raceAhead: June 6, 2016


Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died at 74 on Friday. Our weekend feeds were filled with obituaries, video clips, photos, emotional true encounter stories, and quotes from the champ himself. Collective grief is one of the things that social media amplifies so well; sometimes it feels like a flash funeral forms around you, with everything but the row of covered dishes in the kitchen afterwards.

People took Ali’s death as an opportunity to shine a light on the parts of his life that were truly great, the parts that really did shock the world. And that’s when things got sticky. Search “transcends race” on Twitter and you can see the tension grow, as people called out a troubling phrase that began to appear in obituaries and tributes usually written by white people. The collective take was swift and direct. To say that Ali “transcended race” was to make the parts of him that make people uncomfortable—his frank conversations on racial violence, his willingness to confront the U.S. government, his vocal devotion to Islam, his unapologetic love for black people—disappear. He didn’t transcend race. He showed us how he lived it.

It occurs to me now that Ali showed us something else, too: what it meant to be a black man operating in a competitive and increasingly global world. And he declared himself loudly and at scale, bold, undaunted, brash, honest, principled, hardworking, and, of course, pretty. As a kid, Ali was something to behold. My father, who served in World War II in the segregated army, never missed him on television. I was right there alongside him. We were both transfixed, most likely for different reasons.

When I was reporting for an article for Fortune called “Leading While Black,” a story about the lack of black male representation in executive ranks, I was amazed to discover that of the three dozen executives I interviewed, more than half had fathers who were ministers. Now, I consider this a talking point more than a data point, but it was an unusual coincidence. (The other fathers included police officers, career military, and small business owners.)

I asked the men about it and they were surprised, too. Some of them thought it was the expectations and support of their community that made the difference in their own success. Others thought it was the fact that they had a strong sense of mission. But I think Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, whose father was both a minister and a carpenter, is on to something when he says it’s about respect. “I was part of a community that saw my father, a black man, as a man,” he said. It normalized something important about leadership and his own humanity. When you’re the only one in certain settings, “You have to be comfortable in your own skin. You have to walk with a mindset that ‘I have a right to be here.’”

On Point

The D&I list.
There are so many things to appreciate about the 2016 Black Enterprise Top Executives In Corporate Diversity list, but here’s one in particular: They exclude anyone who doesn’t have diversity and inclusion as their sole or primary function. These are companies who are taking it seriously, and it’s encouraging to see so much of the traditional Fortune cohort represented, with big names like IBM, Bank of America, Ford, Intel, HP, PepsiCo, and FedEx in the mix. Relative newcomers LinkedIn and Pinterest are also represented. 
Black Enterprise

Cash money rides.
Ride sharing platform Uber has been making inroads in Africa, particularly in South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya. Though Uber has maintained its largely cashless service—fares are deducted from credit cards via mobile devices—in some cities, the company is trying to appeal to consumers who need or prefer to pay in cash. 

The play's the thing?
Richard Primus makes a unique argument that the Broadway smash Hamilton, with its dramatic, multi-racial, musical retelling of the man behind the Federalist Papers, has a chance to influence the way we think about American identity. He wonders if the musical could even affect the future of constitutional law. “And how judges imagine the original meaning of the Constitution depends on their intuitions – half historical, half mythical – about the Founding narrative. If you can change the myth, you can change the Constitution.” 
The Atlantic

Summer burdens.
KJ Dell’antonia highlights a problem that has important implications for individual families, society overall, and the future talent pipeline: For too many working families, summer is an expensive burden that many cannot afford. The lack of affordable care and stimulating activity options means a widening achievement gap for kids in low income and working families. (More on this issue, and what it means for corporate America, in tomorrow’s raceAhead essay.) 
New York Times

Back to you. What do you think of me?
This recent piece by Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron explores an important trend in management thinking – the idea that honesty in the workplace, particularly in difficult situations, is something that can be negotiated and codified. (They also introduce the term “front-stabbing,” which is bound to make every introvert tremble with horror.) “The movement toward radical frankness emerges out of the false assumption that having a supportive workplace is antithetical to honest, straightforward, no-nonsense feedback.” This conversation has interesting implications for those who do inclusion work, particularly in terms of retention.

The Woke Leader

Dear Naomi.
“I didn’t take inventory of my black girl trauma until I became a mother.” Writer Kelly Harris D uses words and images in remarkable ways as she shares the story of her family—interwoven with the story of race and violence—with her young daughter and, by extension, all of us. Part oral history, part love letter, and part cathartic retelling of current events, Harris shares her deepest fears for her child.
Dear Naomi

Another pipeline problem.
Ozy interviews Eddy Zheng, an Open Society Soros Justice Fellow and the subject of a new documentary, Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story. The film focuses on the troubling fact that the number of Asian and Pacific Islanders in prison has nearly doubled in the past decade. Zheng calls it the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. “We usually hear about the school-to-prison pipeline, and how lack of investment in education leads to mass incarceration. For many in the immigrant population, it extends beyond this,” he said. “Often when people are relocated to the U.S., they’re living in poverty- and violence-stricken areas. Instead of being the victims, some people turn themselves into the perpetrators as a way to survive.”

On small massacres and tender mercies.
After the shooting death of UCLA Professor William Klug last week, U.S. Poet Laureate (and UCLA alum) Juan Felipe Herrera did what poets do—he took the pain, fear, and fatigue, and turned it into art.
LA Times

—raceAhead is edited by Scott Olster


And if all that's too much then I guess I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people.
—Muhammed Ali

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