A President turns three keys of power: to sign, appoint, and persuade. The White House is words of persuasion. The “N-word” is not one of them.
Why, because our words create our world. Especially, words of persuasion by our presidents.
There’s a lot of noise in the aftermath of the Charleston Emanuel AME Church Massacre, surrounding President Barack Obama’s appearance on the Marc Maron podcast, which broadcasts out of his garage.
The conversation also turned to racism’s continued impact on politics — and its many shapes and forms in America nowadays.
“Racism, we are not cured of it,” Obama says. “It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n***** in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
An issue this article addresses is why presidential polemic (or persuasive rhetoric) in government, academia, business, or philanthropy never calls for the use of the “N-word” to get our leadership’s points across to a public wanting in leadership, especially so with our “lack of real conversation on race.”
America’s fixes that the seminal judicial 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, and The Great Society’s remedies to racial inequality through a triumvirate of laws (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968) established are far from complete. Scholars and The White House are now calling for a “black male initiative” to focus not on polemical words of segregation, but individual achievement. Nonetheless, this initiative would support job attainment based on actual workplace data. I think this is one of the most important initiatives business leaders can do to make American business grow — and society — stronger.
The same legal measure of the Brown case used by the Late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his co-workers, who stood by the N.A.A.C.P. as plaintiffs on the legal challenge of racial segregation, has been applied for women’s suffrage, persons with disabilities, elderly adults, and various degrees of social discrimination.
Given these social impacts and achievements, above and foremost, I believe it takes a tremendous amount of courage to have a serious conversation on race in this country, especially so at this time in our history. I hope you agree with me that such conversations will be continually needed until they are needed no more, as America slowly grapples with this age of demography shift and heightened engagement, not only in business and workforce development, but also economically and politically across our social fabric.
The President’s Power of Persuasion on Race
Efforts to address the issue of diversity both domestically and globally, not only inside multi-national enterprises and institutions, but also across the social fabric, began long before the evolution of the role of presidential persuasion, but took shape in other forms, such as affirmative action, as a result of legal and compliance mandates. However, other forward-thinking organizations were also strategically formulating their own positions on diversity and enterprise value.
I know because I witnessed some of those companies’ diversity impacts (like Procter and Gamble, for instance, under John Pepper, former Procter and Gamble CEO, and the late LaVelle Bond, former Procter and Gamble Vice President for Diversity Worldwide) inside the Clinton Administration, when I served as a senior policy adviser in the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Therein, LaVelle Bond, the late Charles M. Vest, former MIT president, Judith Rodin, then-president of the University of Pennsylvania and now president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Shirley Malcolm, head of human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), John H. Gibbons and Neil F. Lane, former assistants to the president for science and technology policy and OSTP Directors, and so many fine others and I led OSTP’s contribution in 1998 to “Clinton’s Initiative on Race,” which resulted in the White House policy document, “Meeting America’s Needs for the Scientific and Technological Challenges of the Twenty-First Century – A White House Roundtable Dialogue for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race.”
Presidential power of persuasion is an art of using words in such a way as to produced a desired impression upon the public. The aim is strictly persuasion rather than intellectual approval or conviction.
Homer describes Achilles as a “speaker of words, as well as a “doer of deeds.”
My late Harvard professor, Richard E. Neustadt, counsels inside his classic, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents – The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, “these are the (five) factors that produce self-executing (presidential pronouncements) … lacking any one of them the chances are that mere command will not produce compliance.”
- The first factor “favoring compliance with a presidential (pronouncement) is assurance that the President has spoken.” As our president has uttered in a garage the “N-word”, the core issue of assurance is the president’s (somewhat undermined) power of persuasion, that is, “you can’t kick the public to you.”
- A second factor “making for compliance with a President’s request is clarity about his meaning.” Who knows what our president meant to say when he decided to use the “N-word” publicly speaking on a podcast from a citizen’s garage.
- A third factor “favoring compliance with a President’s directive is publicity.” Did our president really believe his passive utterance of the “N-word”, regardless of whatever context, would not go exponentially viral in the atomic speed of social media in the millennial age that got him remarkably elected and re-elected as the first black president?
- A fourth factor “favoring compliance with a President’s request is actual ability to carry it out.” What does our president want to do with his utterance of the “N-word”?
- A fifth factor “making for compliance with a President’s request is the sense that what he wants is his by right.” Our president has by right his power to persuade as he pleases, even using the “N-word”. But at what cost to the institution after the polemical (rhetorical) mold has been broken by our first black president.
