This is about fear and mothers.
I feel the heart-sinking fear of one who's gotten caught. That queasy, uneasy sense that maybe, if I squirm this way or that, I might just escape the consequence, having to pay the price for what I've done, or not done. When you're caught, you just want the trouble that comes with being caught to go away, to be forgotten or ignored, or given a pass. Because most of the time—nine out of 10 times, maybe—you chose to do the right thing, the brave thing, the noble thing. You're afraid all those positives will drown and be forgotten because of this one dirty wrong. As well they might be.
I, too—just like the CEO of a public home building company I spoke with this week about home building, and home builders sharing a load of responsibility in systemic racism that grips and corrodes and sickens our society and our businesses from within—had a mother who told me more than once, "It's never too late to do the right thing." My mom was big on "owning up" to my errors, transgressions, and omissions, as a pathway to and builder of character. Being scared of the backlash for my actions or inactions to date is no reason not to own up to them.
I, too—just like this CEO, who recently participated in an all-white, 98% male Zoom conference of housing's creme de la creme of thought and practice and business leaders—feel that my fear gags me to silence, paralyzes me to inaction, and, ultimately, locates me squarely where I don't want to be in another piece of oft-uttered maternal wisdom:
"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
Or, as this CEO of a top-20 U.S. public home building company quoted writer James Baldwin, who said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I feel the vertiginous nausea of a journalist, one given a voice and an audience, and a responsibility to affirm, to challenge, and to offer ideas to that audience, who's been caught, and is unquestionably, unequivocally guilty of "being part of the problem." Complicit. If I am not antiracist in action, editorial direction, contribution of value to my firm, and leadership among staffers, then the only logical alternative is that I work collusively with a systemically racist status quo.
Not intentionally. But, certainly in choices I've made, and continue to make. My public home building company CEO source—he knows who he is, and the 50-plus participants in the all-white housing CEO Zoom call know the individual as well—has made a choice. It wasn't called for, nor was it easy—it was necessary. He'd decided to move across the line, from inadvertent, unwitting, color-blind racism to something and somebody else that only his mother's words about "it never being too late to do the right thing" could serve as a guiding star.
Like this CEO of a publicly traded home building company, with divisional and regional development and construction operations across the nation, reflected aloud on this recent all-white Zoom conference call with more than 50 CEOs of the nation's biggest corporate players in housing, "Who of us would be here right now on this call if we had been born Black?"
Would I have this channel, this platform, this voice, and this opportunity to amplify it in this business community right now had I been born African-American? Had I been born Black, would and could I so unmindfully use terms like "the American dream," "market-rate housing," "human-centric lighting," "community planning," "customer segmentation," "housing recovery," "affordability," "attainability," "access to decent housing," and countless other terms that equate in real ways to erasure, to exclusion, to vicious circles of injustice, retraumatization, and insult added to injury? Had I been born Black, would I be in the position to struggle—"Should I overcome my fear and speak, or remain silent?—with a moral dilemma about where my responsibility lies on this issue?
Would I have this very power? To say, "People, I will do better. People, I will listen. People, I will change. People, I have done you wrong with my silence, my complicity, my failure, in my way, to dismantle a system of reporting, and curation, and editing, and data, and analysis, and observation that counts you out. Or as less. Or as part of a universe housing's mission and purpose and capital and brilliance and accomplishment do not include."
Had I been born Black, would I have the option to apologize, or to seek forgiveness, or another chance here in this space?
This is not about cleansing, nor cathartic absolution, nor amends that begin to patch up hurts and relieve ills and exonerate. This is about raw fear and a mother's reverberating sternness when I'd look to shirk accountability for my actions.
"You should have known better."
My privilege goes deep. Male, white, educated, I was born "part of the problem," if I didn't or don't choose to be part of the solution, to act, to do, to behave, to choose, and to speak up, it means only agreement, collusion. Few challenges in life are so binary. This one strikes me as one.
Like this CEO of a public home building company I spoke with this week, whose mother's admonitions echo loud—"It's never too late to do the right thing"—I, too, recognize woeful deficiency, a huge amount to make up for in a life practiced around avoiding tougher choices to challenge systemic racism in journalism , in businesses I've covered, including housing, and worked for, and in a society where I've enjoyed extraordinary privilege all of my days. Unwitting harm or not is no excuse for harm I do, or contribute to, or try to cover up, or try to avoid consequence for.
