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Dear white people: The work takes time

June 23, 2020, 8:55 PM UTC

Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton seem like lovely people. They own Frugal Bookstore, whose motto is “Changing Minds, One Book At A Time.” Frugal is the first, and currently only, Black-owned bookstore in Boston, and they are beloved.

But now Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton are besieged

In a recent email to customers, they describe a crush of orders designed to change minds — 20,000 requests for anti-racism books in a matter of days. Some 75% of the orders are for the same ten titles, all of which are in such demand that they’ve disappeared from bookseller shelves across the country. All are being reprinted now. 

For the most part, customers are understanding. But quite a few want to speak to the Egerton’s manager. 

“We are also receiving a number of disheartening emails asking us to cancel orders and refund payments, criticisms about how slow we are and that we have poor customer service because we have not answered an email,” they write in the email. “We have hired a fulfillment company to assist us with catching up, you will receive your orders. We humbly ask that you PLEASE bear with us!” 

Bradley Babendir, a Cambridge-based writer, posted about the customer backlash, including screenshots of the company’s latest update. “[I]f you want to support a black-owned business, part of that is not being a dick,” he tweeted.  It’s a sign of the times. “[It] feels indicative of the way people are wrongly thinking about anti-racism, like, ‘if i only had this book i would be an anti-racist but until then i am cursed.’ just read a different book in the mean time there are lots of books,” Babendir added.

There are lots of books. There are not a lot of people like Clarrissa and Leonard Egerton. Such a conundrum.

As I ponder the plight of the Egertons, lovely people whose early prospects during the still-ongoing pandemic became so dire that it took a generous GoFundMe campaign to keep them afloat, I am thinking about the thousands of Black employees across corporate America who now have a crush of unfillable orders on their desks for things that they are not prepared to provide related to anti-racism work. 

“I’m just not into the performance — the half-assed apologies, ‘I see you’ messages, or tactfully deployed emojis that only serve to help the sender feel as if they’ve done their part,” writes The Only Black Guy in the Office, a regular anonymous column on Medium. “I guess now Black lives finally matter, thanks to these racially ambiguous prayer hands! I don’t need you to reach out to say how much you’re showing up, just for you to go back to your regular M.O. once this movement is no longer trending. Let your actions speak. Contribute to overthrowing this racist-ass system.”

I am also thinking about the thousands of Black and brown employees and their worthy allies who are prepared to weigh in with data, projects, and anti-racism initiatives already in progress — and who are finding their budgets cut or work otherwise ignored by a leadership suddenly hellbent on scrubbing the stale racist residue from all the curtains without their help.  

I know these people — who have typically undertaken this important anti-racism work using their personal time and with little funding or support — because they write to me all the time. And now, they’re telling everyone.

Fortune’s Working While Black project is a trove of difficult truths about what it’s like for Black talent in corporate life. 

“We — Black people — are NOT a monolithic group of people, so STOP treating us that way. One does NOT speak for all.  Do the work to unlearn the ways that are currently ingrained into the fabric of who you are,” Adrienne G., 51, writes. “READ books [Editor’s note: patiently wait for them to arrive, please.] “LEARN from those that are doing the anti-bias, anti-Black work. Stop asking Black people how you can not be racist or anti-Black, that’s YOUR job to figure out.”

Now, Imma quote myself from my June 9 column on how to add anti-racism reading to your life in a way that’s sustainable: “I offer this word of caution for any white person who is frantically trying to put all of this material on their to-do lists. I appreciate you, but I’m worried that the urgency you may be feeling is more related to your personal discomfort, and not entirely a desire to be part of the solution. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel this way. But part of the work is staying in the discomfort long enough to examine it. If you rush, it won’t stick. If you do too much, you’ll burn out.” 

You’ll also destroy the spirits of Black booksellers who want to help you. (But these Twitter comments to Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Antiracist, will bring you joy.)

So here’s another piece of advice for corporate leaders, from me and Adrienne G.

Find the people in your organization who have already been working on these issues, even informally. They understand your culture. Listen to them. Embrace their data and findings and projects and find ways to amplify them. Give them credit and opportunities to lead and contribute, if they choose. And by all means, fund and support their work. They quite likely hold the pieces of the puzzle you’re looking for.

And Lord have mercy, please protect them from the newly woke masses looking for instant redemption. After all, that’s what a good manager is supposed to do.

