I was told an illustrative story that hit a chord in explaining the truth of Black Lives Matters as more than a protest at the lack of justice for innocent black people murdered at the hands of the police. BLM is a movement that seeks to tackle and drive action on the systemic racism that exists throughout society that leads to the marginalisation of whole communities based on the colour of their skin.
Having worked in some of the poorest parts of London I have witnessed the reality that BME communities are more likely to have poorer quality housing, poorer access to education and healthcare, die younger, are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses, earn less and become trapped in cycles of poverty with few opportunities to escape.
Whereas its often easy to see these issues through the lens of class and poverty – trying to escape that cycle when you are black and faced with underlying and often invisible institutional and societal racism raises the bar just that much higher. If we’re ever to rectify this, we have to recognise it. But all to often we, as a society dismiss it, and sadly, resort to victim blaming; blaming BME communities for the failings of society on the whole.
Below is a story that put this into context for me; explaining why Black Lives Matter is so important, and conversely why the mantra All Lives Matter totally misses the point and creates greater divisions and hardships.
After years of toil and struggle, a black man and black woman are invited to join the community banquet. Both arrive famished and exhausted from their labours, hands sore from their work, feet blistered from travels and limbs heavy from hunger.
On arrival at the village hall they’re immediately welcomed with wide smiles and warm words from most of those sitting at the table. A white, grey-haired, middle-aged man at the head of the table smiles and directs them to their seats saved for them at the end of the table.
The black woman and black man walk the length of the table, greeting follow guests as they pass; white men and women in suits, uniforms and fashionable outfits at the head of the table, before greeting men and women of differing races wearing similar work overalls and tired expressions to them before taking their seats at the very end of the table, awaiting patiently for the meal to arrive.
After a short wait and pleasant conversation, the meal is served, with those at the head of the table piling the sumptuous meal high on their plates as the food is passed down the table. The food looks and smells delicious. Meats, vegetables and highly sought after treats rarely seen by the black man and black woman. The platters are passed down the table from person to person, each taking their fill. By the time the platter reaches the end it is nearly empty; offcuts, undercooked and overcooked meats and shards of gristle remain. Both the black woman and black man are disappointed but remain quiet as they share the remaining food from the platter between themselves.
After finishing what little food they have they are still hungry and exhausted. They look towards the head of the table at the food piled high on the plates of the white guests at the head of the table.
The black man coughs lightly into his fist, attracting attention of the other diners to ask politely whether fellow guests would be willing to share some of their ample food, as they had received so little.
The white men look to one another, some with disdain, some with sympathy, one or two even with guilt, but most look down at their filled plates, pretending not to hear. A few nod and share some of what they have, passing a plate down the table with an assortment of foods (some of which are siphoned off as it travels the length of the table). A small offering arrives for the black man and black woman to gratefully received and share between them.
After a few further minutes of eating in awkward silence, the black woman and black man remain hungry and disappointed. The meal they had been promised has been meagre and unsatisfying, while they watch others dining on the food that they had worked so hard to produce.
They are remain exhausted and hungry, dizzy from the lack of food and tiredness. Their attempts to request more from their hosts and neighbours (as galling as that is) is drowned out by the increasingly loud conversations and occasional laughter.
Eventually the black man and black woman look to each other and rise to their feet in silence, ready to make their point and make their presence known.
The other diners cease their conversation to look down the table at the couple standing in silence. Some are surprised, others curious, and some look on with disgust.
“Friends, we have travelled far after a long day of labouring in the fields to grow the food that we eat here. We are appreciate the hospitality you have offered but we are both still famished with barely a meal between us. We can see you have more than you can possibly eat on your plates, please would you be so kind as to share more with us.”
Having to asking their hosts to share from their overflowing plates simply to have a proper meal is humiliating, but they are determined to remain polite and respectful while making their point clear.
At first, silence greets their request. Faces of disappointment and anger are mixed with those deliberately seeking to avoid their gaze. One or two guests look on genuinely concerned, muttering things under their breath to their neighbours, but say nothing out loud.
“Is this all that you bring to this community?” raises the voice from the head of the table. “We give you our hospitality, share our food, and you disrespect us by making a scene and demanding more from us? Do you have no respect for the people sitting here trying to eat their meals in peace?”
Still standing, the black man and black woman respond, this time with more force: “We are hungry and tired, close to exhaustion. You have invited us here to share in the meal with others as equals, yet we have received barely a meal to share. Do we not matter to you? Do our lives mean so little to you?”
“All lives matter, friends. The lives of everyone sitting around this table matters. Do you mean to argue that your lives matter more than theirs? We all share the same food, here. You have access to exactly the same as us, it’s not our fault if you don’t take advantage of the opportunities we bring you. Next time don’t arrive so late or sit so far away.”
“These are the seats you gave to us! We only have the food you make available to us! It may all be the same but you cannot say we all have the same when your plates are piled high and ours are empty.”
“Perhaps you should have taken better care of what you had. Very well, since you are so upset, I will ask the other guests whether they would be willing to give up more of their own food to give to you. But I warn you, do not continue to disrespect our guests with your interruptions. Now please stop making a scene and sit down.”
As promised, the head of the table asks reluctantly for other guests to donate some food from their plates for the black man and black woman at the end of the table. A second plate of food makes its way down the table, handed from one guest to another, some adding items, some removing them as the plate is passed along until it reaches the end of the table.
“There; you have what you asked for. Now let that be the end of it.” Booms the irritated voice from the head of the table. “We do not expect any further disrespect from you. Any disruption and I will ask our uniformed guests to keep the peace. Now let these good folks eat in their meals without interuption.”
The black man and black woman look down at the plate of donated food that sits in front of them. Disappointment sets into their faces, disappointment that transforms to anger. They have assumed good-intentioned mistakes of their hosts, made polite requests and finally respectfully but insistently made their case for a fair share of the meal. In return they had been met with anger, derision and scorn.
The couple feel their anger and rage rise from their bellies, and hearts; filling their arms and legs with righteous power and fire. “We will not sit-down and be told any-longer; we see what this is now! We matter, as much as anyone else at this table and we demand to be recognised and treated as equals.”
The grey-haired, white man at the head of the table stands. In one hand he holds a bible, in the other, a flag. “My follow guests, are you going to allow such disruption and disrespect to continue?” With a practised wave of his hand, he signals to the uniformed men and women around the table. They understand immediately their role, placing down their food and drink, rolling-up their sleeves. “If you’re going to act like criminals, we will treat you like criminals.”
The black man and black woman stand their ground, joined by just a few others who had remained quiet throughout the meal. They are outnumbered but there is no-longer a choice.
If you are reading this and thinking “what has this got to do with business or management?” my answer is that it has everything to do with business and management. If you don’t believe me, carry out a PESTLE analysis, look at the headlines, or read the Financial Times.