Americans celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January and Black History Month in February. It’s a chance to look back on the long, unique journey of American history and acknowledge the sacrifice across the decades of leaders who worked to make the United States a more just country for all.
Civil Rights Leaders
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were iconic leaders of the US civil rights movement. In The Sword and the Shield, author Peniel E. Joseph profiles both men, comparing and contrasting their influences, their growing political awareness, and their overarching ideas that inspired a successful push for social change and equal justice for Black Americans, including passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Sword and the ShieldBasic Books
Both men emphasized “radical Black citizenship,” the recognition that full participation in society is more than just the absence of discrimination. Their struggle for equal access to the ballot box continues today, with organizations like Color of Change taking up the leadership mantle.
A genuinely seismic event in American history, the Birmingham protests cleaved the nation in two, forcing citizens of all backgrounds to take honest measure of the intersection between race and democracy in national life.Peniel E. Joseph
Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement built upon the work of earlier movement leaders including Frederick Douglass, a former slave who led the fight for Black freedom in the 19th century, during the Civil War and subsequent struggle for voting rights, finally added to the Constitution for Black men in 1870.
Frederick DouglassSimon & Schuster
Historian David W. Blight brings Douglass’s compelling journey to political leadership to vivid life in Frederick Douglass. Douglass was also an early feminist advocate.
In nearly every waking hour, if with people, he provided the object for their curiosity and gaze: He had to be the Black man who was really a pleasing brown and partly white, the slave who was also so eloquent, the genius that bondage could not destroy, the embodiment of a story that kept on giving.David W. Blight
Noted scholar and author Ibram X. Kendi illustrates in Stamped from the Beginning the way racism marred the US democratic experiment from the country’s founding. Kendi shows racists in every era shaped the political reality that keeps segregation and discrimination in place, no matter the letter of the law.
Stamped from the BeginningBold Type
Kendi’s book, a National Book Award winner, is currently one of the most frequently banned books from public libraries and schools. A Scene on Radio podcast, Seeing White looks at racism through the history of constructing white supremacist ideology.
It is in the intelligent self-interest of white Americans to challenge racism, knowing they will not be free of sexism, class bias, homophobia, and ethnocentrism until Black people are free of racism.Ibram X. Kendi
In Black Software, media and culture scholar Charlton McIlwain recounts the history of the Civil Rights movement within a history of digital transformation in the United States that, once again, left Black communities out.
Black SoftwareOxford UP
In the 1970s, as the computing industry exploded, elite universities like MIT walled off access to computer sciences to students of color. At the same time, they worked with companies like IBM to develop law enforcement surveillance systems that contributed to abusive and discriminatory policing in Black communities that continues today.
The computer stood somewhere between Black people’s intractable strivings to gain access to opportunity, and white America’s stubborn and belligerent refusal to grant it.Charlton McIlwain
But by the 1990s, several Black tech entrepreneurs pioneered software to connect Black people to the internet and to each other. Software engineer Malcolm Cassell and lawyer E. David Ellington founded NetNoir, which provided Black content for AOL in the early days of the World Wide Web.
In The Color of Money, author Mehrsa Baradaran explores US government policies that fed into the economic discrimination of Black communities. For example, New Deal programs designed to uplift all Americans during the Great Depression largely didn’t affect Black citizens.
The Color of MoneyBelknap Press
Out of necessity, African-American communities pioneered “circular economies” writes Douglas Rushkoff. Shut out of labor unions and discriminated against by moneylenders, they used their collective wealth to invest in their own communities.
How Centuries of Black Strength Created a Blueprint for Economic RecoveryMedium
In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement borrowed the idea of mutual aid societies to set up a National Bail Fund Network for people arrested during political protests.
The wealth gap is where historic injustice breeds present suffering.Mehrsa Baradaran
In deeply segregated post-World War II America, Pepsi took notice of the burgeoning economic power of Black Americans, recounts Stephanie Caparell in The Real Pepsi Challenge, and began a marketing campaign targeting them, hiring a team of African-American executives, a first in corporate America. Other companies quickly followed suit.
The Real Pepsi ChallengeFree Press
Robert L. Johnson started Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1979 for $15,000 and made savvy deals to build his subscriber base over the next decades with powerful players including HBO. In 1991, he took BET public, the first Black-owned company on the New York Stock Exchange, then bought back stock to regain fiscal control in 1997. Viacom acquired BET in 2000, and Johnson became the first African-American billionaire. Entertainment entrepreneur Tyler Perry started out “poor as hell,” but, inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s success through maintaining ownership of her own work, he built a media empire defying every Hollywood convention while retaining ownership of all his own intellectual property.
From “Poor as Hell” to Billionaire: How Tyler Perry Changed Show Business ForeverForbes
Perry built a 330-acre film production studio in Atlanta from which he creates his films and TV series. He recently made a deal with ViacomCBS worth $150 million yearly plus an equity stake in BET+ streaming service to produce content. Forbes estimates he’s now a billionaire.
The very fact that I am here on this land, the very fact that hundreds of people – Black and brown people – come here to make a living, that is effecting change.Tyler Perry
Authors of a Cornerstone Capital Group report, “Investing to Advance Racial Equity,” chart the roots of systemic racism and its contribution to growing wealth inequality in the United States. They recommend, in addition to higher education, access to capital, especially for home ownership which contributes to wealth-building across generations.
Leading for the Future
In “Science in America,” celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks out in defense of the scientific method.
Science in AmericaRedglass Pictures
Tyson warns about the illogic and dangers of those standing in opposition to science, especially those in power. As the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology, the need for Americans to be more “scientifically literate” so they can make informed choices only increases.
