of Xerox, Ursula Burns, is the only black woman.) African Americans hold an estimated 6.7% of the nation's 16.2 million "management" jobs, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but they make up twice that share of the population at-large.

Here's the down-and-dirty that everyone is too afraid to talk about. And this is why we are still marking time 50 years later when it comes to affirmative action and African Americans in corporate America. Why race is still third rail:

• White men still don't see themselves as a part of the diversity equation, despite the fact that they are as diverse as anyone else.

• As long as white men (majority leaders of corporate America) continue thinking that programs that support diversity are a bad or unnecessary thing, little progress is going to be made.

• Until we have serious, hard courageous conversations about race in corporate America, we won't ever achieve parity. It will always feel like a fight. What we need to do is to collaborate ACROSS differences and find a way to truly EMBRACE differences.

• The CEO must lead this charge. Must start and finish the courageous conversations. Must make this right. ("The commitment must come from the top down--that of course is obvious. But more than sincerity is needed from the board of directors down through the management structure: commitment, example, and follow-through. Unless the CEO influences the corporate culture to counter the buddy system by compelling all managers to focus on competence and performance rather than comfort and fit, the in-place majority will merely perpetuate itself and the culture will continue to default to traditional racial etiquette and attitudes." -Excerpt from May 1986 HBR article mentioned above)

You know what made the difference for Bernard Tyson? Dr. Stein pulled him aside and had a courageous conversation.

Stein told him that he'd never worked with a black man before and he didn't know what to do or how to do it. Tyson shares, "It was at that moment I realized that the majority of the population doesn't have any sort of mental road map for how to relate to and work with someone different from themselves." And they figured it out - together - from there.

Race wasn't third rail in their relationship any more because they had a conversation. It was out in the open. Not hidden and festering and misunderstood.

And that's what it will take for all of us conquer this. Once and for all.