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raceAhead: Stacey Abrams Delivers With Her SOTU Response

February 6, 2019, 7:45 PM UTC

Last night the nation turned its eyes, temporarily it seems, away from the mess unfolding in Virginia, to President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address.

The event itself had become a contentious political football, delayed due to the partial shutdown of the federal government, and the determination of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

You can find five key takeaways here, and a thorough fact-check here.

While the president delivered his lengthy speech nearly without a hitch, all eyes were on the women House members, who – along with Tiffany Trump, for some reason – were all wearing suffragette white. It was a thrilling sight, in part because the president acknowledged an important milestone without giving himself proper credit for his role in creating it. “Exactly one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before,” Trump said to the cheers of the women. “That’s great. Really great. And congratulations.”

And thanks to Pelosi’s extraordinary ability to own a television live shot, she also provided the best clap-back of the century.

But in many ways, the night belonged to Stacey Abrams, lawyer, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, nearly the first female African American governor of a state and romance novelist. (She wrote the first of eight romance novels during her third year at law school.)

Abrams, the first African American woman to be tapped for the role, offered a flawless SOTU response, mastering a challenging gig that has stretched the skills of other politicos. It’s just hard to get it exactly right, it seems.

But Abrams delivered, starting with warm personal anecdotes about her mother and father, a librarian and shipyard worker, respectively, and the values that guided their family, including faith, service, education, and responsibility. “In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us,” she said.

You can find an annotated and fact-checked transcript of her remarks here.

Abrams was a smart choice for the rebuttal if an unusual one since she’s not an office holder. But she has long been a candid communicator with enviable media skills, and has earned a role in public life, even if it doesn’t currently come with official credentials. And while she hammered away at the president – the shutdown, the trade war, the separation of asylum-seeking parents and children, etc. – she used part of her time to advocate for voter access, an issue which she equates with equity and fairness.

She has been working on these issues her entire life, it seems.

Twenty-six years ago, she took the microphone at the 30th Anniversary of the March on Washington in 1993 and introduced herself as a young person, a young woman, and a young black woman prepared to continue the work of justice. “Today we come before you, walking on the road to jobs, the road to peace, the road to justice paved with the blood, the sweat, the tears of labor movement people from around the nation,” she said. “I ask you to use us… the young people of the United States of America to pave a road that will last forever.”

On Point

Yes, Virginia, there is a problemVirginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced the he too has worn blackface in the past, this time dressed as a Kurtis Blow inspired rapper. “That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” Herring said, admitting that he knew the photo would surface eventually. In other news, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has publicly denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. So, that’s happening. Washington Post

Universities collaborate on race and humanities studies
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is funding a new, multi-university project that will explore the connections between the study of race and racism and various fields in the humanities. The work will be spread across four campuses, Brown University, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Yale. The collaboration sprung from the first-ever “Comparative Race Studies National Leadership Summit,” at Stanford University, last June, which discussed ways that universities could fund and otherwise support breakthrough scholarship on race. Go Bruno.

Fact-checking Steven Pinker, and by association, Bill Gates
Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, author, researcher and expert on global inequality, has been having a public back-and-forth with Harvard’s Steven Pinker author of the best-selling book, Enlightenment Now. At issue are Pinker’s claims that poverty has been improving over the last two hundred years, a claim echoed by philanthropist Bill Gates. The poverty picture is more complex, says Hickel, and hindered by the fact that real data on the subject has only been collected since 1981. “It is widely accepted among those who research global poverty that any data prior to 1981 is simply too sketchy to be useful, and going back to as early as 1820 is more or less meaningless,” he says. Click below for his full argument, and here for Pinker’s conversation with Fortune CEO Alan Murray, in which they explore, among other topics, the enduring misery of non-CEO Baby Boomers.
Jason Hickel Blog

Surviving graduate school
Graduate school is a gauntlet, a tough and competitive environment that can weigh heavily on students. There’s politics to navigate, abusive professors, and fewer meaningful opportunities to build a career in academia or research. It’s a recipe for mental health trauma, particularly for students with invisible disabilities. Writer David Perry spent time with current and former students, many with unmet health needs. Some were reluctant to ask for help, but “[i]n all cases, students spoke about the challenges of trying to learn in an environment that seemed to maximize anxiety by design rather than by accident.” New research published in Nature Biotechnology verifies his reporting, calling it a mental health crisis. "[G]raduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the authors found. 
Pacific Standard

On Background

How to enhance your reputation on social media
If you’re a senior leader looking to develop rapport with millennial customers and showcase your expertise, a new survey suggests that strategic sharing on social media is a smart move. And people expect you to be there: the Global Street Fight Study, conducted by G&S Business Communications and Harris Polls, shows that the presence of senior leadership on social media is important to two-thirds of the general public and three-quarters of millennials. It’s an even smarter strategy for executives of color. Skip the cat videos, though. Register to get the whole survey.
G&S Communications

The time that Neil Diamond wore blackface
This is a scene from the 1980 film The Jazz Singer, a zippy remake of the 1927 Al Jolson classic, the first commercially successful movie with talking. For some reason, Diamond’s character needs to pretend to be black in order to lead an all-black band, in front of an all-black audience. It appears it was supposed to be a humorous take on some of original themes of the film, which include immigration and minstrelsy? Honestly, I’m a bit hazy on the details. I flag it because it was a popular film in theaters around the time a lot of future politicians were darkening their faces and singing like black folks. And also, because, oooo baby, baby now.

How leaders lose their way and what to do about it
Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner has a thoughtful piece on how the virtues that get you to the top – like sharing, openness and collaboration – tend to disappear abruptly when leadership success is achieved. This “power paradox” explains the bad behavior (and inability to impact corporate culture) that characterizes many top shelf leaders. His remedy? Cultivating self-awareness and empathy.


Grow with discipline. Balance intuition with rigor. Innovate around the core. Don't embrace the status quo. Find new ways to see. Never expect a silver bullet. Get your hands dirty. Listen with empathy and overcommunicate with transparency. Tell your story, refusing to let others define you.
—Howard Schultz