Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Race, Injustice and Indignation

A few weeks ago, race relations in the country pretty much burst into flames in the aftermath of the non-indictments of officers who were involved in incidents leading to the deaths of two unarmed black men. While there are common themes in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I tend to believe that the cases need to be considered separately given the different specific circumstances of the two incidents. Without getting into much detail here, my understanding based upon what I've read and heard is that while in both cases there was an element of resisting arrest, Michael Brown's death followed a physical struggle in which the police officer had reason to believe he was going to be disarmed, with the possibility of having his weapon used against him. Eric Garner was killed when a police officer, without any clear and dangerous threat to himself or others, employed a chokehold barred by the regulations of his own department and suffocated a man who plead for help in his dying breaths, crying to anyone that would listen that he couldn't breathe. I'm certain that while some share my view, others will strongly disagree. Some believe that both police actions were warranted, and still others believe that both police actions were clear cases of state-sponsored murder, if not manslaughter. I can respect either contrary perspective, given one's interpretation of what was read and heard.

What has given me the most pause in the midst of these tragedies is the outpouring of emotion, and I find myself wondering where this will all lead. As I look through social media, I see pockets of anger and indignation. On the news, I see "die-in's" and rallies of people screaming "Hands up, don't shoot!" and "I can't breathe!". I can see the benefits of civil disobedience as a means of telling the country, the world and the government that the status quo is unacceptable, but at the same time, I lament that the only ones who are engaged or tuning in are those who agree with the cause. Or put another way, they're largely preaching to the converted. The people who are disengaged are sick and tired of "people playing the race card" or and/or has moved on to Christmas shopping or sharing photos of their kids and pets on Facebook. Why? Maybe they don't know what to say. Or it could be because it doesn't affect them or their immediate sphere so it's not an issue.

So I wonder to myself what that balance is between graciously and patiently educating and expressing anger at the apparent apathy of others, and what really will make a difference in this world which is really broken. Having a diversity of friends and connections on social media, I see a whole segment of my friends who are angry and actively participating in the rallies. They are the same people are aren't shy about liking and sharing more articles around the poor state of race relations and the dangers of over-militarized and aggressive policing. There are also friends who I love and respect, almost all of whom are white, who don't have anything to say at all or have simplified the equation into "if you don't resist the police, you won't get hurt".

I've been fortunate to be involved with a lot of diversity and inclusion programs at the corporate level, and in one recent event focused on gender equity, we spoke about "white man's privilege" and the tacit benefits that white males subconsciously receive from society which are withheld from others. In an activity where people were able submit their honest thoughts anonymously on an index card, one of my colleagues wrote the following: "I resent this program trying to make me feel guilty about being a white man." I appreciated the honesty in the sentiment.

So to answer my own query around the balance between being angry or patient educating, I offer this appeal. If you're a person of racial privilege who doesn't think it exists or matters, please try to recognize it. You don't have to feel guilty about it, but at least recognize that it exists. Perhaps that evolves into sympathy towards those who don't have it, and acknowledge the implications for those people. Maybe you get to know someone or a family who doesn't look like you, go out for lunch or invite them into your home. Perhaps that will evolve into a desire to recognize that the status quo isn't all that good. And maybe that'll evolve into a desire to raise your voice to change that status quo.

But there's another appeal. For friends who are angry just not at racial injustice, but the people who you think seem to minimize the problems rooted in race who you deem as "part of the problem", I ask for your grace and patience. Please be patient with me, because I know I don't totally get it. But I know firsthand that demonizing individuals who don't share the same perspective as you isn't terribly effective. Ironically, you have the "benefit" of a perspective which others don't have. Listen patiently to opposing points of view and respect and thank them for their candor, even if you disagree.

To that point, maybe you can reach out to a law enforcement officer to hear his or her perspective on the recent events. And be open to having your own viewpoints evolve. You may emerge with a new found appreciation for the work for the many in the field who work with integrity and courage. Perhaps you'll sympathize with how the actions of some have led to a condemnation of an entire population and their culture (it's interesting how we all succumb to this). In doing so, you may be amazed at how willing they are to hear your perspective.

