On Nov. 9, 2016, the morning after our last presidential election, my column began by recalling words from an immigrant, my friend Lesley Goldwasser, who came to America from Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Surveying our political scene a few years earlier, Lesley had remarked to me: “You Americans kick around your country like it’s a football. But it’s not a football. It’s a Fabergé egg. You can break it.” I then added: “With Donald Trump now elected president, I have more fear than I’ve ever had in my 63 years that we could do just that — break our country, that we could become so irreparably divided that our national government will not function.”
Well, I am now 66, and my fears have all come true — and worse. I am not at all certain we will be able to conduct a free and fair election in November or have a peaceful transition of presidential power in January. We are edging toward a cultural civil war, only this time we are not lucky: Abraham Lincoln is not the president.
Lincoln, in our darkest, most divisive hour, was able to dig deep into his soul and find the words “with malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in” and establish “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Instead, we have Donald Trump, a man whose first instinct, when the country is being ripped apart, was to have peaceful protesters tear-gassed and shoved aside so that he could walk to a nearby church just for a photo op outside holding a Bible. He did not open that Bible to read a healing passage. He did not enter the church to host a healing dialogue. He posed for a photo op to drive up his support among white evangelicals. Trump was holding the Bible upside down.
What to do? Where can we find the leadership needed to calm this situation, deal with its underlying causes and at least get us through the 2020 election?
Three years ago, I might have hoped that Senate Republicans would step in and restrain Trump. But now we all know better. The Senate Republican caucus today is nothing but a political brothel. Mitch McConnell is the madame. And McConnell and his caucus rent themselves out by the night to whomever will energize the Republican base to keep them in power and secure the economic benefits for their wealthiest donors.
Those energizers have been Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, coal companies, industrial polluters and now Trump’s most rabid supporters. It doesn’t matter who. The red light is always on above the door of the Senate G.O.P. caucus room.
How about the social media barons? Will they save us from the toxic waste they now circulate? Certainly not Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who is clearly the Rupert Murdoch of his generation. He’s always justifying his cowardly choices with vacuous bromides about “free speech,” but he’s obviously just in it for the money — no matter how much his platform is used to destroy our democracy.
It is interesting to note that scientists tell us that people with the coronavirus who are loud and obnoxious in a closed room are the biggest super-spreaders of that pathogen. And internet experts tell us that people who are loud and obnoxious online are the biggest super-spreaders of political pathogens. That’s because Facebook’s whole business model is to encourage and reward enragement because it drives more engagement. Sorry, help is not on the way from Zuck.
So where to look? It is not hopeless. I hope America’s principled business leaders, and there are many, can find a way to come together to lead a healing discussion, maybe through the Business Roundtable, in the absence of a president willing and able to do so.
AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson eloquently called for exactly this on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday morning. (AT&T is a donor to Planet Word, a museum to promote reading and literacy that my wife is building in Washington, D.C.)
“All of us C.E.O.s have large African-American employee bodies,” he said. “We owe it to them to make sure we’re speaking to this and that we’re asking our policymakers to step up … and just say it: ‘We got a problem. We have a big problem. And it needs to be dealt with.’”
Stephenson added: “This is about doing justice and making sure that we’re putting in place procedures … to address what seem to be constant and recurring injustices … as it relates to interaction of law enforcement” with the black community.
How can business make an immediate difference? Obviously by empowering politicians who want to address police reforms, but, just as important, by amplifying local social entrepreneurs working in disadvantaged neighborhoods to help their residents realize their full potential.
I am from Minneapolis. I was born in the Northside, a few miles from the street where George Floyd was killed. No one there is doing more today to make sure that disadvantaged families in that neighborhood have the tools to succeed than my friend Sondra Samuels, the C.E.O. and president of the Northside Achievement Zone. NAZ is working with parents, students and local partners to drive a culture shift in predominantly black North Minneapolis to end multigenerational poverty through education and building family stability.
Sondra told me the right response to the killing of Floyd has to be “both/and” not “either/or.” We need both an immediate end to the looting, burning and infiltration of white supremacist groups that is destroying the homes and businesses of good people in cities all over the country and we need deeper civil rights, voting rights, education, environmental and policing reforms for this generation.
NAZ and its 30 nonprofit partners and schools will tell you that it is a struggle, often two steps forward and one step back, but they have been making a quantifiable difference in getting kids the tools to succeed and get to college, and at the same time providing parents the support they need to stabilize their homes, increase their parenting skills and ensure upward mobility.
NAZ has also significantly increased access to quality early-learning opportunities for the 1,000 families it works with and helped provide measurable improvements in reading proficiency and other learning metrics critical for life success.
If you are depressed and want to do something that will have a lasting impact for the common good — not just denounce looters and scream at Trump on your television screen — check out the NAZ website and hit the donate button!
Finally, I think remarkable leadership is coming from some local politicians — so many great mayors of all colors and political stripes. Every time I hear Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speak — whether about dealing with the coronavirus, injustice or the rioting in her town — I want to ask Joe Biden: “Are you interviewing her for vice president?”
And I was really impressed how, to help quell the violence in Atlanta, she enlisted the local rapper Killer Mike at her press conference, who told the city:
“It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs. I’d like to appreciate our mayor for talking to us like a black mama and telling us to take our ass home, and I’d like to thank my friends for convincing me to come here.”
Help is not on the way from this White House or this G.O.P., but the country is full of problem-solvers. We need to ignore Trump as much as possible; he’s made himself part of the problem. But we can connect, elevate, amplify and empower the business leaders, social entrepreneurs and local leaders who are rising and ready to be the solution.
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