President Obama made history again with his re-election. But his second term has been scrutinized by the left and the right. In his second term, his first round of nominees for his cabinet was white males. This caused some to question his loyalty to the millions of minorities, women, and members of the GLBTs who elected him. When another Black business owner asked my thoughts about the lack of minorities being considered or appointed, I replied, “The issue is much bigger than black or white. Black Americans have allowed ‘white is right’ to become systemic in thinking. We, like White folks, have failed to embrace diversity or to accept our own for one reason or another. We have forgotten to look back at history and note that we did NOT overcome by ‘black is maybe but white is right.’
Let us take a look at how we arrived at the dilution of diversity by first looking at Affirmative Action. In the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, we called on our elected leaders to challenge the country’s acceptance of the discrimination of Blacks in all areas of government contracting agencies. President Kennedy answered through his executive order, 10925, mandating “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and those employees are treated fairly during employment, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.”* Although a presidential executive order was being implemented and, in many cases, being enforced, Jim Crow, the law of the land in the Old South did not roll over and die. It took on a more covert way of staying a live by heavily saturating its principles of white is right into the enforcement of the new policies.
In the Old South, Jim Crow laws, written and unwritten, mandated where a Black person could sit, shop, eat, or use a restroom. Also, Jim Crow laws dictated how a Black person should look at a White person and how closely he should stand next to or walk beside a White person. Though Jim Crow was not the law of the land in the North, the North had its own insidious version. Blacks were systematically siphoned into areas of cities that were expressively ‘black’ and into jobs, schools, and the like that were considered ‘black’.
With dueling sets of laws--federal vs. state and local--once again our country found itself at war. Although an undeclared war, our country was still fighting President Lincoln’s war a hundred years later. Instead of Confederate soldiers with cannons fighting for state’s rights to retain slaves in cotton fields, laws were instituted to confine Black people to horrible economic conditions equivalent to slavery with an invisible master.
After the death of President Kennedy, a new president, President Johnson addressed affirmative action. He stated, “Nothing is more freighted with meaning for our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American...In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope...But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair...This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result...To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough.**
Every President has served a racially divided country. And rules are not always the same for every racial group in interpretation and implementation. There are racial divisions, in spite of all of our accomplishments as a nation; and these divisions seem to pull at the fibers of our country despite our ever increasing growth of minorities who have become national leaders, business owners, college presidents, astronauts, and even pest-control operators. In every genre, great men and women from every ethnic background have defied odds to add to the rich diversity of this nation, even electing a President whose parents are members of two races, not once but twice. Yet the President struggles with an issue inherent in the belief of a very large number of folks in this country: white is right, that is, white American male is right.
Under President Obama, the unwritten rules of how business gets done in our country have not changed. While these unwritten rules present both opportunities and obstacles for working with congressional and business leaders, the President must deal with perception just as much as reality. In reality, a majority of voting Americans voted for President Obama. But the perception is that more did not vote for him. No matter how many numbers show the wide margin of his win, by design, the President’s opposition rack up more air time on cable news shows than those who support him.
Along the same lines of reality vs. perception, because a corporation says it believes in diversity or has a minority supplier program does not mean that the culture of the company is accepting of diverse individuals, which includes Congress, an entity that governs the business affairs of our country. Although our country has become more diverse, there are members of Congress who struggle with the idea of diversity. One reason, diversity cannot be pigeon-holed into the paradigm, “American white male is right.”
At one time, Black Americans were the largest minority group. When diversity programs were mentioned, it was the code for “We do business with Blacks.” But in the last decade, doing business with Black Americans was no longer a litmus test for diversity. Diversity has grown to mean global inclusiveness. Women, individuals with physical disabilities, and members within the GLBT communities are all part of diversity inclusion. Many are CEOs or senior management decision-makers for global corporations.
Because of global diversity, minorities, who may not even consider themselves as a minority, are sitting at the table as decision-makers and do not need executive orders to be given access to employment, housing, or an education. By the way, Hispanics/Latinos are the majority of the minority groups. But Asian business owners are the fastest growing in our nation and are one of the highest income earners.
Culturally speaking, most minority groups turn first to each other’s businesses for goods or services before venturing outside of their communities. By being intentional with their spending dollars, these communities are strengthened economically and engender more buying power. Local power combined with fiscal numbers gives them a seat at the table for national dialogue. These communities become producers vs. consumers. When communities are strong producers of their own wealth by doing business within their communities, they can intimidate or become intimidating to outsiders.
If a community allows an entity to divide and conquer it without much opposition, the community soon becomes a doormat and gets very little to nothing in return from the entity. Instead, the community should take a page out of the book of another community that appears to have successful business practices, especially of diverse ethnic groups, and demand reciprocity at a comparable rate. Black Americans are slow in accepting this concept.
Some local Black business owners rarely have a community-first mindset. In Nashville, Black- owned means ‘last-selected’and 'less-than-your-quoted-price' to other Blacks when buying. It does not matter what area of town one may in reside; it seems to be the prevailing thought. “Nashville’s Black Elite” can be the worst offenders while screaming for economic inclusion from corporate America. When asked about this practice, “You know how we are,” is the standard reply. As far as Blacks have come in leading the way to gain equality for others, we are often last in helping one another to achieve or maintain economic stability in our businesses, to support our families, to give back to our communities, and to prepare to contribute to national dialogue, not photo opportunities.
Our national leaders have much work to do, both moral and legislative work. Our country issues are bigger than Black and White issues, much bigger. As the President works through years of systemic racial biases [he must do] that are woven into the fibers of our country, he must intentionally choose leaders who will embrace our growing global diversity and who will practice inclusiveness. In the same vein, Black business owners must work through years of being treated as inferior. For many have begun to believe that the goods and services of our own people are ‘less than.’ Hence, Black business owners [as a whole] need a new paradigm shift that can remove the systemic thinking that has inculcated and has embedded into the fibers of the community.
To make the shift, Black business owners should begin to intentionally seek out goods and services of one another. This action will help strengthen dialogue within the Black community. They have to become educated in the ways and means of the global marketers and use the finesse of the dialogue of the smaller community to access the larger global market. They must keep in mind that this training is pertinent to opening the doors to financial empowerment.
If Black Americans do not embrace and complement each other like leveling compounds running on an uneven floor, we will continue to be overlooked at the table for national conversations and leadership roles and will continue to be stepped on or stepped over. But in order to change this, we must start with the man or woman in the mirror, not the President. Economic empowerment starts in your neighborhood and local communities not in Washington, DC.
*President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 was signed March 6, 1961
** President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commencement Address at Howard University Commencement June 4, 1965
** President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commencement Address at Howard University Commencement June 4, 1965