2020 is going to need an asterisk beside it. Maybe several.
We aren’t even at the halfway point, and the sheer abnormality of the first 5 months won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The Covid-19 news cycle was put on the side burner over the last two weeks in lieu of an egregious, heart wrenching event caught on video: that of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of those sworn to protect the rights of the citizens of our country. The TechFides team took an hour of our weekly all-hands call to discuss what each of us has seen and felt and witnessed throughout the social upheaval not only of protests, riots, and looting, but of the myriad of voices on social media offering perspectives and insights that much of the country hasn’t had a reason to pay attention before late May 2020.
The TechFides team is diverse. We come from a variety of geographies and ethnicities and span several generations. I’ve been fortunate to know TechFides founder and CEO Jacques Jean and his family for almost 2 decades, in work and charitable capacities, and more importantly, as friends. I’ve also had the good fortune to meet and work with some of Jacques’ long-time friends who have joined our team in recent months. What happened on this call was sincere and heartfelt. We put down our pencils, pushed our keyboards back, stopped checking emails and multitasking, and…we listened. We listened, to the perspectives of each of our members. To the things they had seen or heard that had moved them. We’re witnessing a segment of our population, a piece of the fabric of our country, cry out for help. How the rest of the country responds in the coming weeks, months, and years, is a defining moment in what we want America to be, and what we want her to represent. Is equality really one of our tenets? Or is it just a hollow buzzword?
Racism exists. On individual levels, and at systemic levels. It encompasses a wide spectrum in how it manifests itself, too, from blatant and outright, to subtle and subconscious, and often reflexive and involuntary. Racism is notoriously difficult to quantify, largely because so much of it is subjective. “What you just said/did was racist.” “No, it wasn’t.” Racism exists anecdotally, except in the tiny percentage of encounters captured on video in recent years. However, the advent of cell phone video HAS shifted the conversation in a positive (and painful) direction. It compels engagement and discussion of previously dismissible recounts of events, and it confronts a large segment of the population with the possibility that the enormous pile of anecdotal evidence of bigotry may actually have some merit.
There’s a more fundamental human emotion that steers this ship, in my humble opinion: empathy. Not sympathy, as in “I’m sorry to hear about what happened, my condolences.” Empathy, as in “I can feel the hurt you experienced, and I want to help to make sure this doesn’t happen to you again.” Over thousands of years of human history (at least the written kind), trans-ethnic empathy is a pretty novel, new concept. We’re still learning, and honestly, as a country, we’re not very good at it yet. I’m pretty cynical, so I subscribe to the 20/70/10 model of humanity, in the US in particular: that is, around 20% of people are GOOD people, who are actively doing good deeds and work that benefit fellow humans; 10% are BAD people, actively promoting and doing evil things for various chaotic purposes; and the other 70% are just kind of “there”. Generally self-serving, occasionally moved to action in one direction or the other, but mostly apathetic when it comes to actual effort. That large group is where empathy has waned, and a lot of the common, not-necessarily-malicious sentiments like “If you don’t have anything to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about”, and “Just do what the cop tells you and don’t resist, and you’ll be treated just like anybody else” have manifested. These have taken hold, because it’s easier to wave the hand and dismiss claims of bigotry, than it is to have sometimes-difficult conversations about actual events. Where would the frame of the discussion we’re having today be, if that 70% displayed the minimal empathy required to listen, understand, and believe that the paths different races walk through this country are, in fact, different?
One of our Executive Partners, Paul Grant, brought up perhaps the most important facet to the national uprising over the past several weeks: the conversation can’t simply wither on the vine as the next news cycle rolls in. If we don’t keep talking about it, and actively pursuing the changes and goals we’ve established, we’re simply rinsing and repeating what we’ve done for as long as I can remember, going all the way back to Rodney King in 1991. And the things I don’t remember, but have read about, go back for hundreds of more years. Kenneth Clark said:
“I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot… it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
So how will this time be different? How do we actually change things, THIS time? I don’t have the answers. But I’m comforted by being surrounded by people who are willing to put in the effort to figure them out.