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Black lives matter: Now what?

Four diverse hands holding each others wrists in a circle.

Professor Angelica Leigh (PhD ’20) is experiencing another cycle of the pain and anger after the killing of black Americans. She feels like a participant in her own research: She studies the impact of mega-threats on minorities at work.

Over the last several weeks there has been an avalanche of bad news for the Black community. First, news reports confirmed what most of us feared: COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting Black communities.

Each news cycle, we heard scientists dispassionately explain that the lopsided number of deaths simply reflect the social and economic reality for Black Americans. Black Americans receive inferior medical care, are less likely to get tested or treated and have less access to healthcare, health insurance and healthy food. They are also more likely to be employed as essential frontline workers, like hospital cleaning personnel, warehouse workers and food service employees who come in contact with coronavirus in its more unadulterated and pernicious forms.

All this led to deadly statistics: Black mortality is 3.57 times white mortality, and even though black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they reportedly account for 23% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

Then came sucker punch: the news of the murders of Aumaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. All of these murders were accompanied by the predictable pain, anger and anguish from the Black community, but the chorus of outrage over George Floyd’s murder seems like it’s bigger. Floyd’s murder has the country’s attention.

With this attention comes the question that I have been asked multiple times over the last few days: What can we do now?

For the last four years, I have dedicated my academic research to studying the impact that mega-threats have on minorities at work.  Mega-threats are societal-level events in which individuals are attacked, threatened or harmed because of their social identities – like their race. Because of the extensive time I’ve spent researching the effects of mega-threats, I thought I would be prepared to answer the question of what we can do now.  It has actually taken me several days to organize my thoughts on this.

Over the last several days, I have felt like a participant in my own dissertation research – I have felt threatened, angry and sad. These emotions have prevented me from fully engaging in my work and from having coherent thoughts on what comes next.

But now, I see that the answer is simple: It’s time for everyone to engage in acts of positive deviance.

In the first paper I published on the topic of mega-threats, my co-author, Shimul Melwani and I argued that mega-threats – like the murders of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd – can be the spark that leads other group members – in this case Black Americans – to have the motivation to engage in positive deviance.

Positive deviance is an academic term that means to engage in behaviors that depart from organizational norms to benefit a group. In other words, positive deviance occurs when an individual engages in acts of courage, like speaking up on behalf of their work colleagues who are discriminated against because of their race or gender.

Positive deviance also occurs when individuals form deeper authentic connections with others who have different social identities from them. These acts are deemed courageous, because in our society, engaging in these behaviors can be risky, because they disrupt the status quo and force people to confront the need for change. For example, when an Amazon worker in Staten Island organized a protest of the company’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak that was happening within its Staten Island warehouse, the worker was engaging in positive deviance. It also led Amazon to fire him.

But I was recently reminded in a video posted by Dr. Tina Opie, associate professor of management at Babson University and creator of Shared SisterhoodTM that, “It’s not Black people’s job to dismantle racism. White people have created it, maintained it, and benefited from it, so it’s your responsibility to dismantle it.”

So if you are a non-Black person and you find yourself asking what you can do to spark change and help prevent the next George Floyd murder, my advice is: Start engaging in positive deviance.

Racism is systematic and woven into the fibers of every aspect of American life. This means that in every place, every community, every school, every workplace, every governmental agency, there should be people working to dismantle racism. Posting your outrage on Facebook and other social media sites is great, going to a protest event is even better, but ultimately, what matters is non-optical allyship.

What will you do each and every day to confront racism? How are you using your privilege to help advance equality in your community, workplace and other organizations that you are members of?

There are organizations in almost every community and workplace dedicated to helping Black people, and other people of color, advance and stay safe. Are you a member of any of these organizations? Do you work on your local school board or are you on committees in your workplace that help people of color achieve and advance? It isn’t very hard to find these organizations; they are just a Google search away.

And if there isn’t an organization like this in your workplace or in your school, then there should be. If you are not involved in educating, mentoring and advocating for people of color, then you should be. If you have not taken the time to talk about race and racism with your children, and done everything you can to ensure that your kids are in a diverse environment where they have friends who are different than them, then you should be doing this as well.

Too often Black people shoulder the burden of both suffering through oppression and being asked to fix it. I think it is long past time that we all share this burden.

The last few days in Minneapolis have reminded me of the days following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. After days and weeks of protests in Ferguson it seemed like America was having a moment where we were finally ready to confront our past and reckon with the difficult task of creating a different future. Here we are again in 2020, six years later, after an event that is eerily similar to the event that sparked those protests in Ferguson. I hope that this moment doesn’t end up passing us by again.

Obviously, to rid America of the coronavirus we will have to eradicate it from all Americans regardless of healthcare coverage, access to healthcare or employment.

The same is true for racism. If we do not confront it and work together to erase it, we will continue in this vicious, repetitive and deadly cycle.

Read more about Leigh’s and Melwani’s study “Black employees matter.”