Black students in our community have spent the last few weeks grappling with the weight of a devastating truth: that our country and society has undeniably and systemically failed Black communities – and the false narrative that being well educated, professionally accomplished and palatable enough for predominantly white spaces is still not enough to keep Black people safe – and there isn’t a job title or degree in the world that can protect Black communities from institutionalized and systemic racism.

Members of the HBS African American Student Union have written a series of Letters to our Classmates in an effort to elevate this message: “On behalf of your Black classmates: we’re not okay, and you shouldn’t be either”. The letters are meant to remove the onus too often placed on Black students to discuss and teach fellow classmates about the lived experiences of being Black in America. The MBA Voices blog will publish these letters, daily, with a link to the ongoing series as it unfolds.

This blog is 2/5.

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Zachary Hermes MD, MBA ’21, Section B

To my classmates,

As I sit here, with my newborn son beside me, I struggle to find the words to truly capture how I feel. There are no words to share how outraged and disappointed I am by the continued extrajudicial killing of Black men and women. I feel a deep tension as I am inspired by the energy and passion of those that have gathered to stand together across the country, and world, yet the lingering reality that these most recent murders – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery – are preceded by a nearly unbroken thread of terror and oppression that has been imposed on Black Americans. So, what I want to share with the HBS community is simple.  

I. If you can’t fathom how this happened, research and learn. 

II. If you don’t know how to respond, listen and reflect. 

III. If you’re not sure what to do, get proximate and donate. 

It’s not enough to be “not sure” when racism and white supremacist ideologies are still taking lives. To accept and acquiesce to the status quo is anything but neutral, rather it is an endorsement of a system that produces the exact results it is intended to. 

I. If you don’t understand, research and learn

The unfortunate reality is that these murders are not surprising, which is exactly why the preceding weeks have caused so much pain, anger, sadness, disappointment, and frustration for many of us in the Black community. We are roughly 70 years away from the barbarity of white supremacy that led to Jesse Thornton being lynched in 1940 because he forgot to call a police officer “Mister.” Imagine the savagery that leads to John Jackson, a 30-year old Sunday School Teacher, being shot to death in a police car in 1941 because he laughed while standing in line at a movie theatre with his girlfriend. Or how about the hate that led to Timothy Hood’s, murder in the back of a police car? He was a World War II veteran and decided to remove a sign separating black and white riders on a bus in 1946. In that same decade, my paternal grandmother’s 12-year old neighbor was murdered, shot by a white man armed with a rifle, after walking through his yard. 

The problem is that these stories and untimely deaths repeat themselves over the intervening decades and directly precede and shape the moment we find ourselves in. When we consider Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin – how far have we really come? The American Myth is that legislation and civil rights reforms provided a break with the histories of structural violence against Black people, yet, without vigorous efforts to oppose and squash the deeply ingrained legacy of white supremacist violence against Black people, the murders will never cease. Those who march for justice today do so not only for George Floyd, but also to stand up to racist violence that has been normalized. They refuse to accept the trivialization of black life and justification of social controls like the persistent shadow of police brutality and lethality. They seek to challenge a legal system that has failed to provide justice for too many families and communities, leaving them with little more than contrived autopsies, falsified police reports, and an impotent and complicit judicial system. George Floyd may have sparked a global movement, but we must also honor the lives of the more than 100 Black people who have died in the custody of the police in less than a decade. Know their names


Building on this historical legacy we find ourselves with a President who utilizes well-known racial dog whistles, such as calls for “law and order”, labeling protestors “thugs,” and quoting a well-known Southern segregationist (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”). We also cannot ignore or minimize the fact that Trump has blatantly aligned himself with white supremacists through his gracious coverage of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, VA. Let’s also not forget this is a candidate that prompted the fawning support of David Duke, a figurehead of a contemporary offshoot of the domestic terrorism organization known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). White supremacist organizations arose in response to the political empowerment, economic independence, and social revival that was seen in Black communities during Reconstruction. Their historical impact is evidenced by the thousands of lynchings that extended into the 1960s, as well as white riots such as the Tulsa Race Massacre that destroyed one of the most prosperous Black communities in America… and do not be fooled as the KKK, and the hydra of white supremacist groups it birthed, certainly continue to exist today in more sophisticated and obscured forms. This fear of an empowered and strong Black America is further illustrated by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who once labeled the Black Panther Party as, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America.” This reality must be spoken, acknowledged, and considered to understand how mobilized Black protestors, responding to public killings of their community members, can be met with militarized force ordered to “dominate the streets.” Yet, white men and women armed with assault rifles are empowered to occupy a state capitol to oppose public health measures intended to save lives, accost police officers, and intimidate state representatives, but be granted grace, understanding, and space to express their concerns. 

