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Opinion

How White Managers Can Respond to Anti-Black Violence

Yale SOM’s Michael Kraus, a social psychologist whose research focuses on inequality, offers a series of concrete steps that leaders can take to combat racism in their own organizations—and contribute to the societal fight against injustice. Remaining silent, he says, communicates support for the status quo.

A demonstrator speaking to police officers during a protest on May 31, 2020, in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
A demonstrator speaking to police officers during a protest on May 31, 2020, in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

I never had a chance to meet Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor but I know that they mattered to their families and communities. Their murders, occurring in such close proximity, have shaken people across the U.S., sparking protests that demand justice, challenge white supremacy, and call for an end to police brutality. You may be watching, learning, and even participating in these moments of collective action. Here I want to take an opportunity to articulate what White people who lead organizations or teams can do in this moment to support the fight against racism within their own walls.

“Your first instinct might be to say nothing to the public or your workforce about the racism of this moment. But silence is not neutral. It supports a status quo of historic and contemporary white supremacy.”

A first instinct that you might have now is to say nothing to the public or your workforce about the racism of this moment. Research finds that you might be wary of saying the wrong thing or of offending your colleagues. Before you decide to take the route of silence, though, know that this silent position is not a neutral position. It communicates far more then you may realize. In this case, silence supports a status quo of historic and contemporary white supremacy—this moment, as brutal as it is, represents another chapter in the history of this nation rather than a new development. Silence also communicates your norms and values to your workforce about what is appropriate behavior at the office—and here it suggests your workplace is not a place for honest discussions of racism.

To find your voice, you will need to reframe your organization’s role in racism. Research finds that most Americans, and particularly White people, believe that the world is just and fair and that racial injustice is something that is gradually undone with the passage of time. You likely view your own organization within this framework of racial progress and meritocracy. But available evidence shows that this framework is a myth. In surveys that ask Americans to estimate economic progress, people tend to perceive far more progress toward racial equality across time than federal data on wealth, income, employer provided health insurance, and wage rates would suggest. Given this evidence, and considered in the context of this moment, the presumption that your organization currently contributes to racial justice in its policies and practices is not likely to hold up to scrutiny.

Now is a moment for change and not just empty words: a statement of commitment to racial justice sent to the public or your workforce will backfire if it is not backed with credible evidence of action. As some organizations, like Amazon, have demonstrated in the last week, proclaiming a commitment to racial justice will be perceived as patronizing when those messages are combined with a history of labor practices that fail to promote or protect Black employees or ones from minoritized communities, or that contribute to the tools and tactics that facilitate police violence.

There are many good resources that leaders of organizations can use to launch and refine policies that combat racism, and here I will highlight four. First, research finds that this moment is one of collective and historical anguish felt by members of our Black communities. Leaders must find ways to help their employees from these communities navigate their work commitments during this time. Managers should be checking on their Black colleagues to ensure that they are heard and supported. Employers should anticipate an immediate need for additional mental health care and paid time off for their Black employees, and leaders must work with members of the broader workforce to enforce these policies.

Second, leaders can take this moment to affirm their commitment to zero tolerance of racist colleagues. When Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man who had only asked her to follow dog-leashing rules in the park, her employer, Franklin Templeton, made the right choice to fire her. Organizations should take this moment as an opportunity to affirm their zero-tolerance policy toward racism and outline the procedures they have in place to report, review, and act on evidence of racism among their employees.

Third, now is also a time to review organizational policy on police interactions. As police forces across the U.S. become increasingly militarized, public safety has not improved. Research finds that police kill a shocking number of people; one third of citizens killed by strangers are killed by police. As the police responses to protest last week showed—and research confirms—law enforcement is the cause of significant violence produced in society, much of which is visited disproportionately on Black Americans. Many organizations have procedures for summoning law enforcement to their facilities; the restrictions on what qualifies as an event in need of police intervention must be tightened to limit risks for Black colleagues and customers.

“White people who lead organizations can participate in the fight against racism inside their own walls, and such actions can have a meaningful impact on the daily lives of their Black colleagues.”

Fourth, leaders must consider whether their Black colleagues feel like they belong within their organization. I do not advocate gathering evidence by accosting your Black employees at this moment. Instead, consider how your organization can be more welcoming to members of the Black community. One way might be by hiring experts who can educate your broader workforce on anti-Black racism, allowing you to create a community that is better prepared to support the needs of Black and minoritized members of your workforce. A second might be to amend hiring and promotion procedures to align with research-backed practices, including targeted recruitment and mentoring programs, that reduce bias and allow Black employees real advancement and leadership opportunities.

White people who lead organizations can participate in the fight against racism inside their own walls, and such actions can have a meaningful impact on the daily lives of their Black colleagues, creating a professional setting where they can do their work at this unjust moment and in the future. Acts that affirm racial justice can help put all of us on a path toward a new world where anti-Black racism does not take another friend, sibling, leader, parent, or child from us too early.

Department: Opinion