I had the honor of delivering the commencement address and receiving an honorary doctorate at Bennett College last weekend. Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the past president of both Spelman and Bennett, also received an honorary degree, which made it all the more special for me, as Dr. Cole was the woman who recruited me to the board. With my honorary degree, I’ve become a Bennett Belle, a status I will cherish for the rest of my life. What follows is my speech:
Good morning. Congratulations graduates, parents, special guests and relatives. Thank you, and job well done to President Fuse-Hall, faculty, staff and trustees of Bennett College.
I was a trustee of Bennett College for 10 years. I’ve left the board because there are term limits, but my chief operating officer, Carolynn Johnson, is on the board, helping to bring us all forward. She is on the stage with me, along with my wife Nancy, and Shane Nelson, my vice president of consulting. I’ve been with Nancy for 30 years, Carolynn and Shane for more than a decade each.
I’ve never done a commencement speech before, so I was happy to be invited — I know I was selected for more than just this reason, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I would speak for free.
After attending meetings here for 10 years, I have to tell you it’s a high stress situation to make a speech like this, because you don’t want to let people down. I know that I stand on ground purchased by emancipated enslaved people shortly after the Civil War, because they knew that white people would not educate their children.
I had a calmer speech prepared, but then Baltimore happened, and I like this speech better.
You’re leaving here, a safe place where everyone looks just like you and going out into the larger world where many white people of your generation feel they live in a post-racial society. The reality for Black people in this country is harsh, but I think there are ways you can find a path to give you the best possible opportunities.
But first, I want to give you a very stark view of our society, from the perspective of the white man who has immersed himself in the subject of diversity and made it my life’s work.
I have a biology degree, but I realized in my sophomore year that I hated biology, and so when a friend of a friend got into the Navy flight program, I applied as well. One of the reasons I applied was that I knew I wanted to run something someday, and back in my day CEOs were all veterans of World War II and Korea, and many of them were pilots. I had a good career in the navy, but its greatest gift was a critical turning point in my life, which came out of my volunteering for recruiting duty after my sea duty.
After my overseas sea tour I volunteered for recruiting duty, and when my new boss asked me if I wanted to volunteer to be the new minority officer recruiter, I accepted the responsibility. When I arrived at the office I introduced myself around and met the African American aviator named Tony Cato. Tony asked me what my new job is going to be and when I told them minority officer recruiter, he leaned back in his chair, shook his head and said, “I guess you were the best they could do.” But then he asked, “Would you like my help” This was very generous — he didn’t have to help me; he was only there temporarily.
We went on many car trips together, and because it was relevant to the events we were going to, he would tell me about ways that he’d been discriminated against. My reaction was to deny his reality and make excuses for the behavior that he suffered through. It’s important to know that I respected Tony as a man’s man — a great husband, father, aviator and officer. One day we were in the car and we were talking about what we like to do on long trips. He told me he had a box of Martin Luther King speeches on cassette tape in the trunk of his car, and especially if he was feeling a little down, he’d pop a tape in. I looked at him see if he was making a point, but he was just talking about what he likes to do in the car on long drives. His statements stunned me because, although I liked reading American history more than anything, I had no relationship was Dr. Martin Luther King, and my friend Tony had such a deep personal relationship with him that he had Dr. King’s speech on tape in the trunk of his car. That conversation changed my thinking forever; I began to realize that I was missing a lot of what I was seeing right in front of me.
Let’s go back to the modern day and current events, which I think provide some ideas on how you’re going to have to navigate life successfully.
I’m optimistic for you mainly because there has been a trend, starting with Ferguson, for social media to direct a new cycle of news that has pried open the discussion on race and racism in our society. When I grew up, and until very recently, we received news from almost all white male run newsrooms. It was a unilateral perspective, one without nuance, and it was racist. Today, the power of the press is in the hands of the people — social media and cell phone video are being spread, especially by young people who are already less than 50 percent white.