As Jonathan Chait points out in Audacity, during his time in office, former US President Barack Obama greatly increased wind and solar power in the country. An outspoken respecter of science and staunch advocate for aggressively confronting the climate crisis, Obama ably makes the business case for continuing the transition to renewable energy in “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.”
The Irreversible Momentum of Clean EnergyScience
Obama publicly grappled with cutting-edge technological issues, including the ethical proliferation of artificial intelligence, and pushed for greater federal investments in science education. He wanted to be sure that the technological advancements of the era, as well as the windfalls, benefit all people, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Barack Obama, Neural Nets, Self-Driving Cars, and the Future of the WorldWired
This should not be a partisan issue. It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends.Barack Obama
Toward a More Equitable Digital Future
Unfortunately, even as the COVID-19 pandemic proves access to the internet is more vital than ever, the digital divide between Black and white grows, prompting researchers at the Aspen Institute to ponder in “Connecting the Last Billion” whether access to the internet should be considered a human right.
While income is the largest factor, low-income households are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. Research into the “digital divide” favors analysis of the urban-rural divide. For racialized communities, barriers to home internet are higher costs and credit checks. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made the situation even worse by deregulating the industry to allow internet service providers (ISPs) to monopolize the market, reducing competition. Such systemic racism must be addressed to eliminate the digital divide, writes Dana Floberg, the associate director of broadband policy at Free Press.
The Racial Digital Divide PersistsFree Press
Could more leaders of color in tech jobs solve the problem? Currently, nearly all employees of color are forced to deal with bias. Regular microaggressions, bullying, pay inequities, and the stigmas of tokenism and affirmative action often erode Black women’s resolve to pursue or continue tech careers in particular. The number of Black women in tech has declined by 13% since 2007. Technical specialist Susanne Tedrick’s youth-oriented self-help guide Women of Color in Tech will appeal to anyone considering a career in tech – especially those just launching their careers, and, of course, women of color.
Women of Color in TechWiley
As journalist Deborah Fallows shows in “How Libraries Are Leading the Way to Digital Equity,” public investment in digital literacy and access to technologies – not only computers but also, for instance, 3D printers – lifts all boats. Fallows emphasizes the human infrastructure that makes libraries such vibrant community hubs also needs investment:
How Libraries Are Leading the Way to Digital EquityThe Atlantic
Digital technologies are accelerating the pace of change. But, as Sara Kupfer points out in her article “Robots Need Bias Awareness Training, Too,” artificial intelligence is only as impartial as the humans coding it.
In a Nature article, “Beating Biometric Bias,” the authors similarly note built-in biases in facial recognition software. So long as that’s the case, organizations shouldn’t rely upon them to provide accurate information.
Beating Biometric BiasNature
For humans, as Douglas Starr reports in “The Bias Detective,” it is possible to change inherent biases by becoming more conscious of them. Persistent discrimination in policing compelled psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt to delve into the cognitive basis for deeply ingrained biases.
The Bias DetectiveScience
Eberhardt used her findings to train the Oakland Police Department in techniques that greatly reduce disparities between white and Black interactions with law enforcement.
There’s no easy antidote for unconscious bias. The legacy of past policies, such as segregated neighborhoods and mass incarceration, creates conditions that trickle down to individual brains.Douglas Starr
Being Better Allies
Inclusive and diverse businesses lead to bigger bottom lines. On top of that, it’s the ethical way to manage your workforce, recognizing that worker rights are human rights. But, as Pamela Newkirk writes in Diversity, Inc., many Diversity and Inclusion programs are more lip service than effective.
Diversity, Inc.Bold Type
Diversity expert Tiffany Jana offers insights to improve inclusivity in this Journal interview:
One of the first tech CEOs of color in Silicon Valley, Shellye Archambeau‘s superpower is grit and determination. She says business leaders must do more to support diversity within their organizations, beginning with treating it as essential when hiring rather than just a “nice to have.” In a Lean In podcast discussion about “Leadership Lessons” Archambeau says that, along with sheer determination, she cultivated a strong network of support.
Leadership Lessons with Shellye Archambeau and Sheryl SandbergLean In
Minda Harts also emphasizes networks in The Memo and gives managers solid strategies to increase inclusion at work. When you get to the top, remember to give others a hand up.
The MemoSeal Press
In a podcast discussion, former First Lady Michelle Obama delves into her relationship with her mentor Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Obama, and why it proved so valuable to her. She learned from Jarrett how to mentor others.
Working Women: Valerie Jarrett and the Importance of MentorshipSpotify
Those of us who are bosses have to give the team permission…where people know they can bring their full self to work.Valerie Jarrett
Being a good ally starts with empathetic listening, learning about historic racism and deciding to combat it when you see it says Amelie Lamont in her “Guide to Allyship.” You may not fully understand the oppression others experience, but you don’t need to in order to be part of creating a more equitable future.
The Guide to AllyshipGuide to Allyship
Keep in mind that racism on top of regular stress at work plus stress at home can easily lead to burnout. Author Mary-Frances Winters lays out the statistics linking racism to poor health outcomes for Black people.
Black FatigueBerrett-Koehler Publishers
As an ally, recognize that racism in all its forms may feel uncomfortable to talk about, let alone confront, but make a commitment to be an antiracist, be mindful, uplift others and use your voice to make a change for the better.
It is not enough to not be racist; it’s important to be opposed to racism and demonstrate such opposition in your words, deeds and actions.Mary-Frances Winters
Continue reading about Black leadership and building more inclusive organizations: