Preconceived notions about race are preventing us from building truly inclusive communities. That's a point our friend and former Chairman of Citigroup, Dick Parsons, made when he recently caught up with CFO, Mark Mason, to reflect on a year in which systemic racism dominated the national conversation. During their chat, Dick recalled a comment that a white friend made in college that he's never forgotten…
Mark: What do you think is at the root of America's long struggle with race?
Dick: To this day, I remember a conversation I had with a fraternity brother of mine in college. He was from Hamtramck, which is just outside of Detroit and is a noted right-leaning neighborhood. We were talking about how we grew up. He had no Black friends, but we had become good friends. He said to me, "It's because you're different."
I'm sure a lot of other successful Black people have had that said to them; you're different. On reflection, I've thought "Different than what, or different than whom?" Was I different than his other Black friends? No, because he didn't have any other Black friends. In fact, I was different from an image he had in his head of what Black people were supposed to be like. And that pervades our entire society: people have an image of what you or I or what African Americans are supposed to be like. Then they actually meet some of us and say "You're alright, but that's because you're different."
Mark: Why do you think we create these images in our head of what we think a certain race is supposed to be like?
Dick: Segregation is an invidious thing. When we all live in separate communities and relate only to ourselves within those communities, you maintain stereotypes that you grew up with that are baked into our society. When we talk about structural racism, that's the genesis of it.
I wish we could find another word for racism because as soon as you say to somebody – "You're racist," – they are on the defensive. They say, "Not me, some of my best friends are Black." If we could find another word that captures that phenomenon, then we could attack it in a way in which we live and work together in larger numbers and where people learn to understand that the impressions they grew up with are incorrect because we are all different. We could make some enduring progress.
Mark: Why do you think we haven't made more progress already?
Dick: When you meet a person like my college friend and you're the one person in the class who's Black, it's easy for them to shrug off the fact that you're different by considering you a one-off from the stereotype. In other words, you are just one exception to the rule. But if there were a number of Blacks, then at some point, my college friend can't take the easy road. He has to challenge his own preconceived view. That's what begins to change people's minds: frequent and continuous contact with each other. In the meantime, the kind of things that we can do and that corporations can do is make sure that we are creating those interactions by bringing more minorities and underrepresented people into the fold.
Mark: How can firms do a better job at bringing in more diversity?
Dick: It's a very good question because it is a question that was asked back in the 70s. Let me tell you what happened and what the shortcoming was. People started affirmatively looking for Black and African-American talent and ultimately, into the late 70s and 80s, female talent. In those years, a lot of African Americans came into the system – the highly talented ones. And then, what started happening is, if you found someone Black who was really talented, you had to put a fence around them because as soon as everyone else discovered them, someone would try to pick them off.
We need to deepen the pool so that it's not a zero-sum game. Frankly, the only way to do that is through recruitment and training. I've seen some progress, but can we put the car into second gear? Or third gear, depending where you think we are now.
Mark: Where do you think we are now and where do we go from here?
Dick: The murder of George Floyd was shocking and tragic, but it made manifest to people something that's been in front of us for years that many didn't realize. Some of us in this country get treated differently than others, in a way that is less privileged and less respectful, based on the color of our skin. That's why some of my white friends, young and old, were out in the streets marching because they were saying, "This isn't me. This isn't who I am. This isn't who we should be. We should be better."
As a matter of fact, I can remember sitting with my grandmother on any number of occasions and she would look at me and say, "I want you to be a credit to your race." What white person do you know was told to be a credit to their race? It doesn't happen, because the assumption is that you don't need to be. Just don't be a discredit.
The tragedy has caused a number of white people to actually say to themselves, "This is not a credit to who we are and this is not acceptable." That's one of the reasons why I think progress can be made here. The door is open. We just have to figure out how to get through it and what to bring with us.