Racism in America: Now That We Can No Longer Ignore It, What Should We Do?

Racism in America is alive, well and deeply embedded in our nations history.

If you’re white like me, it can be easy to think, “If I’m not racist…there’s no racism.” Or, “I don’t see it, so it must not be happening.” 

But that would be denying the fact that the past influences the present or that our upbringing has no impact on our outlook. 

And that would be denial.

The truth is, racism in America is alive and well – and deeply embedded in our country’s history. You could even say that America is a living definition of what institutional racism is. 

Racism in America is alive, well and deeply embedded in our nations history.

To understand what that means, how it impacts organizational communications professionals and what we can do to change it, I hosted a panel of experts on multicultural issues.

We discussed diversity and racism in America. And we talked about how it impacts corporate and social media communications with the goal of finding practical solutions for change. 

We also discussed the impact of racism on public relations, social media communications and governance.

But before we jump into that conversation, let’s take a look back at how we got here.

“Because when it comes to truly explaining racial injustice in this country, the table should never be set quickly. There is too much to know, and yet we aggressively choose not to know it,” says Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones in “What is Owed,” which appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

History of racism in America

Our first president, George Washington was a slave owner.

So were 10 of the first 12 US presidents.

America was founded as a slavocracy. The real reason we separated from England was because they were ending slavery…and we didn’t want to. 

Which is why Fredrick Douglas spoke about the US being much more of a hypocrisy than a democracy

It has been 400 years since the first African captives arrived in shackles.

We only became a democracy because Black people demanded equal rights – rights which they still haven’t received

If it wasn’t for Black Americans, there would have been no civil rights movement, and many others besides Blacks who experienced discrimination wouldn’t have benefited.

“We’ve known for years that there’s racism, injustice…classism in our country, and yet no one does anything about it,” said Bill Imada, CEO of IW Group in our discussion.

But before we dive into that, we need more context first.

“Minneapolis is not a Black problem. It’s an American problem. Equality before the law is as American as the flag. We will have change when all Americans realize that this is a problem and that all Black Lives Matter,” said former Director of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson on CNN.

Germany took collective action to denazify German and Austrian society.

After World War ll, Germany took collective action to “rid German and Austrian society, culture, press, economy, judiciary, and politics of the National Socialist ideology.” It was called denazification.

But not only did we fail to root out white supremacists, they’ve become stronger, more organized and more politically connected.

Preserving the Confederacy

When I was retained by The Defense Commissary Agency to advise on their digital marketing strategy, I traveled to their headquarters at Fort Lee in Virginia.

Robert E. Lee (Jan 19, 1807 – Oct 12, 1870) was a Confederate general.

General Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederate Army during the American Civil War in defense of slavery. He committed treason and there’s a military base named after him.

Instead of a National Garden of American Heroes, why not haul all the statues of those who perpetrated slavery and establish a National Garden of American Slave Owners, so can accurately preserve history?

National Garden of American Slave Owners- Proposed Exhibit Format

If we had a national museum to slave ownership, we could collect the facts and exhibit these statues alongside relevant information such as:

  • How many slaves they owned
  • Who are the descendants of the people they owned
  • How many slaves they killed
  • How many slave they bred
  • How many children they separated from their mothers
  • How much money they made off of slave labor
  • How has their wealth been handed down through generations

This would be a great way for us to finally appreciate the roots systemic injustice today and figure out what is owed.

By following the money.

As author James Baldwin said in a radio interview in 1961, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.”

Author James Baldwin (1924-2006) was a quintessentially American writer.
America author James Baldwin.

How would you feel if your ancestors were robbed of participating in the fruits of their labor?

Fast forward almost 60 years later, and it’s easy to see how what happened to George Floyd is outrageous, because it is chronic and persistent.

The difference between what’s been happening all these years and what just happened to George Floyd is that we could see it.

Mobile phones and YouTube let us see systemic racism in real time.

If you can see, you can’t deny it.

Understanding systemic racism

Systemic racism or institutional racism is about money. 

It is a system put in place to create and maintain white privilege as a societal norm.

That system puts Black and Brown people of color at the receiving end of economic, educational and opportunity inequality.

While we are focusing on the institution of our police force right now — and given how it came to be, reform is overdue — but that’s not the only one sector where white supremacy is prevalent.

Housing, healthcare, education, jobs, media…there is little untouched by racism in America.

“I think this kind of sentiment you can find in all aspects of our daily lives…but I think for the first time we are going to see real change and it’s going to be very uncomfortable for those systems to stay intact.” says Cheryl Procter-Rogers, principal at A Step Ahead Consulting & Coaching and former President of the Public Relations Society of America. 

Public education does not adequately teach the brutality of slavery or the injustice of Jim Crow laws.

“Sometimes teachers would offer analogies and none of us would really relate to them because it just wasn’t something that was part of our culture…it’s not just in K-12, it happens in college and it happens in corporate America.” said Rosanna Fiske, SVP of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo.

If we want to provide avenues for people of color to succeed in society, we need to change systems that hold them back. Systems where they don’t see themselves portrayed.

Anti-racism: how to be an anti-racist

It’s not enough to be “not racist.”

You have to actively be against racism and be a good ally by:

  • Continuing to have hard conversations: If you hear a friend, colleague, or family member say something racist, make it a teachable moment. Don’t let the fear retaliation from racists deter you from being an up stander.
  • Diversifying your own life: Form a group of peers that help you check your own biases. If you are at a dinner party and there is no diversity at your table, ask why. If everyone around you looks like you, it’s time to change things up.
  • Volunteering to be an ally: Give your support to people of color or those fighting against racism. Ask how you can help. Be a good listener. And most importantly, do not be afraid to take a stand against racism.
  • VOTE, VOTE, VOTE! Making changes through politics helps change institutions. You may not think it matters, but it does. Because elected officials can either preserve existing systems, or let the wheels of progress advance. If you want change, vote for it.

Hope has no color

Racism in America is not a political problem.

It is an ethical problem.

This is our chance to create a better world than the one we’re in now.  A better world for our children.

A more compassionate, tolerant world.

Call out racial injustice when you see it.

Do your homework to become an anti-racist.

Stand up for justice!

Learn how to listen and keep your eye on the future. 

Thank you for reading and/or listening.

For more real talks, join us next week for another PR Tech Wednesday webinar.

The introductory music is “Woke Up This Morning” by John Legend from the soundtrack “A Revolution.”

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