Ellen McGirt

On point

Racing and racism in the heartland of Alabama The latest dispatch from homegrown Alabama reporter Stephanie McCrummen centers on a NASCAR-loving town grappling with the sport's ban of the Confederate flag. To some in Heflin — some 30 miles from the storied Talladega Superspeedway where Bubba Wallace raced on Monday after finding a noose in his garage —the flag ban is “nonsense,” as 54-year-old Lonnie Miles says. He adds that he has plenty of Black friends. "They know if they need anything, all they have to do is ask me," Miles says. "Only thing I don’t like is blacks and whites mixing, but I keep that to myself.” Other scenes with varying characters play out in the local church and general store. A frustrating but revealing read.
The Washington Post

Madison Avenue promises diversity and inclusion results. It's not the first time With ongoing dialogue about systemic racism continuing, many agencies within the advertising industry are pledging to fix their employee diversity numbers. Black ad executives say they've heard this story before. “This was the elephant in the room 10 years ago; it was the elephant in the room five years ago,” Steve Stoute, founder of the ad agency Translation, told the Wall Street Journal. The difference now, many hope, will be explicit commitments held accountable by the public release of data. An early example: Employees identifying as Black or African American represented 2.6% of senior and executive-level managers at publicly-traded firm IPG in 2019, and 1.8% at Dentsu Aegis U.S. in 2020, the companies disclosed.
The Wall Street Journal

The water bill is coming due and millions of Americans are at risk According to this chilling analysis from the Guardian, water and sewage costs in some 12 U.S. cities rose 80% between the years 2010-2018. Now, with wage losses due to coronavirus-related work stoppages, millions of Americans are now at risk of not being able to pay their water bills. “More people are in trouble, and the poorest of the poor are in big trouble,” said utilities analyst Roger Colton, who conducted the analysis for the Guardian. “The data shows that we’ve got an affordability problem in an overwhelming number of cities nationwide that didn’t exist a decade ago, or even two or three years ago in some cities.”
The Guardian

USA Today checks in with 31 Black teens turning 18 this year, about the boy who won’t be Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed by police for holding a toy gun, would have turned 18 this year. In this heart-wrenching package, his peers talk about justice, anger, and feeling like targets as they prepare for the next step in their newly adult lives. “I can’t just get mad all the time because I’m seeing that,” says Haleem Stevens who was only able to watch the video of Ahmaud Arbery getting gunned down by white men once. “I understand that’s going to happen now. I’m trying to change it. I’m worried about how many people will die before I’m able to change it.” Stevens, who wants to be a lawyer, is set to enroll at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey this fall. And don’t miss this necessary interview with Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, who says she goes to dark places when other Black boys and young men are killed by police. "I'm sick mentally, physically, emotionally," she said. "It's just messed up."
USA Today

On background

This is not Ben & Jerry’s first time at the activist rodeo While the ice cream-maker got well-deserved props for its strong anti-racism statement in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the company is not new at any of this. Ben & Jerry’s has had social activism and a double bottom line from its inception, Chris Miller, the company’s head of activism tells Fortune’s Beth Kowitt in this fascinating Q&A. “There are moments when it feels like it’s important simply to go on record—to stand and be counted,” he said. “The events of the past couple of weeks brought us to a place where we felt like we, as a company, had to go on record and talk about these issues of white supremacy, police brutality, and structural racism. Thoughts and prayers and messages of unity are not really sufficient anymore.”

Whatever happened to the racist white people in those historical civil rights photos? I’ve wondered this myself. Do those pictures of Uncle Jimmy smiling in the foreground of a lynching, or Cousin Thelma spitting at an integrating student, ever make it into a family album somewhere? Photographer and writer Johnny Silvercloud answered his own question by positing that after the passage of civil rights legislation, those old racists simply went silent, turning off the public spigot of their anger and indignation. Their ghosts pop up in odd ways, he says, like when a millionaire peacefully takes a knee in protest. It’s an action that Martin Luther King would have approved of, and yet Colin Kaepernick continues to drive otherwise mellow people crazy. “I highly doubt that the white faces in the first Civil Rights Era just automatically let go of their racist ideologies,” he writes. “White supremacy — racism in America — had to adapt, and it did.” He got that right. (Disturbing photos ahead if you click through.)

Clinical trials lack racial and ethnic diversity The editors of Scientific American are blunt: It’s unethical and risky to ignore racial and ethnic minorities, they say. The numbers are equally stark. While 40 percent of Americans belong to an ethnic or racial “minority,” clinical trials are typically 80 to 90 percent white. “The symptoms of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as the contributing factors, vary across lines of ethnicity, as they do between the sexes,” they explain. Without a diverse group to study, it’s impossible to know if a drug will work, or worsen if there will be problematic side effects. A Congressional remedy, the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, required the agency to include more women and people of color in their studies. That was 1993. But a 2014 study showed that only 2 percent of more than 10,000 cancer trials conducted by the National Cancer Institute focused on a racial or ethnic population.
Scientific American

How the discovery of the Tuskegee study impacted the health of Black men The health community has another problem to solve for. The full name of the study was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” a forty-year experiment of neglect in the name of science that has become synonymous with racist medical mistreatment. In a paper accepted by the Oxford Quarterly Journal of Economics, two researchers have found that the news of the study had a devastating effect. “We find that the disclosure of the study in 1972 is correlated with increases in medical mistrust and mortality and decreases in both outpatient and inpatient physician interactions for older Black men,” say the authors. As a result, life expectancy for Black men who lost faith in the medical system fell by 1.5 years. It accounted for some 35% of the life expectancy gap between Black and white men in 1980. (Subscription required.)
The Quarterly Journal of Economics

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