It was a vision to see, a Kingian dream come true: On March 7th, 2015 — 50 years after peaceful protesters trying to cross a bridge in Selma, Ala. were bloodied by billy-club wielding police and choked by tear gas — Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, led a bipartisan, biracial march celebrating the conviction and triumph of those who marched so courageously in 1965 for the right to vote.
The anniversary celebration of that famous 1965 march was a joyous occasion. It commemorated the effort that led to the successful passing of the Voting Rights Act into law. An estimated 40,000 people, mostly African-American, gathered on a sunny, warm day in Selma. Many reportedly lined up as early as 6:30 a.m. to make sure they got a glimpse of the commemorative activities. Proud attendees waved posters of President Obama and Dr. King.
But this was more than a nostalgic celebration of long-ago events. As one journalist wrote, it provided “a moment to measure the country’s far narrower, and yet stubbornly persistent, divide in black-and-white reality.” Amid the recent conflicts in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, NY, Americans are expressing concern over racial discord at a rate nearly unseen since the 1960s. The percentage of Americans naming “race relations” or “racism” as the most important problem in the U.S. has climbed dramatically from 1% last November to 13% in recent weeks, according to Gallup polls – the highest it has been for more than three decades.
As if they were flashbacks to yesteryear, anachronistic images of police v. citizen confrontations have been dominating the nightly news. And with each baffling death, we subsequently opine about race around the dinner table, in the barber shop and beauty salon, at bars, and on the sidelines of soccer fields as we watch our kids play. But rarely, if ever, do we talk about race at work.
In fact, the Selma anniversary celebration got me thinking about who has been largely absent from the conversation about race in America: corporate executives. Joining President Obama in Selma was former President George W. Bush, who signed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, as well as more than 100 members of Congress. About two dozen of them were Republicans, including the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California. But where were representatives of corporate America? Where were the CEOs and directors of corporate boards?
After all, the Civil-Rights-era fight for the right to vote was more than a political battle. It’s significance extended from the ballot box to the boardroom. The change that resulted from those determined marchers in Selma, as President Obama told the celebratory crowd, is visible “in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms,” as well as those who serve in elected office. “Because of what [the marchers] did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American.”
So, I was impressed to learn about the unique new initiative announced by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. It is unique because he is the only Fortune 500 chief who has publicly declared the start of a conversation about race inside the company, among Starbucks’ employees and executives. In a letter to his workers, he said, “Despite the raw emotion around the [recent controversial] events and the underlying racial issues, we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about them internally — not to point fingers or to place blame and not because we have answers but because staying silent is not who we are.”
Schultz has launched “Race Together,” a bold and risky initiative that aims to drive discussions about the difficult, complex issue of race in America. Now, nearly 2,000 Starbucks employees across the country — in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis — are talking. Starbucks baristas have been asked to write “Race Together” on cups of coffee purchased at Starbucks shops, extending the conversation from employees to consumers.
Yes, there is almost certainly a public relations motive behind what Schultz is doing. And, yes, he should be focusing his efforts for change on Starbucks senior leadership, which remains noticeably bereft of diversity. Still, I believe he’s doing the right thing by encouraging dialogue. Without it, the chasm between blacks and whites will linger like the patina of coffee stains in unwashed cups. We have to begin to talk and listen and understand each other.
To generate such understanding, I recently teamed with friend and respected diversity expert Billy Dexter, a partner at the executive search firm of Heidrick & Struggles, to host a panel discussion on race. Entitled, “From Selma to Chicago: A Retrospective on Race in the Workplace,” we led a dynamic, titillating conversation with Steve Pemberton, Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens; Dorri McWhorter, CEO of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago; and Steve Barth, partner with the law firm of Foley & Lardner.
It was a diverse panel and audience, consisting of blacks and whites, Asians and others. The consensus was that the 2-hour event should have lasted all day. There was plenty of disagreement, but from that came greater understanding, and most importantly, respect. A transcript of the discussion will be posted on this site soon. Meanwhile, we can all rest assured that the marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago would have applauded these efforts to foster new conversations about race … especially in the workplace.