The movement you see is not just about police brutality or a failed justice system. It is a response to unending structural violence and inequity that has infected our economic systems, political institutions, and social structures. It is an uprising against growing economic inequality whose seeds were sown with a G.I. Bill that excluded more than 2 million Black American World War II veterans. People like my grandfather Samuel Brown, who served with distinction through D-Day at Normandy, the Rhineland campaign, and the Battle of the Bulge. After returning from the war he was denied access to cash stipends for schooling, low-interest mortgages and business loans, job skills training, and unemployment benefits that were provided to white veterans. These publicly-provided benefits laid the foundation for much of the American middle class. That might explain why Timothy Hood didn’t feel the need to adhere to a sign separating black and white riders on a congested public streetcar. The inequity was further exacerbated by government-supported redlining that prevented Black Americans from subsidies and underwriting that effectively prohibited them from obtaining private financing for home ownership, the most effective and reliable means of wealth creation in that era. When my grandfather moved from his teaching position at Tuskegee University, to start the first black technical school in Delaware, he had to self-finance their home as he was unable to access private financing or government-subsidized low-interest mortgages that were strictly provided to white Americans. The first week my father and his family moved into their home in Christiana, Delaware the KKK burned a cross in my family’s yard. Now, in the midst of COVID-19, the unemployment rate surges with disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, and many black-owned businesses are shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program. How long do you expect people to tolerate such consistent failure to uphold a semblance of equity?

The movements also represent a refusal to continue accepting a fallacious and failed War on Drugs, which ignores the role of governmental agencies in facilitating the drug trade in Black communities and disproportionately criminalizes Black men relative to type of crime and criminal history. It is a response to the long-standing health inequities that have been highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic, which arise entirely from differential access to care and socioeconomic disadvantage that has led to a greater burden of chronic diseases. It is an uprising against a racialized, predatory capitalism that through neoliberal and neoconservative agendas has gutted the social, educational, and economic infrastructure that is critical for communities of color to thrive in a global market. So before you question the legitimacy of a protest that involves the destruction of property (ignoring the fact that much of ‘vandalism’ being done is by white supremacist saboteurs), ask yourself how you would respond if voting, rallies, and a never-ending pipeline of empirical data and policy proposals failed to change the fact that your end of the social contract was continually violated and broken, through blatant murder, institutionalized racism, and structural disadvantage that permeate most, if not all, facets of American life? The focus on what they are doing completely avoids exploring the why. The hopelessness and desperation that one must have to walk through a broken glass window, risking their lives and freedom in an already intensified moment, to get some material item must be recognized, explored, and questioned. 

II. If you don’t know how to respond, listen and reflect 

As much as I support and align with the mass protests we see spanning the globe, I struggle because I know that rallies, demonstrations, op-eds, and social media posts won’t translate to the transformational change we so desperately seek. Though essential in demanding and creating attention, they are incomplete alone. If we are to truly operationalize the broad-based awareness this moment has prompted, we must critically examine the ways in which we are all supportive of white supremacist ideologies. We need to be rigorous in understanding how it has skewed our perception of reality, and then vigorously counter it. White people must take on this effort as their own, but in reality, it has infected all of us regardless of the hue of our skin. Uncovering those aspects of ourselves that we seek not to acknowledge, or lie just below our conscious concept of self, is exceedingly difficult and often painful. The simple fact is that American society has a codified racial ranking system deeply embedded in its very roots. Racism has infected the way we think and see the world, no matter if you grew up in a coastal enclave, middle America, the rural South, or a global cosmopolitan city. Moreover, this worldview has been one of America’s most effective cultural products and exports, influencing how generations of immigrants and much of the world perceives Blackness in America and the world-at-large. 

