I’m listening to Gene. With a smile that can fill a room, and a heart to match, Gene Douglas, a consultant trainer in our New York office, is marking America’s Black History Month with a moving tribute to his father, Eugene B. Douglas (1935 – 2018). The son of a sharecropper, Eugene served in Korea and Vietnam, fighting for an America he believed in. Last month, his country welcomed in a president whose six-point ‘Plan for Black America’ seeks to address long-term inequalities. The hopes of the Black Lives Matter movement echo nine months after the first protests began. How is Joe Biden answering their call?
Born in 1935 in Rockwall, Texas, Eugene B. Douglas grew up at a time when he wasn’t allowed to eat in white-only restaurants or ride the bus he wanted. Restricted by the Jim Crow laws of a nation he loved nonetheless, Eugene turned down a college scholarship in favour of joining the army, serving his country for 22 years. His country didn’t always serve him with the justice he might have expected.
Today, Biden is seeking to improve the course of race relations. In his first week in office, he signed four executive orders aimed at curbing discrimination against racial minorities. He’s reinstated diversity and inclusion training for federal employees and contractors – training Trump had banned. And he’s investing $300m into local policing, with the condition that the hiring of police officers must mirror the racial diversity of the community they serve.
In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter became the latest chapter in the fight against injustice that has ebbed and flowed since the earliest days of the Civil Rights movement. Public anger, initially directed at the actions of particular police departments, later challenged the broad acceptance of injustice and inequality that had been allowed to grow unchecked under the presidency of Donald Trump.
There are racist people in every country, just as there are people who support populist politicians. These two groups are not identical. But when populist leaders fail to recognise racism, much less take action to limit it, they enable racist attitudes to spread. Those who consciously express racist views come to influence those who unconsciously adopt similar opinions.
Unconscious biases take many forms, presenting challenges we all face in one way or another. As my colleague Andy Day has written, they are hard to remove. The best we can hope for, certainly in the short term, is to limit their impact. In the workplace, this might mean readily including the opinions of others who are better placed to comment on something than we are. We need to trust their insights over our own intuitions.
Capitalising B for Black
An example might help to illustrate the point. The Black Lives Matter movement touched the hearts of millions of people around the world. Protests championing BLM sentiments took place from LA to London. Companies, sports clubs, politicians and people in the street rushed to echo these sentiments, many wrote articles, me among them. One question that arose at the time was whether to use capital B in Black.
My thinking on this was to apply the logic I’d learned in BBC newsrooms. I was concerned that a capital B could lead to a capital W for white, something I was loath to do. I did not want to come anywhere close to lending weight to those who promote ‘white’ as an identity. I also felt that there is not a single set of black or white people, rather both communities equally trace their heritage to a number of countries and religions. ‘Black’ is not a geographical region, unlike for example Asia. Logic, balance and fairness were values I had in mind – and all of them fell short of the mark.
Listening to other views in the company, I soon saw that biases at play here shut out more important concerns. Yes, the Black Lives Matter movement had begun as a call to certain police departments to change their ways. But the thousands of people protesting in London, Rome, Sydney and Toronto were expressing more than their concern about the attitudes of police officers in Minneapolis. This was an international demand for change. Change not just within police departments, but change more broadly, local and national, in America, in Britain and beyond.
This wasn’t ‘all lives matter’, nor was it about updating this or that law, or reforming one department or another. It was about the recognition of systemic inequality, the recognition that needs to come if there is to be widespread and long-lasting change. The 911 call made by Amy Cooper, on the day George Floyd died, illustrated in a nutshell some of the wider issues at hand. I came to see that capital B is necessary. It was a matter of identity, a view shared by media style guides, from the Associated Press to The Washington Post and The Guardian.
Exclusion is a defining part of the problem
Some months later, another debate arose, this time in support of a capital W for white, which I was still reluctant to use (and still am). Should a capital letter be used as a special signifier for one group of people but not another? To me, yes. It signifies the fact that – indeed, reminds us of the truth that – in some parts of the world Black people are more likely to meet injustice, more likely to experience inequality. It signifies that biases – conscious and unconscious – exist, infringing the rights of people whose identity has so often been overlooked. It signifies a time of change.
There were also questions, mainly in my own mind, about whether I’m entitled to express such thoughts at all, I myself am not Black. As mentioned in a previous article, it’s been said online that ‘if you’re white, pass the mic’. To us at Working Voices this misses the point. Excluding one community or another isn’t part of the solution. Exclusion is a defining part of the problem, which is why businesses on both sides of the Atlantic have successfully stepped up their commitment to training staff on diversity, ethics and unconscious bias, a legacy of the calls for change that rang out last summer.
Black Lives Matter championed the spirit of freedom, at a time when the president was not minded to do so. Hoped is renewed with Joe Biden at the helm, but change can’t just be down to individuals, companies or sports teams. Progress is the business of governments – who owe much to people like Eugene B. Douglas, who won the Bronze Star for heroism. In asking Gene for permission to write about his father in Black History Month, he suggested I ‘write the truth and write how you feel’. Normally those are easy things to do. But unconscious bias, grammatical shifts and changing times can be tricky waters to navigate, and ignoring them is not an option. In the end, I just listened to Gene.