The Hinge of History: Political, Racial and Economic
Philosophers, historians, and politicians have been asking a profound question of late. Are we living at a hinge of history, a moment of tremendous change that will influence the future of democracy in the United States as well as the fate of our species?
Myriad technological advances, a massive pandemic, climate change, and racialized politics in the U.S. and elsewhere are all evidence of this hinge. Speaking to the United Nations Human Rights Council last week, Secretary-General António Guterres described the intersection of these forces. Reuters reported his warning that “white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are becoming a ‘transnational threat’ and have exploited the coronavirus pandemic to boost their support.” He also raised alarms about the growing use and abuse of data on digital platforms.
In the aftermath of the Senate impeachment trial last month, Oberlin College professor Renee Romano questions whether America can become a truly multiracial democracy. She told an Axios.com reporter: “I think a lot of this is about race, and entitlement … and now, we’re at a stage where you basically have to use violence to overthrow the results of a democratic election to protect white minority power.”
“In any society where you have such a divide over how you see reality, that’s an unstable country,” Ms. Romano continued. “I’m not hopeful for the future of the country.”
And yet, the benefits of a multiracial democracy — and economy — are evident and enormous. “New census population projections confirm the importance of racial minorities as the primary demographic engine of the nation’s future growth,” Brookings reports. In particular, U.S. census data predicts that by 2027, tomorrow really, people of color ages 18 to 29 will be in the majority for their age group. And they will be a talented majority.
Proprietary research that my co-author, Bonita Stewart, and I conducted for our book, “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive,” shows that young Black female and Latina workers are well educated, ambitious, mission-driven, and extraordinarily innovative. As a result, we argue, inclusive leaders who tap into the capabilities and potential of workers of color will reap the economic benefits of activating diversity as a competitive advantage.
Preparing for a demographic shift
By all indications, however, the workplace is not ready for a more multicultural workforce. Recently released data from LinkedIn’s survey of 2,000 Black professionals in the U.S. confirms our findings about Black women (described in an earlier column) regarding the increased scrutiny in hiring and on the job that Black professionals experience. LinkedIn reported these findings:
- “Nearly half (46%) of Black professionals ages 18–34 have faced blatant discrimination and/or microaggressions at work.”
- “44% feel they’ve been overlooked or intentionally passed by for career advancement opportunities because of their race.”
- “81% of Black professionals say seeing other Black professionals in positions of leadership would make their current workplace feel more inclusive and equitable.”
- 25% believe they “may face retaliation for speaking up about racial justice issues or topics around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.”
And still, we persevere, buoyed by evidence of Black women “winning” almost every day. It’s been five years since the last permanent CEO of a Fortune 500 company was a Black woman, but two have been appointed this year. In January, Rosalind Brewer was named the next CEO of the $140 billion Walgreens Boots Alliance (№19 on the Fortune 500), starting in March. And last week, Thasunda Brown Duckett was selected to be the next CEO of TIAA, the 103-year-old investment and retirement company (№81 on the Fortune 500). Currently the CEO of Chase consumer banking, Ms. Duckett will replace Roger Ferguson Jr. as TIAA’s CEO in May, making this the first time that a Fortune 500 company has replaced one Black CEO with another.
Advice from the next Black female Fortune 500 CEO
In a wide-ranging conversation with the president of her alma mater, Spelman College, Ms. Brewer described her career journey and offered tips for thriving as an African American female executive. She conceded that microaggressions are real, that she has felt a chill when she walked into certain rooms, that even she has been asked to serve the coffee. And yet, reacting with anger shuts down the room, she said. Ms. Brewer urges Black women to turn a negative into a positive.
Using the critical thinking skills she developed as a chemistry major, she learned to be overprepared when entering a meeting. She also tried to bring her anger down and the facts up. “People will listen if you speak with conviction,” she said. “Take emotions out and put the facts forward.”
Ms. Brewer said her best advice came from a former boss: “Manage your integrity, and know that everything you do will be watched.” That fit perfectly with wisdom her mother had passed along years before: “Always be a lady. Carry yourself with poise, even when no one’s watching.”
Ms. Brewer also said effective leaders must be agile and curious about what they don’t know. Those who follow that advice, who want to reap the benefits of a multiracial workforce, who want to land on the most profitable side of the economic hinge of history, have resources to help them.
For male leaders, in particular, Harvard Business Review just published a recipe for improving male allyship. The advice from two white, male college professors, one from the U.S. Naval Academy and the other from the U.S. Naval War College, is simple. Just pay attention. Sensitize yourself to seeing and hearing sexist and racist language and actions. Ask women about their experiences. And then take action to stop microaggressions.
Given the history of the first two months of 2021 alone, no one can credibly claim ignorance of the risks in the current moment. But each of us can ask ourselves, “Which side of the political, racial, and economic hinge of history am I on? Where do I want the United States, indeed the world, to end up?”
This column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.