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Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard J. Tyson Has Died. He Appreciated You.

November 11, 2019, 6:29 PM UTC

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Bernard J. Tyson, the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, has unexpectedly died, Kaiser officials announced on Sunday. He was 60 years old. He passed away in his sleep.

Tyson was a monumental figure in health care, a person who dedicated himself to the notion that it was both possible and morally correct to make sure everyone had what they needed to be as healthy and productive as they could be. And he was a personal inspiration to me, ever since our first conversation years ago.

He cared deeply about the communities left behind. He was a tireless innovator who championed the idea of equity in medicine and embraced data-driven solutions which aimed to integrate mental and physical health and eliminate race-based disparities. “[W]e now know that the social determinants of health—many of the other categories that we haven’t really addressed concretely—impact a person’s health much more than medical care,” he told Fortune editor-in-chief Clifton Leaf last year. 

“One of the big ones is the thing called the zip code. Literally, you can see the differences in the life expectancy in one zip code versus another.” 

Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson
(Photo: Gary Parker)

Tyson called this his“total health agenda.” Last spring, KP launched a $200 million “impact investment fund,” designed to help them better understand and address the needs of underserved communities. 

But Tyson’s greatest strength may have been his spirit. 

“I have the opportunity and the obligation to change the narrative around complex conversation like race that help us work together toward common objectives,” Tyson told me during our first-ever interview.

He was a main figure in Leading While Black, my 2016 feature that explored the many barriers keeping Black men out of the executive ranks of Fortune 500 companies. As the CEO of what was then a $60 billion company, he regularly experienced the cognitive dissonance of being The Man in the C-suite and a suspect on Main Street, he said. And he had been personally gutted by the image of Michael Brown’s lifeless body sweltering in the Ferguson, Mo. heat. “It was the image of an African-American kid, shot down and left in the street,” he told me. “Regardless of how it happened, you personalize that.” 

At significant personal and professional risk, he began to write and talk about race, knowing that it often made other powerful people uncomfortable. 

“We have to be able to tell the truth about these things,” he told me early and often. 

My colleague Clifton Leaf has done the world a tremendous service with his heartfelt assessment of Tyson’s legacy. Tyson had become an important figure in the Fortune conference community, and he rarely missed an opportunity to take the stage or a mic to share his work and truth. 

“To say that Bernard Tyson was good-natured, which surely he was, would miss the point, however. His nature, simply put, was good—and he felt an obligation to be candid about where the world felt short in that respect.

He was bold and forthright, on matters ranging from the cost of health care (“It was unaffordable, period,” he’d say) to homelessness (“The narrative that it’s okay to keep stepping over the homeless and going about our business in the richest country of the world is just something we cannot accept.”) to what it’s like to be black man in America.”

Please read and share, if you can.

And do take a moment to process the fact that Black men have among the lowest life expectancies of any demographic group in the U.S.

If you believe that raceAhead does good work, or that Fortune has done an important thing by establishing a race beat and deepening our coverage online, in print, and in our conferences, then Bernard J. Tyson deserves part of the credit.

Because of his own candor and commitment to telling all the truths, he consistently made it possible for his peers to be courageous, too. And that courage extended to me. Bernard was one of the few people I spoke to in the early days of writing about race in America who understood how ugly the path could be, and the kinds of risks I’d be facing moving forward.

That acknowledgement made all the difference for me.

Bernard never missed the chance to let me know that our work wasn’t going unnoticed. It’s become clear from all the online tributes pouring in that he did this for many, many people. 

Affirmation was his superpower.

“I’ve learned never to tell people that I appreciate what they did,” he told me once. “I always tell them, ‘I appreciate you.’ I want them to know that I see them for who they are. That they are more important than a task or a job description or anything they did for me.”

Bernard J. Tyson, I appreciate you.

