Black History Month: Looking Back and Striving to Be Better

T.D. Jakes Foundation

February 20, 2020
By: Chairman T.D. Jakes

Every February, during Black History Month, schools, businesses and civic groups across the country celebrate heroes and trailblazers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall. And every year, without fail, something goes terribly wrong.

Take this year alone. Barnes & Noble abruptly canceled a Black History Month initiative after critics lambasted the bookseller for displaying non-white versions of famous literary characters, likening the effort to “blackface.”

At Michigan State University, officials removed a gift shop display honoring famous black leaders after complaints that it resembled a lynching.

Was there malice involved in either incident? No. But these stories should give us pause. In 2020, we as a nation still have a lot of work to do. And while it’s important to honor the service and sacrifice of America’s great civil rights heroes, we would do them a profound disservice were we to simply look back without asking: How can we do better?

Whether my responsibilities are espoused from a speaking platform, a literary perspective, a cinematic production or meeting with corporate executives, I, too, understand the dire need to frame and contextualize my thoughts avoiding unnecessary collisions with insensitivity.

As someone who exists in various orbits of influence, the onus rests on me to surround myself with a team that can help avoid needless disrespect.  In short, the lack of diversity in the boardroom amongst our influencers is not only unwise and often unethical, the damage control is expensive.

The unifying force that avoids calamity, has to focus on what unites rather than what divides us. If we are to fulfill the greater purpose of reaching an increasingly diverse society, our influencers must reflect that world!

One thing I’m certain of is that we’re more alike than different, and we all want the same things—good jobs, a safe place to live and raise our families, schools to prepare our children for the future. What’s not equal, however, is our ability to access these opportunities.

In education, the opportunity gap follows the wealth divide, putting black families at a severe disadvantage. According to Federal Reserve data, black households with a college degree equaled about 70% of the median wealth for white households without a college degree. Not only are we failing to provide all our children equal access to educational opportunity, we’re depriving them of something far more insidious: the opportunity to dream.

I firmly believe that you cannot be what you do not see. If we want young people of color to grow up and become software engineers, scientists and other in-demand, high-paying professions, we need to expose them to these industries at a young age, investing in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) education from early-childhood education through college and beyond.

Businesses must take the lead, too. They must prioritize diversity, gender equity and inclusion, not treat it like an afterthought. Studies consistently show that diversity positively affects a company’s bottom line. A McKinsey & Company report found that racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to perform better; and gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to have higher performance.

Over the years, I’ve met with dozens of CEOs—and every one of them has wanted to be part of the solution. But when it comes to creating more diverse, inclusive workplaces, even well-meaning business leaders can stumble.

One mistake I often hear is the business leader who says: “I don’t see color or gender in hiring decisions. I only want the best person for the job.”

Author and screenwriter Stephen King said as much when he tweeted about this year’s Academy Award nominees, all of whom were men (for best director) and mostly white, writing he only cares about “quality,” not “diversity,” which, of course, implies that the two things are mutually exclusive.

What makes one prospective employee more qualified than another? While applicant A has an Ivy League degree, applicant B will bring a more diverse perspective by virtue of their background or work history. Who will be a more valuable employee? Hiring decisions are always subjective. Placing pedigree above gender or racial diversity is a choice—one that’s not always in the best interests of the company.

Take it from me, bad things happen when you limit your perspective. During a sermon six years ago, I spoke about our ministry’s humanitarian work in Kenya. Though my heart was in the right place, the words came out wrong, and I unintentionally offended people. If we had a person from that community on our team, we would have phrased our message in a better way. The same is true in business.

Diversity isn’t a “nice to have;” it’s a necessity that can help businesses more effectively engage with important communities, not to mention save them from stepping in potential legal and public relations disasters like the ones mentioned above.

And a lot of businesses are getting it right. For its Black History Month campaign, Target is displaying products from black-owned businesses and highlighting black entrepreneurs and Target team members. Most importantly, the store didn’t roll out the campaign in a vacuum; it closely collaborated with its African American Business Council, an employee resource group of more than 1,000 team members, which selected products and coordinated events.

Businesses typically put diversity, gender equity and inclusion programs in place wanting to do good and make positive change. But if they don’t put consistency behind those efforts and integrate programs company wide, they’re likely to fail. Ultimately, we need to make sure that we’re building our children up and ensuring that men and women of all races and ethnicities feel equally valued and heard at work.

The lessons of black history teach us that we’re never done striving to create that more perfect union. I urge my friends and allies across the business world to view diversity as a strength. When our schools and workplaces look like the rest of society, everyone wins.


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