“They either knew (and did nothing) or should have known.”
Being a leader or a person of authority within an organization brings with it certain responsibilities. The first quote above is attributed to Uncle Ben in the Spider Man movies and comic books. In reality it has been around a lot longer than that. There are French references to such a concept back into the 18th century. In 1817, British Member of Parliament William Lamb is recorded as saying, "the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.” In 1906, then Under-Secretary Winston Churchill is attributed as saying, "Where there is great power there is great responsibility.” Wherever it came from and whoever said it first, it still speaks truth to us today.
I am grateful that people and organizations in roles of leadership, who have the power to make sustainable changes within their organizations and in broader society, are now talking publicly about past failures in leadership, about listening more fully to those impacted by racism, and of the need for their organizations to make changes to end the systemic racism that has plagued America for so long. I know there is no magic wand to make up for the past and all of the pain, sorrow, death, and tragedies that have been inflicted upon Blacks over the existence of this country. And the confirmation by people in leadership positions that racism exists, has existed, and is part of the very fabric of our country is helpful to hear. It is at least a starting point. As is the acknowledgment of past failures in leadership, mis-use (or lack of use) of authority, and the abuses of power we have all seen.
Many of these systems and organizations have included structural bias, racism, and prejudice as part of their culture, often repeated through consistent patterns over long periods of time. And it is hard to imagine that the leadership within these systems did not know what was going on. Could they have seen these activities and actually not thought of it as racism? MAYBE. And I suppose that is what the education we are all working on right now is trying to address.
In these situations of systemic violence and racism against blacks repeated over and over, where the leadership says they are sorry but they did not know, it strikes me now as more than just a bit hallow. As leadership they are responsible for the direction, actions, and culture of their organization and the people within that organization. The buck stops at the top, at least that is what we always used to say. And with the big paychecks and often unchecked power those leaders have sitting at the top, those positions SHOULD also carry GREAT RESPONSIBILITY AND ALSO GREAT ACCOUNTABILITY. And if you, as a long-time leader of the organization, did not know your people and organization were acting in these ways, then clearly you have failed. Not just for your organization and the people within that organization, but also for all of the people caught up and impacted by those actions, as well as the broader community within which you sit. It is that very behavior (acquiescence and avoidance) that allows for the perpetuation of systemic violence and racism to continue in the first place.
And by the way - YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN - IT WAS AND IS YOUR JOB TO KNOW. Racism and discrimination are not new topics. These are not new to anyone who has been paying attention over the past 40 years. These are not realities that anyone is even debating at this point in history. It is real and has been real for a long time and we all know that. MAYBE things were just going too well sitting at the top. MAYBE no one was saying anything, no one was complaining, no donor making a fuss or MAYBE profits and outcomes were fine so why look any closer to the behavior of some of your own people. MAYBE. And so it was easy to act like you didn’t understand, that you did not know, or maybe if you were seeing these things, MAYBE you didn’t think they were wrong and truly believed that they were not racist or discriminatory. MAYBE.
But with your great power (and big bucks) comes GREAT RESPONSITBILITY AND GREAT ACCOUNTABILITY and if you failed in that responsibility consistently over time, then I ask you, what does it mean now to be accountable for that failure? What are you going to do now other than say you are sorry, appoint a committee to review it, and promise to listen better? Yes, I thank you for being willing to listen now, when the media and entire world is watching, when statements about what was going on within YOUR organization are coming from everywhere, when people that were victimized by the culture of your organization are coming forward to speak their truth. But honestly it feels more than just a bit hallow and late. And help me here please. Help me understand that you really had no indications of any of this before? You never heard any stories or complaints from anyone? You never saw it or thought those things were racist? Really?
We are in the midst of a difficult process that will take time. I am deeply aggrieved and saddened by the tragedies that have taken place that apparently were required for us to awaken (again) and take steps toward change. I am grateful for the dialogue and action that appears to be happening across our country. I just hope that all of us will have the courage and strength to look hard at the roles we have played, the privileges we have enjoyed at the expense of others, and the ways we have closed our eyes, turned our backs, looked the other way, and let the system have its way, all to our benefit. That searching, that reflection, that honest examination of self, to me is the foundation upon which the steps toward healing, recovery, safety, repair, and on to sustainable change are grounded.
If you were and/or are one of these leaders who did not know, didn’t realize what was going on, you are in my thoughts and prayers, but please, please help us make real change. Help us understand how you will accept responsibility, be held accountable, make amends, and take steps toward change. With great power comes great responsibility. Together let us find ways to make change, create opportunities for understanding and healing, and move ourselves, our organizations, our communities, and our country forward.
"To whomever much is given, of them will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of them more will be asked.” Luke 12:48.