Why the George Floyd Protests Won’t Change the World – Unless They Change White People
This morning, in the midst of my customary scan of the daily news, I started to cry. My Twitter feed had served up a video of Gianna, the six year-old daughter of George Floyd, whose brutal killing at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked the protests that are convulsing the nation. She was smiling, riding on the shoulders of former NBA star (and a leader of the protests) Stephen Jackson. Her words were hopeful, yet heartbreaking: “Daddy changed the world.”
The thought of this beautiful little girl growing up without a father – still too young to fully absorb what she has lost – reduced the spiraling chaos of these times to personal terms that overwhelmed me. Why should she and the rest of George Floyd’s family have to make this sacrifice, to change a world that stubbornly resists changing? What role will the rest of us play in making sure that other children don’t have to make the same sacrifice next month or next year?
And more troublingly: How likely is it that fundamental change will actually happen, while so many of us benefit from the status quo?
How Much Are White People Willing to Do?
As the editor of a platform that’s focused on business in emerging markets, I wasn’t initially convinced that NextBillion should address the current unrest in the U.S. But the underlying reason for my reluctance to engage was the fact that I’m a white man who has undoubtedly benefited from the status quo of racial inequality. And while I want it to change, I’m not sure how much I’m willing to sacrifice to change it.
Yes, I’ll gladly voice my support for the protesters’ goals, and might even walk with them in the streets. But in the longer term, would I support measures that would eliminate the privileges I’ve benefited from, or that require me to make substantial financial contributions to correct historic injustices? Sure, I’m happy to pay moderately higher taxes to finance social programs benefiting minority communities. But would I volunteer to pay my share of the $14 trillion dollars in slavery reparations recently advocated by Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson? I’d love to see higher government spending for urban schools. But would I support busing initiatives that bring inner-city kids – and potentially the challenges of poverty – to my son’s school?
The fact that I can’t respond to those questions with an unqualified “yes” makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed – and I know I’m not the only one.
That’s why I often struggle to suppress my cynicism when I see calls – from the business sector to countries around the world – for solidarity with the protesters. It’s easy to issue a supportive statement, make a modest CSR commitment or tie the protests into an existing marketing campaign – but it’s a lot harder to pay (predominantly minority) factory workers a decent wage, bring people of color into corporate leadership positions, or take other actions that impact the bottom line or reduce the opportunities enjoyed by those in power. Similarly, it’s easy for international protesters to express outrage over racism in the U.S. – but will that momentum continue when the focus shifts to similar abuses in their own backyards?
Seeking Ways to Make an Impact
So where does this leave us? Honestly, I wish I knew. I find hope in the innovative business models and evolving concept of capitalism that are driving impact-focused enterprises and investors. But even within our sector, there’s a need for more progress. Social impact organizations are the ideal proving ground for more equitable approaches to doing business – whether that involves greater representation of minorities in leadership positions, or higher wages and better working conditions for employees at the ground floor. This approach may make these business models riskier, and it may lead to lower profits for entrepreneurs and their investors – but if our sector isn’t willing to make those sacrifices, how can we expect traditional businesses to do so? And if the mainstream business world doesn’t embrace a more equitable model, how likely is it that social conditions for minorities will improve?
There’s an uncomfortable reality that the privileged sectors of our society – both organizations and individuals – will need to accept: Not every problem can be solved by feel-good, “win win” approaches. At some point, those of us with power and money – whether we’re business leaders or just NIMBY parents – are going to have to make substantial sacrifices. We’ll need to be willing to share our resources and add our support to efforts to balance the scales for centuries of injustice. Massive, societal-level approaches to this problem, like slavery reparations, likely aren’t politically realistic. But multiple smaller scale measures can have a big impact, whether they involve supporting minority-led police accountability initiatives, or raising our voices to advocate for diverse hiring and pay equity in our own organizations. If we don’t step up, the unrest of the past week is likely to become commonplace in the months and years ahead, as the world struggles to recover from the pandemic while bracing for the likely disruptions of climate change (and who knows what else).
For our part, NextBillion will continue to offer a platform for individuals and enterprises that are working to build a better world. And we’ll make a special effort to highlight those voices that are raising uncomfortable questions and engaging in difficult conversations, as companies both large and small struggle to transition to a more equitable and sustainable way of doing business. If you are interested in engaging in these discussions, contact our editors to discuss a potential guest article. And in the meantime, stay safe.
James Militzer is the editor of NextBillion.
Photo credit: Victoria Pickering, via Flickr Creative Commons.