I, too, like the public home building enterprise chief executive, who calls to mind the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who explained why Egyptians—not just the Pharaoh and his taskmaster acolytes—faced the "wrath of God," for harms and disregard for the lives of captive Israelites.
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
The all-white Zoom meeting of housing's most powerful enterprise leaders that took place mid-month—a fortnight or so from the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—featured a "lightening round" where each CEO speaks two minutes on the clock. Leaders of America's largest home building, manufacturing, distribution, and research enterprises address strategic-level issues and insights in a format that runs alphabetically by company name.
"I was about the 30th to speak," says this public company chief executive. "It was a full hour into the format, and one person after another spoke about how 'business is good' and how 'the advances we've made in virtual selling technology' are amazing, and how 'worker and customer safety and security come first' in our pandemic-challenged business environment. My head was about to explode! As I looked at that [Zoom gallery] screen, it's more than apparent we need to do more. I could not not speak up."
Remember, this is not about signaling virtue. This is not about absolution in exchange for admission that I'm part of a problem. This is just about fear and mothers.
"Many home building firms and people do noble work and have memorialized values and principles at their core that are generous, well-meaning, ennobling," said this executive. "Builders everywhere try to do good work. But if they're not paying attention to this issue, and doing the self-examination as to how systemic racism and racial injustice, and Black Lives Matter, and what it means and how it's impacting what we do as leaders in housing, then we are not living by our values."
He wrapped up his 2-minute segment, saying, "I don't know whether it's for this group to lean into this issue and commit to action, but I think it is."
Fears, shame, helplessness, ignorance of what to do next. They're all part of the complex array of reactions of the privileged at this moment, especially if we are "of an age" and in a place of regard and respect in career and life. We have the envious luxury of experiencing these pangs rather than the real-world, uncushioned, constant, shattering blows, negation, and dehumanization that come to people who get hurt because we tolerate systemic racial injustice.
"We have done a pathetic job in our work and leadership culture at diversity, inclusion, and investment in our own organization, so I'm no one to judge about anybody else's firm, but I know we need to start. With education, with training, with choices, and with action," said this CEO.
"With each passing day, the question faces us: 'What did you do?'" he said. "Even if we're not directly guilty, we have responsibility."
How can we at BUILDER help you, builders, land sellers and developers, community planners, manufacturers, capital providers, lumber and building materials suppliers, technology partners, take the action, to make the choices, to do what it takes to become part of the solution? In its language, in its data, in its accountability, and in the voices we bring together as experts, and worthy sources of perspective, and generators of value to the community, we owe you a better, more inclusive, more diverse platform and understanding of your opportunity, challenge, and risks.
This public home building company CEO I was speaking with draws hope from a source, a man whose words may have sounded like poetry, and whose voice could call to us through all of our fears and stubbornness, but whose message in life, death, and legacy rings of how, as our mothers tell us, it's never too late to take the first step. Martin Luther King said here, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
- You can be kind, generous, noble, loving, and be part of the problem.
- You can work with your hands, your mind, and your heart, and be part of the problem.
- You can do good, and help others, and give to causes, and be part of the problem.
- You can be a good person, deep down, and a good builder, and be part of the problem.
I know whereof I speak, as one who is. This, to me, speaks to how long the arc of the moral universe is.
Fearful, that I have been caught, I'm in that bend toward justice. I can no longer not use my own voice, my energies, my lifelong work to be my best self as a person and a worker, which seeks to challenge builders and partners to be their best selves in business, and building, and life. My commitment is to work and act as part of the solution to dismantle what I can of a complex platform, in language, curation, selection, listening, leadership, and analysis, that continues to inflict harm, exclude, erase, and diminish lives—Black lives—that matter.
We've written often, and will again, that builders are essential. Builders' work is essential work, by people who build, for people who live, and work, and play, and prosper in that built space. If builders are essential, and if building is essential work, then Black lives matter in that essential nature of what, and who, and why building is.