By Chaveso Cook

Both individuals and organizations around the nation – and the world – are stepping into conversations and actions regarding race, social justice, systematic oppression, and equity. Whereas this is undoubtedly a good thing, the inevitably uncomfortable conversations ensuing came from even more disconcerting events. The recent violence that has gripped the nation is not new and it is not a series of isolated events. Many have come to realize that instead of solely being not racist, we must do as author Ibram X. Kendi suggests and become actively anti-racist. Beyond that, we surely must condemn and actively fight against racism, injustice, inequality, intolerance, prejudice, entitlement, and abuse of power as well. But beyond consuming articles and documentaries or reading books like “White Fragility” or “The New Jim Crow,” how does one do so?

In moments like this we must offer a counter question – “Are you a leader?” Leaders have a responsibility to improve the lives of those around them and make their organizations better. Connecting with, including, and developing people who may not look like you will push diversity into places of opportunity and higher levels of leadership, fostering the momentum for much needed, equitable, systematic change.

As a leader, one may desire to remain apolitical. Despite the “politicization” of recent events, the motivating incidents are completely apolitical. There are some that don’t understand the difference between politics and a politicized issue, and they’ll remain quiet. Part of the problem of institutionalized inequality and racism is the silence of too many – much of it being people in the majority. Complacency stokes the coals of prejudice. Arguably, people who become bystanders in times like these are complicit with the continued blatant injustice, as “awareness alone, without action or practice, is functionally meaningless.”

To be an upstander, push away from the media storm, do a clear-eyed self-assessment, and check in with others. Leaders interested in social justice must get up, get out, and start bridging the differences between folks be it on the front lines, the front lawn of our homes, or in the front office. I define the current challenges our nation is facing as a two-part leadership crisis – one of individual leadership and one of organizational leadership.

Let’s break it down into its component parts:

  • A failure to lead self leads to unconscious and implicit bias controlling and derailing our actions. It leads to microaggressions, slights, judgment, prejudices, abuses of power, etc., and to a greater extent, turns into explicit bias that rots one’s morals and undermines our ability to function as a people and a body politic.
  • A failure in organizational, community, and societal leadership extends the problem systemically. Beyond the bad apple, this is about the orchard. Ignoring, forgetting, and dismantling opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion leaves us vulnerable to not just national security threats but simple unused and unleveraged capacity and capability through our most fundamental natural resource: our American people.

The practice of leadership has many definitions, but most would agree that it involves influencing others. This is especially critical to understand as an anti-racist leader. We must navigate spaces and not only convince others that systematic racism and oppression exists, but leaders also must use our platforms to help others see how their own biases, blind spots, and actions (or inaction) may contribute to racism and supremacy culture without them even knowing. Making people understand that racism is a system and not an event takes influence. Undoubtedly, social justice leaders need to stretch conversation past normal boundaries. But what is meant by stretching conversations?

Conversation stretching seeks to expand other’s ideas, attitudes, and narratives through influence. A subtle nuance is at play here between doing something to another, rather than them doing something themselves. Our best leaders can do the latter. In Chris Widener’s work “The Art of Influence” he differentiates what is seen as persuasive (the former) from influential (the latter). His research indicates that persuasion is something you do to other people. In contrast, he says influence is more about how you shape, mold, and present information in a manner which changes another person’s thoughts, belief, or actions.

There are three outcomes of influence: resistance, compliance, and commitment. Each lie at the nexus of your effort and their buy-in.

  • Commitment is enthusiastic agreement, demonstrated initiative and assistance.
  • Compliance is begrudged acceptance that requires rules and prodding.
  • Resistance is argumentative pushback.

We surely want commitment, but we’ll take compliance. Seemingly, most think that they don’t want resistance. Of note, social justice leaders should understand resistance and, in some ways, see it for what it truly is – a positionality or point of view that at least shows you were the other person is. A good leader should rather have that than to be met with apathy, without question.

As a social justice leader, you will inevitably run into roadblocks along the way. At times these attempts at pushback may feel more like traps, or in maybe more familiar words with those in the military, improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Here’s some potential IEDs you want to avoid and a few thoughts about how to do so:

  • “I don’t see color.” Another version of this may be the phrasing “I grew up in a family/town/etc. who taught us to just see each other as people and not see race” or simply “I’m not racist.” Whereas race is scientifically a social construct that has no genetic basis, unless a person is legally colorblind, they are lying if they espouse the idea that they don’t see skin color, hair differences, or any of the other markers that signify our identities. And not seeing a person for who they are not only undermines the identity of the offended, it also further denotes the offender as prejudicial and discriminatory. We must see color; people of color don’t have the option to not display it. And to be quite clear, it is not enough to be not racist… one must be actively ANTI-racist, -prejudice, -abuse of power, -intolerance, -inequality, -entitlement, etc. Leaders see people for who they are, where they are, where they come from, and how they can contribute to the team.
  • “I understand the protest, but the looting and rioting is what really gets to me.” This may also show its head in the form of “I don’t understand the criminality… why are they destroying their own neighborhoods and businesses?” Law, order, and the basic civil rights outlined in the Constitution and its amendments are based upon a social contract between the population and the government. Our social contract has always been both an experiment and interpretable, hence the need for a Supreme Court and other legislative bodies. This is a place where one must discuss the inherent historical duality of our original social contract and how it hasn’t fully served Blacks, indigenous folks, or other people of color. As such, when a representative of our government, such as a policeman, commits an extrajudicial killing that is undeniably a part of a longer, larger, systemic problem, the social contract (and thusly, law and order) is broken. The original criminality (e.g., the modern day lynching of George Floyd) may not justify the rioting and looting, but it surely precedes it in the sense that if the extrajudicial killing didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be protests so there could be no potential for riots and maleficence. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his famed Letter From a Birmingham Jail, lays it out quite clearly: “If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.” Dr. King was referring to our nation’s own birth in instances such as the prelude, actions, and aftermath of the Boston Massacre.
  • “Don’t #AllLivesMatter? Why must we focus on #BlackLivesMatter?” Variations of this discussion uplift ideas such as #BlueLivesMatter as well. The failure is one of equivalence. In one vein, in all lives truly mattered, one could argue that much of the systematic inequality, racial violence, or overcriminalization and overincarceration of black men in particular wouldn’t exist. In another vein, pushing #BlackLivesMatter to the fore doesn’t somehow automatically push all other lives to the background. At no time in American history have Black people been able to control outcomes for White people (or others for that matter), whereas the opposite has always been true. A particularly insidious portion of this discussion poses the idea that BLM movements don’t protest Black on Black violence in places like Detroit of Chicago. This deflects from the fact that leaders need to hold our criminal justice practitioners accountable for their negative patterns of behavior as well as address other civic institutions that are contributing factors to Black on Black crime by maintaining intricate systems of power. Examples include manipulating housing values and housing associations that confine people to racially segregated neighborhoods; legally denying minorities opportunities to change the areas in which they live through redlining, taxes, voter suppression, and public housing mandates; and deeply embedding processes, like mandatory sentencing or biased algorithmic policing, that Black people can never exercise control over.

