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ASBC National Conversation on Racism in America: Remarks by MaryAnne Howland

With her permission, we are sharing the opening remarks MaryAnne Howland gave at the launch of the American Sustainable Business Council’s (ASBC) National Conversation on Racism in America on June 10, 2020:

photo of MaryAnne Howland

Welcome business leaders! Thank you all for joining us this morning, afternoon or evening depending on where you are in the world.  Welcome to our first in a series of courageous conversations on Businesses Confronting Racism. This ongoing dialogue is brought to you by the Justice and Equity Working Group of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), formerly called the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group.

My name is MaryAnne Howland, founder and CEO of Ibis Communications and the Global Diversity Leadership Exchange and board member of ASBC, and author of Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood, a story about my own black son.

Black Lives Matter! 

Tamir Rice – 12-year-old son of Samiria Rice, Emmitt Till – 14-year-old son of Mamie Till, Ahmaud Arbery, aspiring engineer, son of Wanda Cooper-Jones, Breonna Taylor – EMT worker, daughter of Tamika Palmer, George Floyd – father of three, a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck for 8.46 minutes until he was dead. Let’s hold them and all the other lives lost due to racism, not just in America, but around the world, in our hearts for 8.46 seconds as they are all connecting us in this moment.

Across 50 states and in 18 countries, black lives matter is the largest civil rights movement in history.

It is a movement about human value. It is the most valuable asset we have and is critical to the growth of our businesses. 

Elevating human value elevates corporate value by creating a productive culture in the workplace, increasing healthy competition in the supply chain, building healthy communities, building a strong regenerative economy that works for all. 

Business is in peril right now as we are in the midst of three pandemics: COVID-19, an economic recession, and global social unrest. All of our communities are reeling with sickness, financial stress, and despair. But, know that when America gets the flu, black people die. 

Just consider this: 

Black Americans dying of Covid-19 at three times the rate of white people 

The wealth gap between whites and blacks is $171,000 to $17,150.

In April, the rate for the country as a whole has risen from less than 4% in February to 14.7%. 

The unemployment rate among black people rose to 16.7%.

The 1619 Project developed by the NY Times re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States.  

Here are some tidbits:

246 years of the chattel slavery of men, women and children stolen from Africa was followed by Congressional mismanagement of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (which left 61,144 depositors with losses of nearly $3 million in 1874). 

That was followed by the violent massacre decimating Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 (a population of 10,000 that thrived as the epicenter of African American business and culture, commonly referred to as “Black Wall Street”), and discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century including the Jim Crow Era’s “Black Codes” laws that enforced racial segregation, and the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act’s exemption of domestic agricultural and service occupations, and redlining.

The 1994 Crime bill – one of the cornerstone statutes that accelerated mass incarceration, created a new form of slavery eloquently and explicitly dissected in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. It is recommended reading.

The 1619 Project talks about “low road” capitalism. It is the assumption that you don’t pay for labor at all, that is what slavery set up as an expectation. The lower the wage you pay, the better for business. As Donna Daniels at RSF Social Finance says, “there is a long tale of slavery in the economic system that we have to investigate.”

In a conversation on race and equity we began at the ASBC Annual Summit last fall with Andy Shallal, owner of the popular DC area restaurant chain Busboys and Poets, Donna Daniels of RSF Social Finance, Dave Rapaport, Global Social Mission officer of Ben & Jerry’s, and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, founder of Global Policy Solutions, I believe it was Maya who reminded us that Jews got reparations from Germany. Japanese Americans got reparation for internment. Yet when it comes to African Americans and slavery, it appears to be a new form of exceptionalism. Why is that? It goes to the core of how African Americans in particular have been framed and shamed and marginalized and undermined, not even being considered part of the formal economy. Our labor, the fruits of our labor are being stolen, the wealth that comes from our labor continues to be appropriated. These protests are a demand on a past due notice on what is owed to black communities.

We are seeing more serious conversations as reparations as one strategy for repairing what we’ve allowed to happen over the past three years. Given the depth of the racial wealth gap, most packages are not even enough to actually address the nature of the disparities. So, it is not a silver bullet. But it is time to make repair for past wrongs.

Businesses, jobs, death rate, police brutality on top of systemic issues of environmental, economic, and social injustice. The looting began in 1619 and continues today. 

In light of all this, some of your co-workers are suffering from PTSD. 

On top of that the vestiges of a history of dehumanization are memorialized in bronze iconography to remind us of it every day. In Nashville’s City Hall is a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Do you know who he is? He is a founder of the KKK. Every time I enter that building to meet with legislators I have to walk past their hero. 

In contrast, Lisa Murkowski in the halls of Congress, told a reporter, “I cannot live in fear of a tweet.” 

Now, I know you care, or you wouldn’t be on this call. The question is do you care enough? 

Do you care enough to help stop police from killing us?

Do you care enough to end wage disparity? Do you care enough to end housing disparity? Do you care enough to end health disparity?

450 years. It’s going take some deep work. The size, diversity and durability of protests is laying the groundwork for significant change, but will we? 

Global protests are signs of a culture change that is demanding swift and sweeping new policy.

It’s time to turn anguish into action. It’s time for transformative structural change.