Our president’s aim perhaps was to raise squarely and frankly the social issue of race to engender water-cooler discussion and further comment by you.
However, his persuasion was lost by the use of the “N-word”, piercing more than just skin deep across the social fabric of this country. Worst yet, it is irresponsible rhetoric in a public presidential role, who with this president as a Nobel laureate of peace, stands in the legacy of the late Nobel laureate of peace and civil rights national monumental treasure, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This legacy stands tall against the use of the “N-word”, especially inside the institution of the White House, whereby such polemic hits hardest to the African-American people, who first and foremost, have to carry the “ethnic notions” of the presidential “N-word” around our necks, like a rope over a tree, into every job interview, every lunch counter, every college application, every bank loan officer discussion, every business contract, every social or conventional media engagement, every shopping experience, and so forth.
It is up to us to resort to forgiveness in order to overcome the horrible odds against us, not only inside a Bible Study class in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, but also to make it past the “glass ceiling” pressed against our faces to advance our personal and professional lives in the five American institutions of the family, the university, the government, the corporation, and the church.
The use of the “N-word” is irresponsible polemic inside the sphere of presidential power. Its use at the level of presidential persuasion further justifies the groupthink that keeps blacks from effectively being allowed to lead American institutions, on the whole, either inside the white spaces or inside the black spaces across the government, academy, industry, and philanthropic marketplaces.
We’ve got politicians, academics, corporatist, media, and pop-culture grasping for the right words from our national moral center, while being politically correct in response to our presidential leadership on race and the dubious utterance of the “N-word” from the White House bully pulpit.
Tough job sometimes to bring “the heart” and “the head” together in this country regarding race. I know first-hand, as I still sit here qualified to lead a higher education institution in this country – yet, my face is still smashed against the “glass ceiling” capping my career all of a sudden. We still shall not have overcome haven’t we, when I wake up and hear our president uttering confusing persuasive powers of the “N-word” inside a blogger’s garage.
Most of all, when such presidential power of persuasion is exponentially accelerated across modern social media communication technology, then the White House use of the “N-word” is indirectly a “high-tech” lynching of not only all black men and women across the political, economic, and social fabric, but also all men and women across this country.
Presidential persuasive power to shape the public discourse is a moral center of gravity of the nation. In this politically outrage era, do we match the boundaries of free speech in terms of each outrage for outrage? No.
In this shared society and sharing economy, this sends the nation spiraling into a social totalitarian place, when no man or woman has gone before, tossing red flags into everything and everywhere of political correctness, running out of control far from empty in our hottest gas tanks of rhetoric across our political spheres.
Is this shutting everything and everybody down to using only the basic most offensive words, including presidents retorting to the “N-word” inside a citizen’s garage, just to be heard?
When they used to ask the late comedian Joan Rivers to apologize for her latest jab during her shows, she would say “No!”
That was it. Story was over.
This rhetoric of the White House that this is the “new normal” is, frankly speaking, perhaps supposedly a cover-up of painful slow growth, hidden under-employment, and massive war on our children and grandchildren by handing them the mortgaged debt of our irrational housekeeping management of the country.
Now look at us, we’ve rolled back the clock, having painful black church shootings in order to induce a race war. Go figure the craziness?
America has lost its moral center of leadership in order to achieve its political center of gravity in creating a spirit for the country to really grow again towards a new American Dream for the 21st century for our children, and perhaps hopefully to America’s Tercentennial for our grandchildren.
Your SOUL is not bound by COLOR.” – The Wisdom of Our Children and Grandchildren, via the “Bridge to Peace” march in Charleston, South Carolina
Photo Credit: Over ten thousand people crossed the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, Sunday evening, June 21, 2015, as part of the “Bridge to Peace” event honoring the nine people, who were killed during a Bible Study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday, June 17, 2015.
Presidential Persuasion in the Aftermath of the Charleston Church Massacre
This isn’t the first time our president has used the “N-word”; “the truth is he uses the word a dozen times in [his book] “Dreams of My Father,” according to the White House spokesman.
The president of the United States uses the “N-word” that is so outrageous to black people like myself. Yet, such presidential negative polemic is celebrated across the media and press.
Have we entered the “Twilight Zone”?
Somebody please show me where’s Rod Sterling, so we can know that this national “lack of conversation on race” nightmare is over.