Now that we have discussed a few IEDs you will inevitably encounter, let’s look at actions we can take individually and organizationally to become anti-racist leaders. As we turn our attention in this direction, lets ponder the words of Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs: “professionals warn and plan, amateurs scoff and ignore them, and by the time a crisis arrives, it’s too late to do more than just react and suffer.” Three actionable steps we can take are:

  • Do a clear-eyed self-assessment. Leadership guru Warren Bennis once said, “you can never know too much about yourself.” Leadership begins with who you are, not what you do. We must lead ourselves first, and to do so, one must know their strengths, weaknesses, biases, prejudices, experiences, values, etc. Carving out time for introspection and reflection is hard today with the constant swarm of email, 24-hour news cycles, and notifications buzzing from the devices in our pockets. Authors Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin have illuminated the research behind the need for solitude to find the moral courage leaders need, especially when it comes to decisions that are beyond solely our professional arenas. Being a social justice leader in anti-racist spaces requires such moral courage. A final key here comes with recognizing our subconscious tendency to gravitate towards those like us, helping others see this tendency too, and diversify our friend groups, work groups, social media groups, etc. to ensure we are properly socializing ourselves as well as preparing ourselves AND the next generation.
  • Develop the next generation of leaders. Former President Barack Obama has called on a new generation of activists to take of the mantle of changing oppressive systems. If you lived during the Civil Rights era, you had to erase images of firehoses and police dogs being used on protestors, Black people being spat on and pushed away from restaurant counters, separate but (un)equal facilities, and even Black children being mobbed and mocked as they attempted to integrate schools. Even if you are as open-minded as they come, that mental shift came at a cost. And if you are Black, you may have physically experienced these events – multiple studies in epigenetics tells us that our genes learn from stress and life trauma can be passed on to the next generation. So, we must take an active social just approach to break this cycle. Children born at the turn of the century or later finally have an environment of inclusive language, marriage laws, advocacy, justice, activism, and not just “ Seuss kindness.” We can embolden them to be the leaders who understand the intersubjectivity of race and difference. Lisa Fain and Lois Zachary of the Center for Mentoring Excellence remind of us this intersubjectivity by stating that “we often see someone and think they’re different, but people are not inherently different: our differences lie between us, not within us.” So, look to mentor, develop, and lead folks that don’t look like you. check in with others. Connecting with, including, and mentoring people who may not look like you will push diversity into places of opportunity and higher levels of leadership, fostering the momentum for much needed, equitable, systematic change.
  • Become an upstander. The importance of intervention cannot be overstated. If we can adhere to the Department of Homeland Security’s national campaign of “if you see something, say something” concerning an errant bag in a metro station or an airport, we can certainly point out microaggressions, offenses, and blatant injustices against fellow human beings. No longer can we close our eyes to race or shrink in shame or silence when bad actors taint our interactions with everything from questionable jokes to racial gaslighting to outright hate. Studies show that people of color need White allies to stand up to everyday struggles with oppression but also larger, more systemic processes. Remember that you don’t have to be on the front lines of protests (and if you’re in the military, you can’t legally be at protests in uniform). We can enact change from the front office through diverse and inclusive hiring practices, strong organizational values, and professional personal example when unfairness arises in the workplace. We can also be an upstander from our front lawns, investing not only in our communities and neighborhoods but in neighborhoods across town or on the other side of the tracks, by bringing people of difference to our dinner tables and playdates, and we can become members of local institutions and donate funds to organizations that strive for social justice, legal reform, workplace equity, and new narratives.

Maya Angelou has a simple reminder for us all as we navigate these spaces; “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This ain’t easy, but we know better, so let’s do better. As we strive to lead ourselves and our organizations to be better social justice sojourners, we are all going to catch flak at some point. So did the pilots flying over Germany fighting against the bigotry and hatred of the WWII era – literal flak – but they were on the right side of history. Let’s be there too.

Chaveso Cook is an active duty officer and a PhD candidate at Tufts University, where he studies the development of character. He can be reached at Chevy@militarymentors.org.


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5 Comments

    1. Mart, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, but do you have a counter-argument or anything to justify that claim?
      As offered, you’re not making much of an argument.

  1. I think that this post is excellent. One of the most interesting parts, in my opinion, was right at the beginning. I thought that framing the “bad apples” analogy in terms of considering the entire orchard very effective at framing a systematic approach to these issues. Truly a timely, well-done post.

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