Ellen McGirt


On Point

Facebook’s Black employees are still angry Don’t be fooled by the happy looking pictures coming from the Instagram feeds of attendees of the annual Black@ event for employees of color at Facebook, says an anonymous poster called “FB Blind” on Medium. On the inside, we are sad. Angry. Oppressed. Depressed. And treated every day through the micro and macro aggressions as if we do not belong here.” They’re not kidding. The post ticks through some very specific examples of issues, including problems with peer-review feedback mechanisms, being mistaken for custodial staff, being unwelcome in meetings, and some very ugly racist chatter on Blind, the app employees use to anonymously post about their experiences at work. “Since Mark Luckie’s brave post nearly one year to this day highlighting the patterns of aggression against black employees, not much has changed,” they write. Medium

DACA heads to the Supreme Court The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Tuesday over the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. Some 670,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children are currently being protected from deportation thanks to action from lower courts. Then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote a one-page memo which argued that DACA was unconstitutional; in subsequent decisions, lower courts have found that the administration’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious.” A decision is not expected until 2020. Vox has a good breakdown of how we got here. Vox

Why isn't Julián Castro more popular? César Vargas has written a barn-burner of an opinion piece that discusses in great detail of what it’s like to be an “an Afrocaribbean man that reads as a mestizo when I wear my hair short,” and not Mexican, or Indigenous, or a Brown immigrant, or the Black usurper he’s frequently side-eyed as. Instead, he’s an undifferentiated Brown threat who has no good way to discuss his identity, and a qualified professional who has “never gotten a call back from Linkedin, Glassdoor,,, Global Jobs, Craigslist, HBO, Disney, Time Warner.” Now, he says, apply this level of racism-xenophobia to Julián Castro. “Now ask yourselves why is he trailing behind most Democratic candidates vying for the White House if the man is sharper, more eloquent, more progressive than most of his opponents?” All praise to Vargas for adding the accent to his own first name. Latino Rebels

On Background

How Armistice Day became Veterans Day Before we knew there were more coming, the “First” World War was called The Great War, and it ended on Nov. 11, 1918, when the Allied nations and Germany signed an armistice that ended the fighting that resulted in the deaths of some 15 million people. As memories began to fade and the number of veterans to acknowledge began to increase in number, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday to Veterans Day. It’s worth remembering the Black soldiers of World War I, who signed up to fight in droves, only to be faced with racist treatment during their service. “Nearly half of the African-Americans drafted into service remained in the U.S. serving in labor battalions that resembled prison work gangs or indentured servitude more than military service,” says Ozy’s Sean Braswell. And the men who did fight were ultimately disappeared from the record. Things got worse when they got home. Ozy

Veterans Day: Female veterans are experiencing homelessness in alarming numbers Jas Boothe founded Final Salute, a program and transitional home for returning vets and their families, because she saw a large number of female veterans struggling to transition back to their complicated lives. She was one of them. "When the women first get here, we give them what we call a two-year plan for independence, which is, where they're at now. Where they see themselves in two years, and we help them fill in the blanks,” she told WJLA. The program has helped some 20 families get back on their feet and about 5,000 other women get emergency support and education. But, says Boothe, much more needs to be done. "We need to put more money into prevention as opposed to waiting until their homeless and then trying to help them.” WJLA ABC

The complete demographic makeup of the U.S. military A fascinating analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations gives a quick sense of the demographic makeup of our all-volunteer force. Here are some nuggets. Council on Foreign Relations

  • Among enlisted recruits, 43% of men and 56% of women are Hispanic or a racial minority.
  • Female recruits are consistently more diverse than the civilian population; they are also more diverse than male recruits.
  • The marines skew youngest; some 84% of recruits are 20 or younger.
  • The army has as many Black women as white ones, and the marines are the only branch of the military where the number of Black men lag behind the number in the civilian workforce.
  • Since the draft ended in 1973, women have become 16% of enlisted forces and 18% of the officer corps, up from 2% and 8% respectively.

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.


“Even when integrated into fairly progressive camps, black soldiers were often treated badly and sometimes went for long periods without proper clothing. There were also reports of blacks receiving old Civil War uniforms and being forced to sleep outside in pitched tents instead of warmer, sturdier barracks. Some were forced to eat outside in the winter months, while others went without a change of clothes for months at a time.”

 Jami L. Bryan in “Fighting For Respect, African-American Soldiers in WWI


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