What happened to all that we have achieved through the presidential powers to sign, appoint, and persuade in the name of civil rights, equitable rights, and voting rights across the social fabric?
Diversity and the Social Fabric.
May 17, 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in public schools.
Last year also marked the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, established as law on July 2, 1964, which was made possible, because the 1954 Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) et. al. decision struck down the legitimacy of laws that segregated people because of their race.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, the thirty-sixth U.S. President, during the course of his five-year presidency, sounded a death knell to racial inequality through a triumvirate of laws: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
From the social impact emanating from these pieces of historical federal legislation of the U.S. Congress and the LBJ White House, last year also marks the 50th anniversary of The Great Society, first proposed by President Johnson on May 22, 1964, and featuring his presidential pronouncement, “The Great Society,” originally crafted by his Harvard speechwriter, Richard (“Dick”) Goodwin. LBJ’s unprecedented and ambitious domestic vision changed the nation. Half a century later, it continues to define politics and power in America.
President Johnson introduced his vision of a “Great Society” in a May 22, 1964 speech: “The great society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”
The Great Society legislation included “War on Poverty” programs, according to the learning blog of The New York Times, many created under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which established jobs and youth volunteer programs, as well as Head Start, which provided pre-school education for poor children. Johnson’s social welfare legislation also consisted of the formation of Medicare and Medicaid, which offered health care services for citizens over 65 and low-income citizens, respectively.
Lack of Real Conversations on Race Across the Nation Raises Even Tougher Questions.
Has diversity divided us into divisiveness of the “N-word” (or where a flag is raised) to mask us away from the real problems we see when we face the nation?
According to Scientific American on September 16, 2014, “The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.”
What has the presidential “N-word” polemic on diversity and inclusion accomplished that truly permeates across the social fabric?
“African-American academic Cornel West said on CNN that President Barack Obama was the country’s first “n*****ized” president, because he was too scared to address white supremacy.
“Look, you can’t talk about wealth inequality, you can’t talk about decrepit education, you can’t talk about massive unemployment and under-employment, and you can’t talk about drones being dropped on people in other parts of the world without talking about white supremacy, and its ways in which it operates,” the professor said.
“It doesn’t have to be overt, the president is right about that,” West continued. “But too many black people are n*****ized. I would say the first black president has become the first n*****ized black president.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked dismayed CNN host Poppy Harlow.
“A n*****ized black person is a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy,” West responded. “… We know he’s president of all America, but white supremacy is as American as cherry pie! We’re talking about moral issues, spiritual issues!”
Watch Professor Cornel West’s complete interview, via CNN.
America is suffering inside its biggest bubble ready to explode. If we don’t focus our attention on the most immediate concerns of building roads and bridges to schools and hospitals that need rehabilitation and healing, then the country may become “technically bankrupted” for our children and grandchildren.
Future of African-American Men and Boys
African-American leaders in business, government, academia, and philanthropy have a unique contribution to make to the challenges faced by African-American men and boys, particularly in regard to the development of talent needed for the future sustainability of American society. In response to these challenges, Morgan State University and The Kellogg Foundation co-sponsored a dialogue on June 26-27, 2007 at the Lansdowne Resort Boardroom in Lansdowne, Virginia entitled, Future of African-American Men and Boys: Promoting the Saving, Transforming and Empowering of African-American Men and Boys for the Betterment of American Society.
The Lansdowne dialogue was co-chaired by Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, President, SUNY Old Westbury, and Dr. Earl Richardson, then-President, Morgan State University. Butts and Richardson also served as co-moderators of the conversation. This Lansdowne dialogue brought together 12 prominent African-American leaders to inform business, government, university, and philanthropic interests on suitable goals and strategies for improving and enhancing the lives of African-American men and boys in American society.
The fixes that both extraordinary events put into place for America are far from complete. Scholars and The White House are now calling for a “black male initiative” to focus not on segregation, but achievement and are basing it on workplace data. I have written what that initiative looks like a little further elsewhere on the Future of African-American Men and Boys, featured on LinkedIn Pulse Social Impact Channel. But, I think it is one of the most important things business leaders can do to make American business — and society — stronger.
It begins at the top.
We are still not quite truly diverse in our boardrooms, in our C-suites, in our colleges and university leadership, and in our institutions or other bastions of real power and influence.
BLACK ENTERPRISE reports that “corporate boards have become less diverse over the past several years. The report, “Power in the Boardroom,” is also featured as the cover story in the July-August 2014 issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE Magazine.
