18 Jul Read Kaiser Permanente CEO’s Tough Words on Race: It’s Time to Tell the Truth
One of the most prominent black CEOs speaks out.
As the country reels from yet another tragic shooting, Bernard J. Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente and one of America’s most prominent black CEOs, has written a candid essay calling for unity. In the essay, shared exclusively with Fortune, Tyson says that empathy – and the willingness to understand the lived experience of people very different from our own – is the only way forward.
“This moment calls for unity, for listening, and for empathy as we seek to understand what communities of color are facing and the assumptions that the broader society is working from. Our ability to rise up and address embedded and complex issues in today’s society requires us to initiate and continue an open and progressive conversation. We must listen to understand other perspectives and test our own mental maps rather than to reinforce our own beliefs.”
The essay is the latest in a growing body of Tyson writings in which he attempts to share the unique tension of being both a black man in America – “I’ve had “that talk” with each of my sons about what to do if you’re stopped by a police officer,” he writes – and the leader of a $62 billion enterprise that deals directly with the health issues and inequities facing communities of color, and the country as a whole. “Some of the victims of gun violence end up in our emergency rooms. In addition to the victim, we care for the parents, siblings, friends and even the communities that are affected.”
Tyson pulls no punches. “Criminals must be held accountable, yet I question the use of deadly force in non-violent situations.” He continues: “A police force that is seen as a paramilitary organization with an adversarial relationship with communities of color is neither effective nor what’s needed to move our society forward.”
Kaiser employees 200,000 people, so diversity and inclusion is top of mind. “Our objective is to get the best out of everyone, to be the unique answer for what we are looking for as a business and as a global community,” he says.
But it’s also personal. When I interviewed Tyson for the Fortune story, “Leading While Black,” he made it clear that he lives the black experience when he leaves the C-Suite and walks down Main Street. A recent list: Pulled out of the security line for a public pat down as he attempts to enter his own luxury box at a football game. A crisp lecture on proper tipping from a waiter that accompanied the check at an upscale restaurant. Tailed by a nervous sales clerk. Asked to show identification when paying with a credit card in the grocery store.
“The image of the black man in America is warped,” he says simply. And this is where courage comes in. “We have to be able to tell the truth about these things.” Here is the full essay, which will later be published later today on LinkedIn.
In December 2014, after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, I published “It’s Time to Revolutionize Race Relations.” I wanted to share my perspective as a CEO who happens to be a black man and share experiences that differ in how I am treated on the street versus in the C-Suite.
The response to that article was unbelievable! I received comments from across America and the world – many of them positive, some of them negative and a few that were shocking even though I thought I’d heard it all. One of the striking observations was the extreme polarization based on Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.
This polarization continues. It showed me that an open conversation around race relations and the importance of creating greater focus on fair and equal treatment needs to be ongoing – and that the dialogue must be honest even if it’s uncomfortable.
While I am sharing my perspective here based on recent tragedies, I want to emphasize common principles we believe in as Americans. This moment calls for unity, for listening, and for empathy as we seek to understand what communities of color are facing and the assumptions that the broader society is working from. Our ability to rise up and address embedded and complex issues in today’s society requires us to initiate and continue an open and progressive conversation. We must listen to understand other perspectives and test our own mental maps rather than reinforce our own beliefs.
During the past 19 months, we have experienced more senseless deaths and I feel compelled to write with a heavy heart, yet with optimism that as a society we will unite to resolve one of the most critical 21st century challenges in America.
The horrific tragedies over the past weeks, in particular, have crystalized what I believe and likely have impacted other’s sense of life in our current state. We have seen the senseless death of Alton B. Sterling in Baton Rouge on video. We virtually viewed the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, which began with a broken tail light. Then we saw the panic and chaos in Dallas as five police officers were gunned down by an individual who took advantage of a peaceful march intended to call attention to Black Lives Matter. And now we are just learning more about the officers killed and injured in Baton Rouge.
I have the honor and privilege of leading a $62 billion health care organization that employs more than 200,000 employees and physicians who are dedicated to making lives better for nearly 11 million people in America. Some of the victims of gun violence end up in our emergency rooms. In addition to the victim, we care for the parents, siblings, friends and even the communities that are affected. Each death is a great tragedy, but death through violence is even more so.
I have three sons, whom I love and respect, and I believe each young man will be great contributors to society. I’ve had “that talk” with each of my sons about what to do if you’re stopped by a police officer. But is this acceptable in a 21st century America that was built on freedom of speech and justice for all? The idea that I’m passing on the same speech to my sons that was given to me by my father says that the future will be a continuation of what I experienced, what my father learned before me and his father before him. This is totally unacceptable.
We are at a tipping point in society and the systems we have in place need to change.
The majority of police officers are dedicated to putting themselves on the line to serve and protect us. Criminals must be held accountable, yet I question the use of deadly force in non-violent situations.
A police force that is seen as a paramilitary organization with an adversarial relationship with communities of color is neither effective nor what’s needed to move our society forward. I believe we need to return to community policing, where police officers know their neighbors and walk our neighborhoods. I believe we need to revisit the tools that are available to equip police officers to enforce laws without escalating confrontations.
We need explore new enforcement options with government agencies. Instead of the use of guns and force in some situations, are there other alternatives like writing a ticket and going to court to resolve the issue of sidewalk sales? Can we create a new protocol for police officers to submit the license number of a vehicle with a broken tail light to DMV so that a notice can be sent to the owner to fix the problem?
We can also use emerging technologies, like body cameras, to review what has transpired to keep communities safe. In addition, each officer could carry a Taser to stun someone instead of a gun – which by design, is used to kill.
We are witnessing a new definition of community in the 21st century. Community is not just where you live; it’s joining like-minded individuals in real and virtual communities through technology. Let’s not dismiss fear or ignore reality. Instead let’s join together to improve race relations and build a better, stronger America. An America for all.
When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.
View the article on Fortune’s website here.