One Step Forward, Six Steps Back: Is There Any Hope of Curing America’s Race Problem?

The little black boy wearing a white T-shirt and black face mask stood out from the adults in the photo accompanying a front-page story in The New York Times about the George Floyd protests spreading across America. The sign he held stopped me in mid-thought, like the National Guardsman who handcuffed CNN reporter Omar Jimenez the other day in the middle of his live broadcast on the protests in Minneapolis.

The sign said, “WE DIDN’T COME THIS FAR ONLY TO COME THIS FAR.”

As a 68-year-old white boomer, I was under the impression that America has indeed come a long, long way since my childhood in the 1950s. The America I grew up in was a land of virtual apartheid. African-American people kept to themselves in segregated communities and congregated together in school, kept in their isolation and second-class conditions by a stubborn and deep-seated social bias from which escape was, and unfortunately has continued to be, more difficult for blacks to achieve than other minorities who have experienced discrimination.

By the 1960s, black resentment exploded, igniting riots in the streets whose consequences in destruction, injury and death also contributed to the advance of the civil rights movement, affirmative action laws, and a sea change of improvements in the lives of black people in America that, tragically, in the harsh light of the coronavirus pandemic and police murder of George Floyd, seem all too superficial.

Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, 92, a resident of Minneapolis and a longtime civil rights proponent, just lamented that “I worked really hard on that issue for 40 years, and here we are. About where we started, I guess.”

Sadly, that seems about right to me. My wife and I sat down to dinner last night, watching our president on TV, ordering the aggressive disbursement of peaceful demonstrators outside the White House so that he could walk over to a church and wave around a Bible. We woke this morning to see the windows of banks and businesses below us in Manhattan boarded up for protection. Although most of the demonstrations here have been peaceful, the mayor has imposed a citywide curfew that begins at 8:00 p.m. – just an hour after the daily ritual of New Yorkers cheering the efforts of pandemic healthcare professionals and other essential workers – and ends at 5:00 the next morning.

All that depressed my wife and me. But if we had to take sides in yet another of the innumerable issues that divide Americans these days – the question of whether to draw hope or concede hopelessness amid the dual pandemics of the coronavirus and endemic discrimination against black people by police and the larger social system of which they’re apart – we draw hope.

Why? The diversity in the race, ethnicity, and age of the crowds protesting in the streets of New York and other cities is more pronounced than I can ever remember. This is NOT the People versus O.J. Simpson. Nor is it Rodney King.

Then, there are the moving, heartfelt, and healing words offered by Joe Biden on TV this morning. Up until now, suffice it to say he hasn’t always been inspiring. That was not the case today when he captured with passion the prospect of his winning in November and putting together a team capable of delivering on his plans to improve policing, healthcare, and pay as they relate to the anger of African Americans and frustrations of most citizens.

“The history of this nation teaches us that it’s in some of our darkest moments of despair that we’ve made some of our greatest progress,” Biden said. He pledged to make a “down payment on what is long overdue and should come now.”

And he proposed plans to:

  • Mobilize Congress, this month, to act on police reform measures, outlaw chokeholds, increase training and accountability, and change “use-of-force” standards.
  • Rectify racial inequities in the allocation of COCID-19 recovery funds.
  • Expand Obamacare.
  • Raise pay for essential workers.

“I will be setting forth more of my agenda on economic justice and opportunity in the weeks and months ahead,” Biden said.

Yes, as the criticisms go, he may be past his “sell by” date, prone to gaffes, and weighted down by the exigencies of his generation of politicians. He came of age and earned his stripes when slopping in the mud with opponents anathema to his principles of social justice was a matter not of expedience, but of getting things done.

Now the circumstances are different. And despite all the things about him that make those of us who want to be excited about his candidacy cringe, those circumstances may finally have aligned with his strengths, his identity and his destiny as our best hope to restore our country and its hard-won democracy. He’s not the Comeback Kid; he’s the Last Chance Kid, and I hope with everything in me his time has come.

Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.

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  1. I have already spoken many times about this topic.
    The death of the African American citizen did not occur because an attacked policeman shot him or inflicted a lethal blow with the truncheon, as happened also in Europe, but that policeman deliberately killed him in a creepy way while three policemen looked at him without to intervene. This is what triggered a series of protests, in which, and it is a politically important fact, many, perhaps even most, whites participated. So it should come as no surprise that the gruesome things that took place in Minneapolis have also sparked outrage in Europe. In these events that mark our present, there is always a particularly symbolic fact that gives the sign of the times. The American situation is far worse than that of migrants in Europe, despite the undoubted growth of xenophobia in the old continent, including Italy, but the problem of racism cannot be considered as a transatlantic peculiarity.
    Words and even projects are not enough to effectively fight discrimination and racism. Long-term strategies and activities are needed. Forms of activity such as services provided by public or private entities, legislative processes or the involvement of political bodies must be developed.
    To do this it would take a different political class from that of our day which is, as a whole, with very few exceptions, dramatically lacking.

  2. Martin here is my thoughts being a Retried Police officer of 22 years. #1. you are spot-on for training, as my husband and I both agreed that what we see these days as abuse of Color of Authority is lack of training. #2. It’s the leadership within the department. If my husband and I were a few years younger we have both said we would travel from city to city and teach Officer guidelines in various areas of training, confronting the public, but most importantly becoming part of the community, sidewalk policing. In the early 80’s I worked as the sole female in the barrios, blonde, white as could be, but was able to develop a report with the gangs because of community policing, interacting with them, and giving respect where it was needed. I never had a problem and when there was a problem with another officer, they always asked if I was on duty. Simply because I understood and talked with them, most importantly, I listened.

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