In its second annual report focused on African-American representation of corporate boards, “the media company identifies 176 African-American directors at S&P 250 largest companies, including American Express, Walmart, Xerox and Carnival Corporation, on the BLACK ENTERPRISE Registry of Corporate Directors.”
Read more inside: Black Enterprise Wealth for Life. The registry and report can be found here. Remarkably, the report “reveals 74 companies with no African-American representation among their boards of directors.”
According to a report from the Alliance of Board Diversity, in 2012, white men held 75% of board seats on the 500 largest publicly traded companies, versus 5.5% for African-American men and 1.9% for African-American women.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the civil rights group Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is among those challenging the lack of board diversity, taking aim at Silicon Valley high technology companies, like Google Facing Test on Diversity, and pressing top management on the subject.”
By denying African-Americans access to a seat at the table, they have made a detestable statement that they seek to maintain these preserves of white male privilege and dominance.”– Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., CEO and President of BLACK ENTERPRISE
What have these diversity and inclusion programs accomplished that truly permeates across the social fabric?
With all of the time, infrastructure and resources allocated to making us all more accepting of our differences, here we are nearly 15 years after the start of the millennium with racial tensions, LGBT issues, women’s rights, pay equity, economic disparities, political divisiveness, voting rights and civil rights dominating our daily lives. There seems to be a rising plethora of racially charged incidents of late coming from multiple segments of our society.
A Harvard Business Review blog argues that diversity training can promote prejudice.
“Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.”
The blog, citing a study of 829 companies over 31 years, showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same.
It gets worse. The researchers — Frank Dobbin of Harvard, Alexandra Kalev of Berkeley, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota — concluded that “In firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management diversity.”
The solution proposed by the Harvard Business Review for the divisiveness of diversity initiatives is rather than engaging people through the lens of race, gender, age, heritage, religion, disability, sexual orientation and parenting, we need to engage people as people.
“Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual, and it doesn’t work,” says the Harvard Business Review. “Instead, train them to do their work with a diverse set of individuals. Not categories of people. [Just as] People.”
“Teach them how to have difficult conversations with a range of individuals. Teach them how to manage the variety of employees who report to them. Teach them how to develop the skills of their various employees,” argues the Harvard Business Review.
“Move beyond similarity and diversity to individuality.”
At its core, “diversity”, as it is used in relation to the workplace, is a divisive and rather weird concept, reports The Guardian (U.K.). “In claiming certain groups into its fold, it suggests that some people are “diverse” and some are “not diverse”. It suggests, in other words, a nucleus of normal and goes about classifying everyone off-centre into check-box categories that can be totted [or totaled] up and turned into tables for the annual report.”
“What’s more, definitions of diversity tend to be skin-deep, about differences you can see […],” The Guardian (U.K.) concludes.
It appears that whenever a high-profile and potentially racially divisive incident occurs, the battle lines are drawn. Even if the incident or issue (albeit health, human services, housing, education, energy, sports, entertainment or environment) itself has nothing to do with race, it quickly turns into a racial issue, when racial stereotypes surrounding those involved come into play.
According to The Washington Post on November 5, 2008, in a historic commemorative article entitled, “Obama Makes History – U.S. Decisively Elects First Black President, Democrats Expand Control of Congress” – a piece now framed and bronzed in millions of black family homes, “standing before a crowd of more than 125,000 people, who had waited for hours at Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama acknowledged the accomplishment and the dreams of his supporters,” as they ushered in the Obama era – the new Age of Obama.
“The historic Election Day brought millions of new and sometimes tearful voters, who had waited in long lines at polling places nationwide, and celebrations on street corners and in front of the White House. It ushered in a new era of Democratic dominance […] and returning them to a position of power that predates the 1994 Republican Revolution […], according to the historical November 5, 2008 election special commemorative edition of The Washington Post.
For a brief moment, we thought the election of our first black president was a signal that we had turned the corner and become a more racially neutral country. On the contrary, President Obama’s election appears to have added fuel to the fire. Nearly half of Americans in key voting areas think race relations have gotten worse under the nation’s first black president, a new poll shows, reports Politico and The Daily Mail (U.K.).
The survey, taken by Politico the last week of August and the first week of September, found that 46 percent of residents in states and House districts with competitive federal elections this fall believe that racial tension has increased under President Barack Obama’s leadership.
