As millions in the US and around the world take to the streets to demand an end to racism and racial injustice against Black people in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal killing in Minneapolis, I am reminded of an encounter I learned a lot from more than 50 years ago.
In 1967, I was 17-years-old and had just launched Student Magazine to protest against the Vietnam War and other issues where I felt young people’s voices were not being heard. I was fortunate to get the rare chance to listen to James Baldwin, the brilliant African American writer and leading public intellectual. I had heard he was staying in London for a few days, so I went to his hotel and managed to secure an interview in his room. The conversation we had feels more present than ever during these days of protest.
“White people do not listen and do not care,” he said at one point, voicing his frustration at the continuing oppression of Black people. “What would happen if they did listen?” I asked. “It isn’t me that they have to listen to,” he replied. “It isn’t any Black man they have to listen to. It’s their own hearts and conscience.” Those words struck a chord. Baldwin was – and is – right: racism runs counter to everything most people believe in – our shared understanding of human dignity, the concept of brotherly love, the universal creed that all humans are created equal. And yet, white people continue to discriminate, violate – and kill – Black people for nothing more than the colour of their skin. Routinely. Callously. In the US and in countries across the globe.
Racism doesn’t have to go to such extremes to cause enormous pain. There are a myriad of day-to-day ways in which white people are part of the problem. Unconscious double takes, unwarranted moments of mistrust, split seconds of prejudiced decisions. We may not even notice these things, but Black people experience and suffer their consequences every day. And over time, these consequences add up and lead to the excesses that cost lives.
The question now is what white people should do. Many are joining activism efforts. They rightly share the anger and frustration of the Black community; millions rightly march in protest. But how can we change what matters the most?
I have previously written about looking at life as a set of nested circles of care and compassion. The first circle includes those closest to me - my family and loved ones. I want to make sure they are healthy, happy and safe. But I also want them to know about the issues that matter to me. What can we do to stand up to racism? We can start with conversations: talking to our children and grandchildren about racism, to our parents and grandparents, our friends and family, our colleagues, our followers on social media. We can read up on the history, listening to and learning from black people and their experiences. And we can check our privilege. Too many of us white people tend to be unaware of the advantages we have compared to Black people. A 17-year-old Black teenager wouldn’t have got through the lobby of James Baldwin’s hotel during those days. And not to mention the opportunities and resources I was given to start a business five decades ago: I’ve had access to capital, to support, to the trust of my peers. None of that would have been available to a black person with the same ambition. Yes, much has changed and improved. But not enough.
The second circle is our workplace and the people we spend most of our time with. Virgin has always taken great pride in placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of our business. It has been a central part of Virgin since the days of Student Magazine, of the Student Advisory Centre, of our support for campaigns against apartheid, to tackle HIV/AIDs and for criminal justice and racial equality all around the world.
With our foundation Virgin Unite and across the Group, for the past 15 years we have been partnering with, listening to, and learning from some brilliant organisations working towards these goals. In the US, we've worked with many of these partners through our Criminal Justice Reform Collective, connecting them and others with donors, entrepreneurs, and influencers committed to changing broken systems and making a real difference in people’s lives. This work is only beginning, and we continue to be inspired each and every day by the passion, dedication and knowledge these incredible groups bring. In the coming weeks, months and years we will continue to support these organisations and shine a light on their amazing efforts.
We have a long way to go. At present, there is not enough racial diversity in our boardrooms, and I suspect the same holds true for our entire workforce. We must do better than this and make a real commitment to racial inclusion at all levels, to finding and recruiting more Black people to work across our organisations, from customer service to senior management. We must make sure we invest in the educational opportunities that will help get us there. I’ve been proud to see that my daughter Holly is so passionate about these issues. In her leadership role at Virgin and as chair of Virgin Unite, she’s made it her mission to drive change. Virgin Management has signed the Business in the Community Race at Work Charter, a set of five corporate commitments. But we need to do more and will do more. We will be sharing more on this soon.
The third circle is to effectively use our voice and reach in the broader demands for change that are now unfolding. As Angela Davis said: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” Sitting on the fence is not good enough. Bryan Stevenson, the remarkable founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said: “Somebody has to stand when other people are sitting. Somebody has to speak when other people are quiet.” While White people must listen to and learn from Black people, we must also speak up against the sinister forces that seek to divide us. And we must be advocates for an end to the practices that have disadvantaged, disenfranchised, marginalised and criminalised black people for decades. This includes reforming the criminal injustice of mass incarceration, abolishing the death penalty, ending the failed war on drugs, and certainly reforming the way communities are policed everywhere. I have always believed that businesses and their leaders must be advocates for the common good. This is truer than ever.
These are bold aspirations, and I know change will not come overnight. But we have done far too little to really tackle the scourge of racism that sits right in our midst. It should not have taken George Floyd’s death for white people to wake up to the reality of racism around us.