ESSAY #18- 1.10.21 posted 7.22.21 We Need a National Board

We Need a National Board

Most of us have no idea what racial equity would look like in our society, and most of us don’t really think about it. Someday, it won’t be necessary to define it, because it will be obvious to all of us that it already exists. But that is not where we are today. Today, we need to appoint a group of people of great integrity who can define what an equitable society looks like, set markers to evaluate our progress, and guide us in achieving it.

We Need a National Reconciliation Board

That’s right! We need a nationally recognized group, a board of advisors, to guide us, to monitor and assess our progress along the way, and most importantly, to tell us what racial equity would look like.

“Well,” you might say, “don’t we all know already that things aren’t fair, that there is systemic racism, and that we need to change laws to bring about racial justice?” No, unfortunately, we don’t all know that, and those who think they know it don’t necessarily agree on what racism is and what it looks like. We definitely don’t agree on what life would look like if racism was no longer affecting our society. Oh, we might agree in the broadest terms, but put 10 academics in the same room, and they would argue the meaning of “equality” for hours and never reach agreement—because, you see, the meaning is relative.

A smarter group to define the target

Back when I was working with business leaders and managers, I would tell them, “The average IQ of those in this group is somewhere north of 120, and yet, when you all get into a room to discuss a problem, the average IQ drops south of 100.” The problem wasn’t that they didn’t each have a lot of good ideas, but that they were all so sold on their own brilliant ideas that they couldn’t really hear and explore the ideas of the others. We need this nationally recognized group of respected individuals to be able to grapple with the issues of national racial reconciliation in a way that sorts through all the reasonable ideas, without attaching to any of them. The group IQ could then rise above the average of the participants, and they could then give the rest of us targets to aim for, so that we know where we are going and when we have arrived.

Whether you call it a board, council, consortium, trust, institute, panel, or commission doesn’t matter. If you want to insist on putting the words “Blue Ribbon” in front of it, I guess that’s okay, but it hasn’t done much for the quality of Pabst and it won’t do much for me. What is important is that it provides the function of guiding the country toward a post-racial society, and continues its work until that has been achieved. It is simple, really. As I used to say to groups of executives, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.” So, that is the first job of “the Board.” (I’ll just call them “the Board” for now, as I tell you all of the reasons I think we need one.) Someone has to say what racial reconciliation looks like.

I have been saying that we need to create a society where every child born or raised in the US has equal access to the resources that allow them to live a satisfying and productive life. However, that is purposely vague, as it is not my job to say what that would look like—especially for black people, for whom resources and opportunities have been systemically unavailable since the founding of the colonies that preceded this great republic. My job is—well, I don’t really have a job, but I seem to have taken on this role of poking the bear, asking questions, and raising issues that people don’t like to talk about. In as much as I can’t be fired, I will probably keep doing that until I get distracted by a shiny object or marauding squirrels.

So, the national conversation is under way. It is already taking place on cable TV, in universities, in various publications, and in the forums where intellectuals gather. If you are reading this, you, too, are involved in this conversation. However, it hasn’t really reached the masses. When the time comes for that to happen, it would benefit everyone if there was a single resource to which they could turn to discover what racial reconciliation is going to look like. The time for lofty goals and vague expectations of equality are over. It is time for us to come to agreement on what a society looks like when systemic racism has been wrung from all sorts of systems, allowing equal opportunity to abound.

Getting more specific

Job Number One for the Board is to say what an equitable society looks like for the black population. In my thinking, it is true opportunity that turns into equitable participation and compensation, but those words are not enough. I am not going to take on the definition here. What I am going to do is ask questions that shed light on the problem of vague, hopeful words.

The first example relates to education: Is it sufficient that a black girl has the same chance to get into a state college as a white boy, if she has a comparable SAT score? That seems fair, doesn’t it? Or should it be that black students are graduating from state supported institutions at the same rate as non-black students, as a percentage of the state’s population? Each standard asks a different set of questions, and places a different set of responsibilities on the process of racial reconciliation. If the quality of education and structures of support for K-12 students don’t give Blacks an equal chance of succeeding in a four-year college, have we really rooted out systemic racism? What does equal opportunity really mean?

How about economic standards? If we have an equitable society, will the average annual income of black Americans be roughly equivalent to non-black Americans? Or, is it necessary that the average net worth of Blacks be at the rough equivalent of Whites? While we are calculating those averages, will we exempt the top 2% of incomes (because they are primarily non-black, and they skew the averages), or does an equitable society insist that there are an equal percentage of Blacks entering the multi-millionaire/billionaire class? If there are just as many black lawyers as white lawyers, when measured as a percentage of society, is that an acceptable standard for equity? Or should their average income be of concern also? What if it is found that more black lawyers are in the social justice line of the legal profession, per capita, and more non-black lawyers are in corporate law, per capita, and the corporate ones are paid twice as much. Does that count in the averages?

Why we need to be in agreement

I don’t have answers for these questions, but the Board should. At some end point in time, and at many intervals, we have to take a look and see how we are progressing in our march toward full racial reconciliation. We all need to be using the same set of measurements—across the country and across all cross-sections of society. This may seem unnecessary now, but it isn’t. It is important for us to agree on where we are going and what it will look like when we get there. This in itself will increase the pace at which we move, remove obstacles along the way, and create a more cohesive movement. A unified voice allows for everyone to begin to work toward solutions, and alleviates a lot of distractions. And there are other reasons we need to be in agreement.

