Yesterday was the 99th Anniversary of the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, OK, and the day when tens of thousands risked their lives during a deadly pandemic to protest the brutality of the American justice system and the murders of George Floyd, Amaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. The two events are closely related. I never heard of the Black Wall Street Massacre in a history class and yet it represents how American culture has brutalized the success of black Americans for centuries, snuffing out hope as soon as any kind of stability and success is achieved. If you do not know of the Black Wall Street Massacre here are a few resources: curated Smithsonian video, Elizabeth Warren’s visit to Tulsa, and a longer video from the ACLU.
If you haven't been paying much attention, you may only see the pictures of cities burning and shake your head, thinking 'that is not helping the cause'. You really haven't been paying attention. Our entire social system - how we parent, educate, finance, and govern - is constructed around the mindset of division; our worth determined by our ability to produce standardized parts. Diversity is a bug, not a feature.
This construct of divisions, at its root, treats success as the ability to standardize oneself and thus compare people - and it hurts every single one of us because people are not machine parts. Our value is in our differences, not in our similarities. It is each of our unique set of experiences, skills, and perspectives that allow all of us to learn, grow, and thrive. The ability to value, appreciate, and celebrate that diversity is what makes collaboration and collective creation possible. It is what creates joy, connection, renewal, and empowerment.
As children, we get graded on our ability to standardize. We get ranked. Those ranks generate opportunities. Economically we are induced to be competitive - who has the bigger house, the more expensive clothes, the better vacations, and those things are equated to our self-worth. Collectively this is a tower of shame - because we can never win. There is always someone who has more, is more intelligent, or is better looking. For white Americans, we can more easily build our lives to superficially look like the standardized ideal - but inside we are suffering too because we are not standard and our self-worth is tied to an objective that will never be satisfied. We will never be enough in this environment - any of us. It makes us anxious, lonely, and angry - and needing to prove our worth, which is often done by denigrating others. It drives domestic abuse, violence, sexism, and racism. It all has its roots in pain. The pain of not being enough. The pain of being treated by society as a widget when we can never, ever be a widget.
The U.S. economy was built on the power to enslave people - and force the standardization of people's production. It was the only way to achieve massive profits, fortunes, and growth. Once slavery was connected to race, it was easy to categorize and rank a 'better' and 'worse' race - and by viewing one race as inferior is allowed those in power the psychological justification to brutalize them. This organizational structure still underpins most large organizations today - with many individual employees making less than a living wage while those at the top reap disproportionate benefits. This structure is the original sin of organizations. It is abusive, unsustainable, and extractive.
We will not fix our culture, our politics, or our economy until we restructure our organizations. Diversity needs to be a feature that is optimized, not a bug that is managed. Machines, robots, and automation can do standardized things. Innovation, growth, and prosperity will come from creativity. To maximize innovation, we need to maximize diversity and learn how to celebrate and incorporate it rather than accommodate it.
To succeed at this, our organizations need to be healthy communities - places were every participant gets more value than they contribute. Where people are drawn to contribute because it makes them successful along with the community itself. We need organizations that pursue shared purpose and generate shared value. By learning to share, the value of what is produced compounds instead of getting captured and locked up by only one stakeholder.
Which brings me back to the protests over this past week. Our system is killing black Americans and is a greater risk than the COVID-19 pandemic. Black Americans don't have equal access to the economic prosperity of the country and with it access to health care, education, and financing. We incarcerate, harm, and kill them because our policing and justice systems divide rather than collaborate - treating people like enemy combatants.
Until we understand that we are all in this together, we all have equal worth, and we are not competing with each other will we struggle with racism. While there was violence and destruction this weekend, I was also heartened by images and events in cities and towns across the country where the police and communities more broadly seemed to share and understand this issue as one that affects us all.
Pictures below are from Atlanta GA, Camden NJ, Wilmington DE, Miami FL, Flint MI, and Boston MA. Police, leaders, and communities coming together, recognizing that valuing every person in our communities is required to value all people in our communities.