The work required to unpack this ugly reality is challenging, but it must be done. Only then can we accurately unveil how racism allows for the continued murder of unarmed black men, women, and children, That racism that empowers white vigilantes to feel they have the power to kill and terrorize black people, simply due to the suspicion blackness prompts, while walking or running near our homes, also fills governmental bodies, educational institutions, and business organizations. Whether we want to admit it or not, the racism that kills is on the same spectrum as the racism that allows a managing director to comfortably impose their belief that a junior staff’s natural, curly hair makes her look more like she’s about to go to the club, while her straightened hair is more professional and sleek. The murdering type of racism is not far off from the kind of racism that leads to Black women being twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, regardless of socioeconomic status. Or how about the kind that creates the opportunity for a liberal, MBA-trained woman to weaponize her whiteness, with a clear understanding of the consequences, because a Black man had the audacity to ask her to leash her dog. Racism has the possibility of threatening the life of Black Americans far too frequently and has already led to the death of too many Black men and women. How truly different is the racism that inadvertently avoids investing in Black founders, from the kind that mistakenly triages Black patients with heart conditions away from specialized cardiac care units? The value system underlying who is worthy of investment of valuable resources is the common thread. Some may try to take solace in the belief that they are only susceptible to that mild, harmless type of racism, or even worse, that they are entirely above it, but the point is that the spectrum is a slippery slope and the barriers separating varying degrees is not always so clear or fixed. I’d guess the majority of white Americans and other non-Black people consider themselves to be non-racist with a genuine belief that American society is a meritocracy, yet the evidence makes clear this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.

If you can’t see how racism and white supremacist ideologies influence your perception of self, interaction with others, or the organizational dynamics or values of the institutions or firms you are a part of, you likely aren’t listening closely or looking hard enough. I challenge all of us to reflect on our own personal journey and elevate the lived experiences and perspectives of Black and aboriginal people who have been silenced for far too long. 

III. If you don’t know what to do, get proximate and donate

Public outcry, demonstrations, and media coverage certainly play a role, but they do not touch the ugly, uncomfortable, and messy work that is required for meaningful transformation. That type of change will require active, deliberate, ongoing anti-racism work within, amongst your social network, and in the organizations we find ourselves working and leading. Calling out racism wherever we see, hear, or experience it goes above and beyond cultural competency or diversity and inclusion. This means talking to our friends, coworkers, family, and section mates about racism and injustice – even if it is inconvenient or pushes us outside our comfort zone. It requires educating ourselves because it’s all our responsibility to have an honest understanding of our reality, not just one that reifies a convenient understanding of history or self-justifies our station in life. It means getting proximate to the lived experiences of those most impacted by racism, which for many of us, means identifying and collaborating with local champions and nonprofits who can allow us to efficiently and effectively leverage our skills and means to work towards racial justice. Many of you may have seen this, but Holly Fetter (MBA ’20) had a post illustrating examples of ways MBAs can individually make a difference. 

IV. Final Thoughts

So, like Aaron, I am angry. My heart sinks because I know that as more Black people, young and old, pour their hearts into righteous uprisings around the country, they will be met with violence and inevitably more lives will be lost. I hate that a man’s death must be turned into a spectacle on social media and the 24-hour news cycle for several days, rightfully prompting the mobilization of thousands of people, before prosecutors feel the need to indict a murderer for criminal charges. I am disheartened by the fact that we are asking the same questions Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself asking in 1967 – why does white America delude itself, and how does it continue to rationalize the evil it retains? How is it that consistent demands for equitable opportunity in employment, education, and health care are construed as threats to society, inevitably leading to stiffening of white resistance and reaffirmation of the status quo? The practical costs for the American society to abolish segregation and allow for equal voting rights was in reality pretty cheap – no financial expenditures, taxes to subsidize investment, nor psychological sacrifice other than a softening of oppression and the mirage of a self-delusional supremacy. The real costs – dignified housing, quality education, meaningful opportunity, and freedom from murderous oppression – are much more complex, uncomfortable, and substantial.  

Yet, I equally remain proud and hopeful. Proud of the resilient and impregnable nature of a people that have survived, thrived, and succeeded in the face of centuries of oppression, structural violence, and systematic psychological warfare. Hopeful due to the multiracial solidarity illustrated in protests across America and the globe. Hopeful because of the humble and sincere classmates I have met here at HBS who are committed to building a better world and fully recognize the power we have as future business and political leaders to shape tomorrow’s history. I remain hopeful because I have to – for my son, who will grow up a proud Black man, and for my family, who trace our roots to the enslaved people that built this country and the aboriginal Americans who were here long before any colonist. I remain hopeful because I know that by the divine power of God, through and with his properly aligned instruments, anything is possible. My question for all of you is, when the scales are balanced, which side of history do you want to be on? We all have a role to play in the battle for human dignity, and I implore you, as a classmate, as a member of the HBS community, and as a human being, not to be an unwitting soldier for those that seek to build a world on the foundations of fear, hate, oppression, and inequity.  To accept the status quo is anything but neutral, rather it is an endorsement of the system, directly or indirectly, whether we want to own it or not. Things cannot, and will not change all at once, but it is vital to have that recognition in mind to guide your own direction and life course. What type of world do you want to build?