One big reason: white people! And under this one reason, there are two big factors. The first is that a lot of white people think black people are always getting free stuff from the government, and that the government is paid for by white people. Alright, let us be clear—not all white people think that way, and a lot of the ones who do aren’t even aware that they think that way. Those same white people don’t have much of a grasp of history, civics, or the law. They just think what they think. We are not expecting them to get on the train to a post-racial society, but if the rest of us create one, their grandchildren are more likely to see it as a norm. However, in the meantime, we have to be able to say what the truth of the matter is. And, when the friends and relatives of the ill-informed are interested in supporting the cause of equity, we have to ensure that they understand and can justify what they are supporting.

Now, here is the second thing about white people: they don’t know what black people want, and they don’t know what they are supposed to do about it. Okay, when they are not watching Netflix, they are watching network or cable news, so they do know that black people are being shot in situations that white people cannot justify. The emotional impact of that will have them wanting that to stop. So, for some period of time, we have their attention, especially as it relates to policing.

But systemic racism does not start and stop at the doorstep of the local police department. We have to engage about 15-20% of the non-black population in a way that helps them easily understand what black folk really want. If engaged, they will discover that black people don’t want anything unreasonable—they just want the same opportunities and freedoms as everyone else. If white people really engage, they will begin to understand how we got in this mess to begin with, and that there is a way out. A lot of white folk are resigned to the idea that there is no way out, so having a Board that provides a plan for a way out, and trusting that Board to not change course down the road, will provide some comfort. That’s why specificity is so important.

Visions of future progress

I realize that having a unified voice, which is what this Board would represent, is no small accomplishment. Some people might say that it will stymie creativity, or sideline important voices. No. What is happening now will continue to happen. Local initiatives will still happen, people all over the country will try things, and those that work will be repeated in other places around the country. The difference is that you will have a Board that will catalog these initiatives and be able to monitor and assess their progress against the larger targets that it has set. When they see something that is working well, or that leverages economic resources, or that has tapped into ideas and understandings that others have missed, the Board will promote those ideas. They will become the repository for what is working, and when a community in Mississippi has created a breakthrough method for ensuring that school children are properly fed, the people of North Dakota will have access to it.

Around the country right now, there are well-intentioned universities and municipalities addressing “reparations,” and doing things that they believe are compensating for old “wrongs.” I really don’t know that much about what they are doing or what the impact of it is, and I am not judging it as good or bad. I am recognizing it as an act of goodwill and an acknowledgement that something needs to be done. At some point down the road, there will be questions about whether they did enough, or whether the impact was what it could have been. I can imagine the Board being able to answer that question, and I can imagine, as the Board’s integrity and clarity becomes broadly respected, that organizations will come to it for guidance on how to participate in national racial reconciliation. Sometimes, it might just begin with paying their primarily black custodial and housekeeping staff a living wage.

At a not-too-distant point in time, business organizations are going to want to participate in supporting the movement toward a racially reconciled society, and they are going to ask the Board to certify them as cooperating. Maybe the Board can have multiple designations, such as “Partner,” for those commercial operations fully on board, doing what’s asked, and a “Participating” label for those who are undertaking initiatives, but are not yet fully compliant with expectations.

I’m just making stuff up here, folks, but I am imagining a process for resetting the racial relationships in this country, and coming to full reconciliation and equality. The point is, we need the Board to speak for this cause at the highest level, and if legislation is required and government funding is necessary, the Board can make that part of its agenda. I am also saying that we can’t wait for government to lead on this—government is too fractured, and the issue is too important to wait.

I can see a large tech company coming to the Board and saying, “We have been trying for years to raise the percentage of Blacks working at the heart of our company. We have gotten it from 2% to 4%, but that has taken a lot of effort. We just haven’t been able to attract enough qualified black applicants to take it to 13%. Can you help us?” “Yes,” the board would say, “we have a consortium of six major state universities across the South who are partnering with hundreds of majority black school districts to create a feeder program for science and technology degrees. The participating school districts are using an intense support system to ensure that the children of the district are achieving math and reading benchmarks that are meeting or exceeding national averages. In addition, they are creating opportunities for those with exceptional skills to feed into those six universities. We can’t solve your problem or ours overnight, but we can ensure a successful future for you and those kids. We just need a commitment of $100 million a year for the next 15 years to ensure the required support. You in?”

What you can now see

I’m sure you have a lot of questions, and that is fine. They will get sorted out over time. You can probably see how a lot of what is possible would come to be, if there was a national board addressing issues and questions that can’t be answered by individuals or local groups. You can also see that something really needs to be done at this point in time, and why the government isn’t equipped to handle it. Perhaps you can also see that the thousands of people already working on these issues would benefit from having a highly respected group at the hub, providing a clearinghouse and a source for what is happening, and what is going well. Maybe you can even see that once we fully articulate what it is we really want, most people, even white people, would see the loss of systemic racism and the rise of a truly equitable society as a good thing—not just for some, but for all of us.

Just give it some thought.