Just six percent of voters polled said they thought relations had improved under Obama. The survey’s findings follow the high-profile death of the black teen, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot and killed by a white police officer, reports The Daily Mail (U.K.).
America was neither ready for its first black president, nor was its first black president ready for America. We are not racially neutral and it was the election of President Obama that fueled this tipping point. Blacks praised this victory and dared anyone to take issue with this president, at his height of minimum political risk in 2008-09, because all criticism was viewed as an attack on race, and not an attack on policy in the national interest.
President Obama’s election presented an unprecedented opportunity for the “disenfranchised white male” to come out too. This disenfranchised group was already bearing the brunt of the corporate diversity initiatives that had now raised the sensitivity that rooms full of “white males” were a sure sign that an organization lacked diversity in its strategic thinking and management.
It was more rare for white males to even be considered for chief diversity officer roles, although now we are beginning to see this cohort represented. For those who did not really buy into all of this “talk about diversity,” we now have the Rush Limbaugh’s, Sean Hannity’s, Mark Levin’s, Michael Savage’s, Breitbart’s out there, who could now voice either satisfactions or frustrations we have been feeling for years, as we are forced to accept these so-called “diversity initiatives.”
While racial undertones have always been a part of our society, we are seeing much more blatant acts now being exposed. Instead of talking more about ways to celebrate our differences and to appreciate our diversity, we are seeing more and more negativity being expressed.
Did putting diversity in the spotlight help fuel this negative exposure?
We are now a more socially connected society through our hand-held mobile devices, making it much easier to spread opinions and views.
The relative anonymity in which we can communicate within social media provides a way to make raw, blatant comments that we would most likely be reluctant to make face-to-face. We seem to be speaking to each other more exclusively nowadays inside the news and opinions we spread among each other instantaneously on our digital hand-held devices.
As ESPN’s Ivan Maisel reported on Saturday, September 20, 2014, Florida State quarterback, Jameis Winston “picked the wrong week to shout something demeaning to women.”
“If this is the nation’s Rosa Parks moment regarding violence toward women, Winston picked the wrong week to mimic the worst form of frat boy behavior at the top of his lungs, while atop a table at the student union,” Maisel writes.
Florida State deserves credit for suspending Winston for the entire game against ACC Atlantic rival Clemson one day after the incident.
We all tend to speak over each other and not with each other so fast nowadays in which conventional wisdom spreads with such exponential virility, like a brush fire, that no containment or quarantine of information, knowledge or understanding is possible.
We have seen countless instances that demonstrate that we are much less tolerant of others, much more outspoken in our politically incorrect views, and with very little to show for all of the dollars spent on conferences and programs aimed at making us more diverse and more racial and gender tolerant.
So, here we are today – more distrusting of others, and more closeted in our views. For diversity initiatives to work, they must allow us to discuss our true feelings and biases, and not be chastised for what we believe.
We must evolve as a society where we can relegate those who harbor views of what can be described as racist, to the commonly viewed and reasonable point of distaste or disdain. Yet, along the way on the course to this new destination of societal norms and conventions, what have we done to understand why we feel this way?
Take the explosive case of Paula Dean. She honestly answered a question that was asked of her. Yet, she was slaughtered in the press alongside her food empire being attacked. Blacks surprisingly came to her defense. For them, what she said and did was troubling of course. In her own, southern charming way, this woman, who grew up in the height of racial segregation, simply told the truth. Some could say she was too naïve to know better. However, her naivety is what endears her to us. She admitted what she said and felt. Since then, she has taken steps to face her inbred prejudices.
Contrast the case of Paula Dean’s comments, to what takes place in corporate offices, where discussions about the racial makeup of the leadership teams surely take place.
Some would say, “We have become a very diverse nation and diversity, due to its very nature, breeds disagreement. People have always had trouble getting along with each other, but in our day we find ourselves in a divided country.”
In part, “we are a nation divided because of two things which are mutually exclusive – liberty and government. While some people seek a government that passes binding laws that infringe on personal freedom, others seek a more libertarian form of government. While one group sees the government as the solution to our problems, another sees it as the cause of our problems,” some would add.
Yes, America, we have a long way to go before we truly accept each other and our differences. We need to learn how to fully appreciate the rainbow of colors, ideas, lifestyles and philosophies in each other. We must learn not to judge others, because they hold views and opinions quite dissimilar to ours. It is only then will we be a society that truly appreciates our differences, and values those perspectives that we all have.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
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