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raceAhead: May 31, 2016

It’s hard to be a person of a certain age – of any hue – and not remember the epic unfolding of the original “Roots” miniseries, which aired over eight consecutive nights in 1977. More than half of the population of the U.S. tuned in for at least part of it. It left an imprint. Born in an era when the miniseries was an innovation in appointment television, it remains a high water mark for collective conversation. The series made LeVar Burton a household name (it wasn’t just his first acting job, it was his first audition) and cleverly ratcheted up the tension by casting then-beloved white father figures like Ed Asner, Lorne Greene, and Lloyd Bridges as villains.

The modern version, which debuted last night on the History Channel, unfolds as a series, but now also in Twitter chatter, Facebook shares, and think pieces, and it has to face stiff competition from a nearly endless supply of on-demand entertainment. The story was painful then, and now, with higher production values and better historical references, even more so. But taken side by side as moments in time, the two “Roots” offer poignant benchmarks of the civil rights movement, which was still top of mind in the 1970s. Dreams in so many ways realized, yet in so many other ways deferred.

For black executives of a certain age, however, the dreams deferred are all too familiar. It is an additional tax on the psyches of those who have found success – straddling two worlds and caring about those who haven’t. “Most people are living in the conditions of black America,” says hip hop artist, author, and producer Chuck D. “You’re there as their rock. You can’t run from the issue of racism.”

Charles Phillips, the CEO of Infor, a $2.8 billion enterprise software firm, feels the obligation. Two years ago, a New Year’s Eve chat about the Ava Duvernay film Selma convinced a small group of black executive friends to coordinate showings for 300,000 kids of color around the country. “We thought it would be great to expose more people. And it just kind of happened.”

Phillips, who is on the board of Viacom, booked the theaters and arranged for discount tickets. Scores of local executives tapped their own networks and arranged transportation and, most importantly, recruited kids.

Phillips also has a personal philanthropy called Phillips Charitable Organizations that provides emergency grants for, among other people, cash-strapped single mothers. There is virtually no red tape. “We’ve helped over 100 so far,” he says. For all his success, he knows what they’re up against. “These stories are in my family,” he says.

On Point

The art of diversity
Etsy, the artisan online marketplace with 800 employees, recently published its diversity figures, its third such report since 2014. There is a lot of interesting news to parse; for example, 54% of the people who work there identify as women, making the company clear gender outliers in the tech space both in U.S. and in their headquarters of New York City. But Etsy is refreshingly candid when it comes to race: “Looking at our updated numbers, we’ve noticed that while our concerted focus on gender equity yielded clear, positive results, the same was not true for our progress in advancing racial and ethnic diversity.” The company is 78.6% white, 3.2% black, 3.9% Hispanic, and 10% Asian. Etsy

The other women’s movement.
Affirmative action in university admissions has a long and difficult history in the U.S., and Vox digs into it in advance of the upcoming Supreme Court decision in the Abigail Fisher v University of Texas, Austin case.  But as it turns out, evidence seems to support that white women have consistently benefitted from affirmative action programs both in university admissions and in the workforce, even as they’ve been the most outspoken opponents of the policy. For those looking to make a case either way, the piece offers a handy compendium of research and precedents. 

A different sort of business case.
Todd Pinsky argues that Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity is a problem, but not for the reasons most people assume. Even though it’s overwhelmingly white and male, “Silicon Valley is also by far one of the most innovative collections of people not only in the U.S. today but perhaps anywhere, ever. This might explain why the creativity and innovation arguments for workplace diversity, while seemingly compelling at first blush, haven’t had the expected impact on business investment in diversity.” Instead, he says, one primary reason to embrace diversity is for the self-evident social good it brings.

Young, gifted, and not white.
Aerial Ellis argues that the inherent diversity among millennials makes members of that generation natural change agents as they move steadily from individual contributors to front line leaders and beyond. Ellis identifies a growing divide between employers and senior leaders who are unprepared to manage a workforce with different expectations of how they will work and present themselves. “There is a growing segment of millennials who are refusing to check our identities at the door while many organizations are remaining unchanged in their response to our need for expression and acceptance.”

Taxation without representation.
In this compelling conversation, U.S. Secretary of Education John King expands on his remarks in a recent Washington Post op-ed, talking about the heavy psychological price  paid by teachers and administrators of color who are all too often the lone representative at their schools. Similar to their counterparts in corporate workplaces, they struggle to do their own jobs while they are expected to act as experts on all issues related to diversity, and are prone to burnout. It’s a big issue: students of color increasingly comprise a majority of students in public schools, but teachers who look like them make up only 18% of faculty.
American Radio Works

The Woke Leader

Taking a novel approach.
Vogue introduces us to two imaginative – and yes, beautifully dressed – young novelists who both have seven-figure book deals but offer new views on race, gender, power, family, and the disappointment of a generation that has mixed feelings about the reins they are about to take. “These are frankly political books, fueled by a fierce anger at the inheritance that has fallen to their generation. In a year that has seen untold acts of racist violence, in which presidential contenders duke it out over their wives’ looks, the claims of the past, [Yaa] Gyasi and [Emma] Cline remind us, remain very much present.”  Gyasi’s Homecoming (Knopf) addresses seven generations of American and African life, and tackles the legacy of slavery head on. 

Danger Will Robinson.
 Lauren Joseph at the World Economic Forum looks at diversity from a slightly different lens: The psychological safety net that good leadership provides to diverse teams. It allows groups to collaborate honestly and be vulnerable with each other. The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, who argues that in a business environment of uncertainty, teams require assurance that openness is prized and failure will not by punished. Charts, graphs, and lots of Google talk, as well.
World Economic Forum

The great DNA migration
Until recently, most research into DNA and disease has taken place primarily in European and European-American populations. But a new study published Friday, and reported on by The New York Times, explores the first ever large study of African American DNA. The study provides a literal road map – genetically similar African Americans still line the routes that black people took as they traveled North during the Great Migration of the 20th century. The research has tremendous implications for understanding the genetic disease profiles and long-term health of African Americans living today.
New York Times


I’m hoping that the conversation around Roots when it airs will fill in the gaps so that it is absolutely, unavoidably clear that America today is directly related to America of the antebellum South and the slave trade. And that some of the issues that we still grapple with have their roots in slavery and its attendant legacy of racism.
—LeVar Burton