Cathartic, maybe. Hopefully! Sad and memorable, for sure.
The death of George Floyd was a dramatic reminder of the poisons of prejudice behind the shield of authority. His death became a bridge to immediacy. Protests formed quickly; some were explosive. And, as protests are magnetic they attracted the politics of anger, even hate. Just because a protest is positive does not mean that everything that is said and done under its banner is.
Nelson Mandela’s words come to my mind. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
But explosive events make demands, so let me reflect.
The circumstances of George Floyd’s death proved that body camera use should be mandated. Failure by a police officer to deploy under clearly spelled out rules should result in dismissal. Reforms in policing will and should take place—the mandatory use of body cameras must be one of them.
Character, it is said, is proven when no one is looking. Unfortunately there are some who wear the badge without character. I believe the number is few but we have thousands of laws to protect us from the few. We must all be equal under the law, no exceptions.
The reality of large gaps in economic equality has also been a protest theme. This is more difficult; I even hesitate to write about it, but here goes.
Theoretically capital and customers are neutral—color makes no difference. Capital availability pivots on either the reality or perception of profitability, not skin color. And customers look to quality of product or service and satisfaction of experience.
While a large measure of capital neutrality is undoubtedly true, access to capital is a different story. If Wall Street and its many local and regional versions want to help, they will work much harder on access.
America is the world’s best host and protector of innovation. An inventive idea shaped into a profitable product or service and paired with stock markets provides a path to converting entrepreneurship into riches. At the same time, the economics of innovation need to reflect a broader understanding of risk.
Understandingly, the earliest capital and employees are immensely rewarded because they took big risks. Starting up a successful company is not easy. But, as any entrepreneur will admit, a successful launch does not erase risk. I believe the sharing of the success bonus should reflect the breadth of the risk labor shoulders. We live in a disruptive era; job risk is endemic in the for-profit sector.
But for long-term success, as a society we need to go upstream to education. While few would argue that there is at least a relationship between education and success, many would correctly note unevenness in access to an educational experience that can make a difference.
I also believe extracurricular education is important. Sure the basics must be learned but as well, the soul needs to be stirred—motivation is essential.
While completion of college degree work can be overstated, statistics show that a degree adds significantly to lifetime income. Yet, often access to higher education gets lost in debates over the fairness of the admission process.
There are initiatives in the United States that The Economist magazine notes are achieving significant results, yet remain under the radar. It cites the ASAP program which is a part of the City University of New York (CUNY), a similar program in Ohio and a program called One Million Degrees in Chicago.
While each program in what some call the “completion movement” is somewhat different, the programs recognize that “no single element boosts their chances of finishing university as much as the whole cocktail.” The cocktail includes academics, regular counseling, financial help, data tracking that detects pupils in difficult situations and more. These programs achieve dramatic growth in earning a college degree among Black and Hispanic students.
One final thought. America has been an incubator for extraordinary individual wealth. Those whose capital and access to opportunity have produced unparalleled riches are well positioned to both lead and allocate significant amounts of their capital to narrow the gap of economic inequality.
American governments, all in, are spending much more than taxes are generating and those who support programs that are currently funded will block a serious reprioritization of spending. But what Americans do better than almost anybody in the world is go well beyond government expenditures.
The gatekeepers of capital and philanthropic outreach should combine to put muscle behind a new agenda to help even out equal access to opportunity.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.