A lot of people, including myself, can get frustrated and impatient when the answer to these societal issues is more "dialogue". But the truth of the matter is, I'd love to see more dialogue and less rhetoric. At least that's a step closer to progress.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Our Heroes in the Right Places

It's dangerous to have heroes.

In the eulogy that Nike Chairman Phil Knight delivered at Joe Paterno's funeral in the shadow of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, Knight spoke eloquently about Paterno - notwithstanding the cloud surrounding his dismissal and firing - had been his hero for some time and was still his hero. Here's an excerpt from that eulogy:
I am a man who has always needed heroes. It started when I was a boy and I never outgrew it. It has, I'm sure, something to do with how I decided to make my living. A decade and a half ago an Esquire magazine reporter asked the question, "Who is your hero?" My answer was simple: my college track coach and partner, Bill Bowerman. He had won four national championships, coached more sub four minute milers than anyone when he retired. He insisted he was not a track coach. He was a professor of competitive response. One year at the University of Oregon, the only group that had a higher grade point average than the track team was a fraternity. He said do right and fear no man. When he died on Christmas Eve in 1999, I asked myself, "What do I do for a hero now?" Two months later on the Nike trip, the answer showed itself across the table wearing a thick set of eyeglasses. I said, "I'm not asking your permission, I'm just telling you, I need someone to look up to. You're my new hero." 
Why do people need heroes? I completely understand that there's value in having someone in the flesh to emulate, someone who personifies all of the virtues which you aspire to. It's one thing to say, be generous, kid and good, but what always seems to be most difficult is assessing what that actually looks like. Heroes serve to be those walking and talking of examples of those virtues, taking all of the guesswork out of what it means to have good character.

Interestingly, television has been one of the great tools of the trade when it comes to harvesting heroes. Gen-Xers like myself were jaded and cynical enough to eliminate traditional candidates (public officials, politicians, athletes) for hero-designation. Instead, we found comfort in two-dimensional television archetypes to be our role models. In some ways, that made sense because it gave a nod at the fallibility of every human being, and that only on television could someone be blameless. For that challenging endeavor of being a good father, we tapped into characters such as Steven Keaton, Jason Seaver and on classic re-runs, Mike Brady. But nobody was held as the quintessential "good dad" as much as Cliff Huxtable from "The Cosby Show".

Here's the funny thing - people began to see Bill Cosby as being interchangeable with Cliff Huxtable. In some ways, Cosby was responsible for that. For example, the show wasn't "The Huxtables", so Cosby himself seemed to welcome the melding of his on-screen persona with himself. In the same way, Cosby often toured as a one-man show, and would regale audiences with observational comedy around life and fatherhood, very much in the same way that Cliff Huxtable did on the television show. And all of his schtick was wholesome and American as apple pie. People of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds were thrilled that in a society and world which increasingly saw the breakdown of the family, Bill, er, Cliff was still there demonstrating good parenthood with a slide of humor.

Flash forward to present day. and allegations of sexual abuse are flying around Bill Cosby's misdeeds. What's been interesting to me is to see the diversity of reactions to the charges. Some are outraged, furious that in this season of renewed awareness of the horrors of sexual abuse that another man was caught behaving badly. Others are shocked that someone who had otherwise been such a positive role model could have made such a terrible series of a mistake. Some are skeptical, wondering aloud why these allegations surfaced suddenly in a wave after being dormant so long. For many, it's a combination of the above emotions. For many, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness, recognizing that someone just isn't who we thought or wished they were.

Going back to my original point, having heroes can be dangerous. If having heroes means that we leave no room for moral failure, we're inevitably going to encounter a harsh lesson in reality. If having heroes means that their moral failure has the power to make one question the fundamental goodness of mankind, then we're opening the doors to waves of cynicism. There isn't anyone, outside of God Himself, who can or should bear that level of moral scrutiny.

Or maybe we need to redefine what heroes are. Maybe the better approach towards heroes is recognizing that we're all broken people, with some of us muddling through, barely held together with scotch tape better than others. Every human being has opportunities each day to do something worthy of a being a hero. I believe that acts of heroism occur each day by people in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and our schools. At least for me, those are the heroes that I find most inspiring and impactful.