Sadly, what took place at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis was just the latest chapter of a long and tragic national story. The subsequent grief and outrage manifested itself not only in Minneapolis but in cities across our country like Houston, Louisville, and New York City, as well as internationally in London, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, and more. Minneapolis was simply the latest flashpoint for reacting to societal ills that have yet to be adequately addressed.
Police brutality of black people in America is not new. As far back as 1965, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in a “Meet the Press” interview that “something must be done to end this kind of unnecessary abuse of police power and what we see as outright police brutality.” National Public Radio (NPR) chronicled a list nearly 100 police-involved deaths of black Americans since the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City, further shedding light on this dark part of American history. And that list was not comprehensive.
My role, as the leader of the organization that is the steward of the destination brand and is responsible for attracting visitors of all types, mandates that I speak up on what has occurred here. The potential visitors we work to attract expect our Meet Minneapolis team to present our city authentically. We did just that in a letter to our partner businesses and our meetings, convention and event customers speaking to the murder of Mr. Floyd. There was an overwhelming empathetic and supportive response from our customers. But candidly, the most common concern and question being raised has been, “What is our community doing to right these wrongs?” We have work to do.
This tragedy is on top of the COVID-19 pandemic that has all but paralyzed our community’s hospitality industry. Many of the workers in our industry are minorities and immigrants who are now unemployed because of the impact of COVID-19. They have been further impacted by the long-term or permanent closures of many businesses, particularly restaurants, that are now damaged or completely destroyed by riots in the week after Mr. Floyd’s murder.
As Meet Minneapolis began the process of grieving for the death of George Floyd, we conducted an organic, full staff, town hall meeting to begin having the hard conversations about racism and to determine a path forward. Every single one of our team members had the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the murder of George Floyd and its impact on our community. This honest outpouring confirmed to me that our organization is hurting but also is ready to be a part of the solution.
Initially, we are:
- Providing employees with additional paid volunteer hours to help support local community efforts
- Establishing an internal work group to develop and formalize initiatives that will address how Meet Minneapolis can help in the forward-looking development of the city and advance social justice
- Continuing to promote and support our local, community businesses and organizations
More voices must be included in the plan for an equitable society, and we are starting with our own organization. In order to know where to go from here, we must gain an understanding of where we have been.
Where We’ve Been
Institutional racial bias manifests itself in many ways. In a Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) story from Oct. 14, 2019, Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said, “Closing our achievement gaps (between whites and communities of color) is critical to the success not only of thousands of young people, but also to our economy and our state.”
Following Mr. Floyd’s murder, “Planet Money” reported that the black poverty rate is four times that of white Minnesotans, black unemployment was double that of whites prior to the pandemic and that median income for blacks is less than half of the median income of whites.
In our 244-year history as a country, we have had only one black president. In corporate America, Forbes reports only four black Fortune 500 CEOs. In the realm of destination marketing, Destinations International has approximately 600 member destinations and fewer than 10 African Americans lead those organizations.
Even before Mr. Floyd was laid to rest, we saw several tone-deaf responses to the tragedy. One was when a private security company owner with contracts with two professional sports organizations in Charlotte, N.C., tweeted that a local black community leader advocating for justice for George Floyd should focus more on the black-on-black crime in his own community. Another instance was when the CEO of CrossFit also used Twitter to post derogatory comments about Mr. Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Both insensitivities were met with swift condemnations and economic consequences. And the CrossFit CEO now has “former” added to his title.
This brief look at the pervasive nature of institutional racism demonstrates the depth of the problems we must address and the resources that will be needed.
Harrowing or life-threatening racism is very real. I am thankful that has not occurred to me. But, I know racism is alive and well in corporate America and even right here in our city. Racism can be very subtle.
One of my first such experiences was very early in my career during my first CEO position in Oakland, Calif. As I made the rounds of local community leaders to get the lay of the land, I was stunned that a very prominent board member of the organization advised me not to hire too many black people because it wouldn’t look good.
I have been in business meetings in Minneapolis where most of the time I am the only person of color in the room. During one such meeting of business and civic leaders where we were discussing downtown issues, two of the individuals in the room suggested that the group should develop activities for young black males that would discourage them from coming downtown and encourage them to stay in their own neighborhoods. I was shocked that no one else would find that comment offensive other than myself.
In a subsequent CEO assignment, a colleague’s mother saw a television interview I had done. The colleague’s mother was eager to let me know that she saw the interview, and she commented that I was so well-spoken. In one way, I appreciated the thought. But I was disappointed that her expectations were such that it was surprising I could communicate clearly.
While these stories are unique to me, many of my fellow African American professionals have had similar encounters.
The Path Forward
Meet Minneapolis stands in solidarity with our city and with other leaders in the black community in recognizing the need for transforming Minneapolis from the inside out. We support the call for justice for George Floyd. We have spent the last two weeks listening, learning, and reflecting on who we are as an organization and are committed to doing our part in the fight against racism and injustice. We know enormous work is in front of all of us as individuals and community members, and we recognize this work is long overdue. We are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work. This is our commitment because Black Lives Matter.
In order to chart a course for where we go from here, there are three questions we must ask and answer with honesty and resolve:
Do we truly understand that there is a problem?
If we look at ourselves and our lives and see no visible signs of racism, will we be motivated to act? Passive racism is just as much of a problem as active racism.
Who needs to be at the table to discuss the problem and the solutions?
A typical corporate/civic strategy for problem solving is to assemble a select group of leaders as defined by those managing the process, then go behind closed doors and emerge with a solution. That approach will no longer work.
How do we maintain individual and community accountability?
We have goals for our lives and our businesses, and we must present our results to someone at some point in time. Are we willing to have similar public accountably in facing and eradicating racism?
I am encouraged that so many community efforts have emerged to express outrage at the killing of Mr. Floyd by police and to start the work of rebuilding lives, businesses, community, and trust. I am encouraged that our elected leaders have swiftly begun to address public safety reforms. Our organization looks forward to providing our perspective as destination marketers to the discussion. We also keep in mind that there are many courageous men and women who have made law enforcement their chosen profession.
After the demonstrations have subsided, after the news media has settled back into a regular cycle and after we get back to our “normal” personal and professional lives, the fact remains that another unarmed black man is dead at the hands of police. Where do we go from here? We must heed the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who said we must act on racial injustice with "the fierce urgency of now” and get to work.