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OPINION: Pushing For More Progress In America Doesn’t Mean We Have To Pay With Black Blood

A leader in diversity, equity and inclusion work questions why George Floyd’s death became the spark to light a fire that should have been burning all along.

As 2020 comes to a close, we have a lot to celebrate in terms of inclusion. We not only have a Vice President-elect in Sen. Kamala Harris who looks like us, we will also have an all-woman communications team at the White House which also includes three Black women. We have the first Black executive in Rashida Jones to run a major cable news network. And the Biden-Harris administration just nominated Gen. Lloyd Austin III as the first Black defense secretary and the second Black woman in Marcia Fudge to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development

This year has been historical, but we’ve been here before. This is not the first time that we’ve seen an influx of Black appointed leaders. I see some warning signs; big, yellow lights flashing like crazy. Let’s make sure that we do our due diligence so that the change we see is lasting and not just a fleeting trend or fad. 

It comes as no shock when I say that checking a box and hiring high-ranking Black professionals is the “it” thing right now. I am sure that C-suite leaders are collectively holding virtual meetings all over the globe in an attempt to elevate long waiting, qualified professionals of color before they are next to publicly get called out for a lack of diversity in their ranks. 

We’ve been working on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives in corporate America for the last 30+ years, and throughout this journey professionals in this movement like myself have seen spikes of improvements. But things tend to level out, and we always end up where we started. Before we know it, America will get Black Lives Matter fatigue (or are we already there?) This isn’t the first time that America “has had enough with racism.” True, we marched, posted on social media, and promoted people of color, but what does all of that mean for our future? 

Now, please, hear me out. We are seeing progress, and we have some new allies in the fight for justice. I just don’t want us to lose sight of the power and duty that is still bestowed upon us. It’s called systemic racism for a reason. We need to keep the pedal to the metal and never let up if we want to see a long-lasting course correction. 

As a Minneapolis resident, it pains me to say that the death of George Floyd has done more for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts than any program or initiative I could have ever created. It’s beyond unfortunate that much of the current progress we’ve seen has been paid for with the blood of Black people. 

I’ve consulted with CEOs and C-Suite representatives for nearly three decades, but only recently have I seen actionable steps to disrupt how companies recruit and retain top talent of color. This is why we can’t let up. There’s simply too much on the line to sacrifice; too much blood and struggle, too many tears to go back to how things have always been. 

So what needs to change? What do we do now? 

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First, we need corporate America to be transparent in their efforts to increase their narrow networks. We need actionable steps and deliverables with disclosed due dates. Corporations must disclose DEI goals and specify when they will be completed. There has to be accountability at all angles. Leaders must lead out loud and build true relationships with people of color. 

Secondly, we cannot lose momentum. Our reality is that there’s an expectation for us to shut up and be happy, to take what’s been recently given to us and remain quiet for a while. We cannot do that. We must continue to make noise and vocalize our concerns and expectations. 

Three, as Black people we have a duty to hold those in power accountable, including professionals of color who have been elevated to key positions. Leaders must know that we’re still watching them and looking to see how they’re executing their power. Black America, we must keep our foot on the gas and not the brake. We must empower our leaders, but also keep them true to the task at hand—to really make change. 

As a community, we must remain informed, pay attention, and give constructive feedback while empowering and lifting up Black professionals and other professionals of color who have been appointed to positions of power. We have to be activists in our own success and not just during elections. We have to find ways to communicate directly with CEOs, C-suite executives, and decision-makers so they know they know they have no choice but to follow through. 

Everyone needs to know that getting us into these roles is not enough. Now that we are there, there is just as much work and activism to do. We must acknowledge and appreciate these newly appointed Black professionals while continuing to call for change.

Unless companies commit to sustainable, long-term programs that are transparent and unless we hold them accountable, nothing is really going to change. We can’t let them be the ones to decide if and when they do the right thing when it comes to our social justice and civil rights. 

 

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya is CEO of Rae Mackenzie Group — an award-winning diversity, equity and inclusion marketing firm and author of "Colorfull: Competitive Strategies to Attract and Retain Top Talent of Color." She recently founded People Of Color Careers™ Social Hiring Network to help professionals of color land their dream careers with employers who are serious about increasing racial inclusivity at all levels of the corporate structure. Learn more at BoldySharon.com

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