In Ferguson, a teenager, Mike Brown, was shot six times and left in the street uncovered for four hours as if he was road kill. The subsequent protests and riots provoked questions to arise in the minds of white America. How could this happen What’s wrong with “those people”
Very important questions — and over time the important perspective in this case emerged — and is based on facts and figures — were revealed in Missouri’s own law enforcement database. Black people were pulled over far more often than their percentage in the population would indicate be fair. The data showed, however, that white people were far more likely on a percentage basis to have contraband in their car. Was this erroneous targeting just racism It was worse than that. It was racist economic enslavement.
The white people running the run down little town of Ferguson needed more money. White people could pay their fine and move on, but the town leaders found Black people could be prayed upon because they didn’t have as much money. It doesn’t make sense on the surface, until you start considering the ability for a corrupt court to cascade fines based on inability to pay. As it turns out, Black people were just more profitable than white people. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist, but it wasn’t as simple as just racism. What grew out of that warped systemic abuse was a police state dedicated to pillaging their Black citizens. When young Mike Brown was shot and the protests began, it was noted that the incredible lack of representation of Black people on the municipal and school board governing bodies was due to only 10 percent of Black people voting in elections. But here’s where you have to know your facts to gain perspective: Black people nationwide vote at a higher percentage than white people. So something was wrong at Ferguson — but it wasn’t “those people”; it was purposeful disenfranchisement of the majority Black citizens (including eliminating the right to vote, because if you have outstanding fines or bench warrants you’re probably wise to not show up to vote.)
Douglass Blackmon wrote about this same cycle in his book “Slavery By Another Name” — but his book is about events that happened after Reconstruction failed in the 1870s.
Nothing much has changed.
But let’s get back to you. You’re going to leave here and strive to make a living — even if you go to graduate school, eventually you’re going to face the business world. Here is more perspective from a business standpoint as it relates to Black women:
At a conference for women in computing, Microsoft’s CEO told the audience that women should rely on the system and karma for career direction and raises. He was being interviewed by Maria Klavey, president of Harvey Mudd college and a Microsoft board member — she immediately disagreed and responded by telling him that she had been cheated by the president of Princeton University on salary, by telling her (yes, the president of Princeton at the time was a woman) to “pay me what is right.” She said she was cheated by $50,000 per year. What makes Microsoft’s CEO’s statement over-the-top ridiculous is that top management at Microsoft is only 20 percent women and the total workforce is only 30 percent women — so Microsoft’s CEO should’ve known that karma hasn’t worked so far for women.
More recently, Starbucks’ CEO announced a post-Ferguson effort to discuss race when their coffee servers wrote “race matters” on their coffee cup. I was incredulous when I first heard this, and my first reaction is to always do a web search for their executive team. In the case of Starbucks, it’s astoundingly white and male: 84 percent male, 79 percent white. Two Black people, two Asians. Apparently, no Latinos. (Who is growing your coffee, Starbucks) This initiative was announced in conjunction with USA Today — whose executive team is 100 percent white men. Now, anyone who’s bought coffee at Starbucks knows that white men comprise very few of their coffee servers. My reaction was that the discussion of race at Starbucks should begin in the boardroom, not with customers, and not initiated by servers who are not represented in senior management.
More recently, the news has been focused on Baltimore, and the murder of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. Baltimore is another city like Ferguson — it economically enslaves its Black citizens — the old school economic base of shipping and railroad distribution died 60 years ago. The harbor front, where white people and white businesses are, was revitalized with tax money and is beautiful. West Baltimore, on the other hand, is a dreary place with housing stock so dilapidated that you would be arrested if you raised livestock inside those houses.
During the next news coverage of Baltimore, I heard a quote, attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, several times: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
I looked up the quote and came upon the speech titled “The Other America” — it was a theme he touched upon several times in other speeches, but I think this speech was special. He gave it at Grosse Point High School in Michigan. Just three weeks later he was dead.
