One of the more challenging parts of diversity and inclusion work is knowing what parts of the past to give up and when.
Author and PBS host Tavis Smiley wrote an interesting column expressing the anxiety that many African Americans are feeling these days, as nostalgia for a better time intersects with race, history and reality.
The column was inspired by a question that a student had asked him from the audience after a set of remarks he’d made at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Penn. Smiley’s subject was “Make America As Great As Its Promise,” an apparent comment on Donald Trump’s now famous campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Smiley had been talking about the difference between equality and equity, and pointing out that there had been no time in America’s past that signaled a true golden age for all its citizens. His query for Trump:
“To what specific period of American greatness are you wanting us to return? When black folk suffered segregation after slavery? When women had no right to vote or control their own bodies? When gay brothers and lesbian sisters felt ceaseless hate? When we stole land from the Native Americans? When we sent Japanese families to internment camps? When America lynched Mexicans? I just need Trump to give me some clarity on the time period he wishes to travel back to.”
But one young man wasn’t feeling any sort of promise. “Mr. Smiley, do you believe that given the crisis state of our democracy, we black folk could ever find ourselves enslaved again?” he asked.
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According to Smiley, it surprised both him and the largely white audience. Reading it shocked me, too. Although the student seemed to be asking about the practical aspects of re-enslavement, it was the fear behind the question that hit me. If you believe that white society yearns for a time when you didn’t matter, how do you navigate that? Talk about a pipeline problem.
As public political discourse continues to go off the rails, I think business leaders have a vital role to play in making sure young people like him feel welcomed and valued.
I’m comforted by The Warmth of Other Suns author Isabel Wilkerson’s sage advice to raceAhead readers – that the only way forward was through courageously confronting the past. Difficult questions are gateways, she believes.
“These are opportunities for anyone who is doing this [diversity and inclusion] work – and it’s really important work and I admire it – to consider how history impacts the people they want to include. And themselves, as well. Without that – a deep understanding – they will look at a situation and not be able to understand what they’re seeing.” Parsing the past with a sense of decency instead of nostalgia is a good place to start.
What would you tell that student? Here’s Smiley’s answer.
Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune.