Shattered summer: Coming to grips with systemic racism

This has been a shattering summer for me. It’s shattered many of my beliefs about what’s right, what’s tolerable, and what’s possible in this country. The events of this year – both those particular to me and those we’ve all shared — brought a new realization about what it means to be a productive person and a solid member of society. For me, the biggest change comes in thinking about systemic racism, social justice, and the role we all must play to improve our community, our state, and our country.

As many of you know, I grew up here in Madison. My parents moved here in the early 1960s and I only moved away after graduating from the UW in 1982. In the late 60s, mom would take us down to Langdon and State streets to see the aftermath of the anti-war riots — and sometimes the riots themselves — and our family became Madisonians, not just by residence but by immersion in all things Madison.

One of those things was a marginalization of racism. I can still remember the school visits from Mrs. Marlene Cummings and the repeated lessons she taught us. She showed us how people were created the same — that our biology was almost identical and that the color of our skin came from melanin. Those facts made it so obvious to me that there was no reason to treat people differently because of the color of their skin, that no one would ever do that. Growing up in Madison during that era made racism a theory and not reality to me.

That illusion remained intact throughout my childhood and early adult life. Racism was isolated and addressed when it reared its ugly head by people who understood that we are all the same. The illusion became easy to maintain when the few Black people who showed up in my life melded with my vision of the world as they complied with society’s rules. Racism didn’t exist in any meaningful way to me.

That changed at Harvard, not because of the school but because fellow students were willing to share their experiences. For the first time, I had friends who were impacted by racism in their careers and their personal lives. The stories they told illustrated the obstacles they faced and sacrifices they made to make it to Boston and take their place with me. They taught me that racism was alive, well, and a problem.

Still, I graduated and started my career leading manufacturing turnarounds in lily-white places like Lake Oswego, Oregon; Tri-Cities, Tennessee; and Lafayette, Indiana. Even during stays in Nashville, Minneapolis, and Chicago, I traveled in mostly white business circles and racism was an activist issue, not mine. Even when confronted with racism in an emotionally charged meeting about the future of Louisville two decades ago, the Black leaders in the room made it sound like they were making progress, which let me go back to my world thinking things were under control.

That comfort held securely until names and connections started coming out. Breonna Taylor put me back in that Louisville meeting with a new understanding of the physical divisions between Black and white lives. George Floyd made me realize how close the injustices were happening to me in my white Minneapolis life. Now, Jacob Blake shows that even small towns in Wisconsin can be upended. All of these episodes — and several more — pushed the evidence into my face that racism is a pervasive problem. Still, racism remained an issue for the activists and policymakers to address.

It became personal as I forced myself to keep taking steps forward in my own education. That involved asking my white acquaintances about the discussions they were having and my friends of color about their experiences. The white conversations showed that more and more of us were actively trying to make progress, not by protesting or petitioning the government but rather by how we try to become proactive in our own lives and interactions. These were encouraging but not particularly energizing.

Chats with minority friends changed all that. These are all people I meet in my white world — respected, well spoken, accomplished individuals. These friends told me about being followed in stores by security, having guns drawn on them during routine police stops, and being put on the ground in a parking lot with their family while they registered to attend college. These stories caused me to use the “Buckley test” with news events: If I had been the person in the incident, would I be assaulted/shot/killed? Too often, the answer has been an unequivocal NO.

All of these interactions over the summer caused me to finally understand that the issue of white privilege is not an indictment of anything that I’ve done or blame for anything that’s happened, but rather a shorthand description of the road I travel in life — unobstructed with the need to behave in a certain way to conform or face the hassles and dangers of systems that make negative assumptions based on the color of my skin. It’s humbling to see the success and resilience — the grit — of my friends who overcome these difficulties.

Racism and inclusion became deeply personal a few weeks ago. The light came on that an old white guy like me was not the best person to lead a discussion about diversity and inclusion. I asked a peer about taking over the leadership of this discussion in our weekly meeting but she unexpectedly rebuffed me saying that it would be very difficult for her. She said because she was younger than the rest of the group, a woman, and Black she didn’t feel comfortable to even join our normal business discussions, let alone talk about race. Her comments stunned me because I’ve always viewed myself as inclusive, supportive, and able to engage anyone. Bad assumptions when “anyone” means predominantly white Wisconsinites!

Fortunately, my friend was willing to talk through the issues and agreed to put herself at risk by leading these learning sessions with a bunch of old white guys who try to do what’s right while running complex businesses. We’re discovering this is a huge challenge, unlike the other problems we help manufacturers address every day. Still, we’re having the discussion every week and finding small ways to make progress.

It’s been a shattering summer — and also an enriching one. Coming face to face with lifelong shortcomings is never easy but it put me on a much better journey. If you haven’t thought about diversity, inclusion, and how you personally can become more proactive, please take the first steps. It will take millions of us to make a lasting difference.

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