It’s depressing to think that speech could’ve been written last week instead of March 14, 1968. Dr. King spoke of two Americas, one for white people and the other for Black. He noted that Black America was living in a depression — it still is. We are sitting on a powder keg — but we’ve been sitting on a powder keg for 300 years. Benjamin Franklin wrote (and I paraphrase) that you cannot restore a person from enslavement without purposeful remediation. That’s the same thing Dr. King wrote in this speech. And that’s what we’re seeing in Baltimore right now. The difference between now and then is that I think social media and ubiquitous cell phone video is bringing clarity to our national situation.
Small-thinking white people — like the person who spoke to Dr. King on his plane ride (story told in his speech) — are frustrated that we’ve spent billions of dollars on post-civil rights era social welfare programs, but those programs have been a failure because we did not apply the same standards for success that we apply to white people. In other words, the outcome for white people is expected to be excellent. That’s not the case for Black or brown people. At our event two weeks ago, Rev. Jesse Jackson observed that if the playing field is level, the rules are equal and the referees are fair, minorities will do just fine.
But if you look at the thesaurus there are many negative synonyms for Black and a similar number of positive ones for white — and what follows is a recalcitrant, racist and ignorant view of Black people by many white people. Thankfully, social media and ubiquitous cell phone video is changing attitudes — a recent poll, reported on our website, showed that the opinions of white Americans and Black Americans are becoming more similar about the unfairness of law-enforcement and racism in our society.
When Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in South Carolina (who then tried to plant his Taser next to the body to justify the shooting but was caught by a barber walking to work who pulled out his cell phone and recorded the entire event) the police officer was fired immediately, and I had to comment to a friend that when a white police officer in South Carolina is fired for shooting a Black man dead, we’re making progress.
Let’s look at how else we are making progress — let’s consider the difference between Ferguson and Baltimore. In Ferguson we had a prolonged conflict mismanaged by a group of white men — a white police chief, a white mayor and white governor— followed by a miscarriage of justice brought about by a white male prosecutor who should’ve recused himself. The killer, Darren Wilson, went free.
In Baltimore, we had a Black woman mayor, a Black woman prosecutor and a Black woman attorney general whose quick and just actions restored peace in a very short period of time, while building hope amongst the citizens that justice will be served.
1. In his speech, Dr. King said, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.” I recommend you study carefully the failure of Ferguson and the relative success of Baltimore. Listen to Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s speech about investigating the Baltimore police. You should insist on an enforcement of the law and supervision of the enforcers. Know your facts; they support our side.
2. This one’s going to be controversial — Dr. King said “…I submit to you tonight that there is no more dangerous development in our nation than the constant building up of predominantly negro central cities ringed by white suburbs. This will do nothing but invite social disaster.” I recommend you avoid social disaster. Do what you can to lift people out of it, but don’t let it drag you under. If you can strip away the stress from your family everyone will be better off.
3. Do your research; there are plenty of good companies and good white people out there. In the words of our late trustee Dr. Maya Angelou, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”
4. When you leave here and consider your next destination, search for executive teams, look at graduate school demographics and look for voting rates.
5. Agitate and advocate. Another great quote from Dr. King’s speech is, “Freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth.”
6. Don’t allow this to be the terminus of your education. Keep reading; read a wide variety of sources and perspectives. Whatever profession you enter, become an expert in it.
7. Be somebody’s Tony Cato. I know the emphasis shouldn’t be on you — it’s not right — but it is the age-old truth that the oppressed must guide their oppressor out of his oppression.
You women are the dreams realized of generations of people who suffered, sacrificed and bartered their lives. You live in a nation that has the extremes of the loftiest goals and ideals for human beings and some of the worst implementation of those ideals, but you have overcome what would destroy the average person, have overcome what the weight of over 300 years of history would do to you, and earned your way financially and academically to be here, in this shelter from the storm, and you earned your degree. Square your shoulders, tilt your chins up, and walk proudly. You’re the strongest Americans we have, and we’re relying on you to deliver our nation from its evil.