Many have been led to believe that you should separate politics from business. Andy Shallal, who also made a run for Mayor, says to pretend that the connection between politics from business is nonexistent is like pretending oxygen doesn’t exist. 

At ASBC, we believe an educated electorate is one that will make the best decision. Our focus is on policy to confront racism. It is racist policy that has helped get us to where we are and continues today:

The New Deal that created redlining, a racist housing practice that adverse impact on the neighborhoods, affecting homeownership rates, home values and credit scores 

– led to the creation of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) – now being threatened in the current Congress.

In 2018, the Senate voted to kill a five-year old Obama administration policy warning auto lender not to discriminate against minority borrowers. The bank deregulation bill that did pass, nicknamed the “Bank Lobbyists Act,” exempts nearly 85% of the nation’s banks and credit unions from reporting mortgage lending data, which crippled the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) from being able to effectively monitor housing and financial discrimination.

As my filmmaker friend, Molly Secours, said “Black Lives Matter slogans are not party favors, and it is not just about policing. If you’re not actively doing something every day to disrupt systemic racism, then hold off on the banners and the battle cry.”

It’s great to do a statement on racism. And many companies have pledged millions of dollars to invest in businesses and communities. That’s all well and good. But it’s more than just shoving money around. Now the real work begins. 

Diversity training is a start, but too often it is mostly sitting in a room with mostly white people where the word “race” rarely comes up.  At the end, the white people are off in one corner. The black and brown people are feeling robbed. The whole purpose for diversity training is usually about making white people feel more comfortable in the workplace. So “We don’t get sued. We don’t get in trouble.” Conversations are “PC’d out. It’s time to have a real conversation about race, the pain, the 450 years of racism, those things. We need to have the race conversation. No one is allowed to opt out.

I would suggest you talk to your black employees and listen, not to just their stories, but their solutions. And you are not allowed to dismiss them. In fact, I advise that you invest in them. We have had to not just listen but to execute on well-intended solutions from white business leaders and experts for forever and look where it has gotten black people with regard to our communities, our environment, our wealth, wages, management positions, and our businesses that continue to struggle. 

I’ll make this personal for a moment. Let me tell you my story as a black woman owned business. I started Ibis Communication, a branding and marketing solutions firm specializing in inclusive branding and marketing for mostly Fortune 500 companies in the mid-90’s and grew it to a $4 million business in 6 years, debt-free, wholly owned, against all odds. Then the 2007 recession nearly put us out of business. My father taught me the value of cash vs credit and we survived. But coming back was hard. About that same time, I was introduced to the Social Venture Network, the triple bottom line business community, people, planet profit, and our clients changed along with our values. I’ve been a leader in this work of sustainability at the intersection of JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) for over a decade now. Ibis Communications is the McKinsey of inclusive management strategy, with a network of chief officers on the front lines of global markets, and GDLE is the Aspen Institute of innovation and thought leadership, literally called the DAVOS of diversity. I’ve actually been told that. But our bottom line does not reflect that. I have served on dozens of non-profit boards but have only held one small business board seat. And I constantly hear we can’t find a black woman to serve on our corporate board. Why is that? It’s insulting.

As much as this conversation is about me and my business, it’s about you and yours. What are you doing to fight racism? Who’s on your board? Diversity on your board is important but have you considered giving diversity governance a board seat? Toyota is one of many companies who have done just that. What can you be doing right now?

Here are some things to think about, offered by a colleague of mine:

You can be philanthropic and feed hungry children around the world and still be racist.

I’ve never met a person prejudiced against just one group of people. Often times, racists are sexist, homophobic, and/or xenophobic too.

You can’t do real work on racism and be comfortable.

It’s time to pick a side. No more straddling the fence. You are either against racism or support it. Silence is picking a side.

Last, I want to give a shout out to Ben and Jerry’s for their in your face manifesto “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.”  They not only support black lives, but as duly noted in one of the many articles about their magnificent move, it is exceedingly rare for a mainstream brand — owned by a multinational conglomerate (Unilever), no less — to call out the president, by name.

They are the new Gold standard, raising the bar from social responsibility to social significance. 

We’re all in this together.  ASBC has begun the work on high road business practices: paid leave, minimum wage, health benefits, sustainable procurement, and other issues that are overwhelming and undermining black and brown communities. 

MaryAnne Howland
Globalist. Thought Leader. Strategist. Author. Speaker.

First and foremost, MaryAnne Howland is a proud mother and advocate for persons with disabilities. She is a communications specialist and serves a portfolio of clients in pursuit of corporate social significance. Through her global network, she uses movement platforms to fan the mission of justice equity, diversity, inclusion and sustainability. They include Ibis Communications, Global Diversity Leadership Exchange, and THIS!, a new fashion line for all body types. In pursuit of advancing understanding of cultures and our common values, she has also worked as a travel writer/researcher for Fielding’s, Open Roads, and Black Enterprise Magazine. A servant leader, she sits on the board of the American Sustainable Business Council based in Washington, DC. and leads their Race and Equity Working Group. She also serves on the board of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. With her new book, Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood, MaryAnne has founded blackmitzvah.org to fuel the movement to traditionalize rites of passage for boys and girls, and to support a community dialogue about parenting and mentorship. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, MaryAnne is a graduate of Boston University School of Communication, and a CTAM fellow of Harvard Business School.

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