All across the country, city and county governments are declaring racism a “public health crisis.” This is a highly accurate statement given the disparities in quality medical care, life outcomes, and overall well-being for Black people compared to white people. There’s also the aspect of the continued proliferation of police shootings and killings of Black people, many of whom posed no threat while white mass murderers are treated to Burger King or gently handled once in police custody. Indeed, racism is a public health crisis.
The difficulty facing organizations (including many of our clients) as they awaken to the horrific health realities Black people face daily due purely to their skin color is that there is no prescription for this health crisis. Which begs the question, have jurisdictions that have gone through the trouble of pushing this declaration through the tumultuous legislative process set themselves up for failure before they can even begin the work? The answer is, it depends. In this entry, I seek to help leaders understand how they can use their influence to mitigate racism in the workplace, which in turn can improve the quality of life for Black people and all racial groups that have been historically marginalized.
While there is no mass vaccination that cities, counties, or states can take to remedy internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism, there are three leadership commitments that can be leveraged to create meaningful change and systemic impact in the workplace, addressing aspects of this health crisis in the process.
The Willingness to Take Risks
Implementing racial equity strategies is new terrain for the majority of organizations in the US. That mere fact alone makes it a risky endeavor for those who are responsible for driving the work. Clients I’ve worked with want to make sure everything is perfect before they begin to execute their racial equity strategies. Perfectionism insists on things being carried out a certain way to reach a specific end result and if this doesn’t happen, then the pursuit is considered a failure. Racial equity doesn’t work like that, nor should any significant change in an organization. Mistakes and pleasant surprises should be expected and used as lessons learned along the journey.
An Orientation Toward Action
Gathering data and consuming information related to racial equity are important, but these are only useful if they lead to action. So many organizations stop after they’ve conducted a comprehensive assessment or had a series of DEI workshops. There needs to be an organizational hunger to put what is learned from these resources into immediate action. I’ve worked with high level leaders in both the private and public sectors, and both are adept at overthinking even the most practical steps that can and should be taken to make an immediate impact in their organizations. Actions such as having conversations with large prime contractors about hiring more Black- and Indegenous-owned businesses to be their subs can yield tremendous results with low effort. If organizations do not identify and carry out simple actions that can produce more equitable outcomes, they undoubtedly will not tackle more complex ones.
Consistency in the Actions
The pathway for organizations to get better at producing equitable outcomes is through consistent effort. Racial equity work is people work and people are slow to change, especially when they’ve been steeped in structural, institutional, interpersonal, and individual racism all of their lives. If an organization has a well-developed plan and has invested a significant amount in building and empowering a team that will drive its implementation, the organization needs to trust the process. The greatest benefit of consistency is that it positions a company to be responsive instead of reactionary when a major issue takes place. Consistency is the “skin in the game” necessary for the idea of racial equity to take root in the people that make up the organization, and for that root to stand a chance at growing and thriving.
These three leadership commitments are relational to each other: aim high even if it involves risks; take small but meaningful steps initially; and be consistent over time. While there is no magic pill that will eradicate the racism we find in our organizations (and even ourselves). It does not take rocket science for leaders to demonstrate their commitment, take risks, and take consistent action to grow racial equity. With determined intentionality, the public health crisis of racism can be treated so that its harmful effects don’t have as much of a traumatic impact on future generations as it has those in the past and present.