In the short run.
Looking starkly at the civil unrest and violence occurring in many cities in the US in the wake of the revelation of George Floyd’s murder by a former police officer Derek Chauvin, it is only natural to ask what can be done to end the disruption and return to some modicum of peace. And an obvious conclusion is to apprehend and control the people behaving disruptively and violently. Indeed, if we send in the National Guard and stop the disruptive behavior, we’ve solved the problem.
The limitation of the short run approach is that it fights tooth and nail against sustainable change. It curses complexity, scoffs at subtlety, and hates root cause analysis. I won’t be the first or last person to note that civil unrest is a symptom of deeper historical and structural inequalities. Dr. Martin Luther King noted eloquently in his speech, “The Other America,” in 1967:
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? In a sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these occurrences of riots and violence over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
In the long run.
Enlightened leaders, the likes of whom we aspire to train at Darden, cannot tolerate simplistic analyses that ignore or distort data. It wouldn’t happen in a rigorous case discussion, and it can’t keep happening in the world of practical affairs. How do you sharpen your analysis so you can act to solve deeply intractable conflict resulting from racial inequity? First consider examining resources such as:
The Racist Roots of American Policing: From Slave Patrols to Traffic Stops by Connie Hassett-Walker (historical, legal)
How to Be Anti-Racist – Ibrahim Kendi (historical, legal)
Policing in Black and White by Kirsten Weir (historical, psychological)
Killing Us Softly: How Videos of Police Brutality Traumatize African Americans and Undermine the Search for Justice by Kia Gregory (psychological, legal, social)
Fatal Intervention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century – Dorothy Roberts (scientific, social)
Seeing White Podcast – Scene On Radio (cultural)
Code Switch Podcast – NPR (cultural)
And after you digest some of this, I invite you to undertake a reflection one of my Darden students proposed in my class “Leadership, Diversity and Leveraging Difference.” It was the spring of 2015 and riots had erupted in Baltimore in reaction to the arrest and eventual death of a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, while in police custody. A white student in the class inquired earnestly about what was wrong with people who destroy their own homes and businesses. His black classmate responded by saying:
Imagine the people rioting were not thugs or criminals or poor people. Imagine they were human beings exactly like you. Try to imagine what conditions would have to be in place to make you destroy the buildings on your own block? Just brainstorm…
Their conversation was transformational as they explored that question together and unearthed information about marginality, racism, history, discrimination, bias, violence, and inhumanity.
These conversations are difficult but essential. And they can’t just be academic exercises that are great in the classroom, but set aside when they become “inconvenient.” Enlightened leaders, those who wish to be great and good in the parlance of President Ryan will make this thought exercise an ongoing habit in their leadership practice, and in their lives. Otherwise, fifty three years from now, someone will write some latter-day blog post to his or her community about civil unrest in response to a violent encounter where a person was unjustly killed. And they’ll all engage in a conversation about why people riot. Probably quoting Dr. King from a century past.
Pay attention to the long run.