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A Future-Back View on Racial Categorizing



A Future-Back View on Racial Categorizing

The dangers of categorizing and profiling are still top-of-mind after the ugly George Floyd killing. Full-spectrum thinking—the ability to see across gradients of possibility, while resisting the temptations of certainty and mindless categorizing—is urgently needed.

As the racial justice issues flamed, I did a recent interview with Robert Scott, who had been one of the highest-ranking African American leaders at Procter & Gamble. Now, he works with the University of Michigan (his alma mater) to encourage African American students to attend and succeed in the engineering department. He is also the vice president and dean of the Global Institute for Professional Development at ITSMF (Information Technology Senior Management Forum), the largest mentoring and personal development network for African American IT leaders.

This conversation about full-spectrum thinking as an antidote to racism was structured around three signals that Robert experienced just before our interview:


University of Michigan Engineering Victory Gardens Program

The University of Michigan had been skeptical about online learning and had resisted it for years. Suddenly and abruptly, everything moved online—and students were told summarily to leave the campus. But many of the students had nowhere to go and no resources to leave.

Calling back to the “Victory Gardens” of World War I and II, the Engineering Student Emergency Fund was created to provide students with financial, housing, personal, and technical support. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, student affairs staff and other College employees have volunteered to help and contacted each of the roughly 11,000 students in the engineering community. They were able to provide assistance for 700 of them.

Their students have a full spectrum of needs, some of which were invisible until the crisis hit.

# ShutDownAcademia #ShutDownSTEM

On June 8, the dean of the University of Michigan engineering school, who happens to be African American, was surprised along with almost everyone else to receive this social media announcement about an event that would happen just two days later:

On June 10, 2020, we will #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives.

In the wake of the most recent murders of Black people in the US, it is clear that white and other non-Black people have to step up and do the work to eradicate anti-Black racism. As members of the global academic and STEM communities, we have an enormous ethical obligation to stop doing “business as usual.” No matter where we physically live, we impact and are impacted by this moment in history.

The leadership skill of dilemma flipping comes to mind at times like this. Leaders must avoid deciding too soon (the classic mistake of the problem solver), but also avoid deciding too late (the classic mistake of the academic). Racism is a dilemma that is embedded in many problems that can be solved.

Engineering Dean Alec D. Gallimore wrote this to his colleagues after the June 10 conversations:

“…I was on a panel with [Lilia Corona] discussing her work as part of the National Academies Study on Sexual Harassment in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The iceberg framework is used to describe the full spectrum of sexual harassment, illustrating how most think only about what’s shown above the water—the most visible and horrific examples. If we focus on only those events above the waterline, the vast majority of our community members will dismiss the need to learn about bias and sexual harassment as not applying to them since “I don’t and would never do those things.” But it’s what’s below the surface that enables those horrific events and that most everyone does—usually without realizing it. If we can educate people on how to manage, control, and ameliorate the behavior below the waterline, we’d have a much better culture for women.

The same is true for race and ethnicity matters, which is why one of the answers to “what can we do?” is to educate the population on below the waterline phenomena associated with racism and bias. The murder of George Floyd is at the tip of the racism iceberg. Microaggressions and more subtle forms of racism allow it to happen.” (Quoted from his e-mail on June 10, 2020.)

The outcome has been a firm commitment to add a diversity training requirement for faculty, staff, and students that will emphasize race, equity, and privilege.


Informal Virtual Meetups with African American Executives

There are about 180 senior leaders of color in the ITSMF, all dedicated to mentoring young African-American IT leaders. Robert participated in a series of informal virtual meetings after the Floyd killing. The pain, anger, and visible emotions were seething. The frustration mounted in each call. These were all-powerful and successful people, but they were puzzled.

Robert told a moving story from his high school days in Kalamazoo, Michigan when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. Robert was in a college preparation program at a high school that was mostly white. Robert was the only black student in many of his classes. When Dr. King was killed the black students went out to march and Robert went with them until the other black student made him go back to class. His presence was needed in the classroom.

At times like this, Robert argued, we need to resist a very understandable instinct toward protective hesitation. Leaders must “show up as real people” and take the risk of offending others. Leaders must create safe spaces for these kinds of conversations.

Robert’s conclusion: categories don’t work, but higher education is a bastion of categorical thinking—as are many parts of our society. The pandemic tore up the script though—and the George Floyd killing took a match to the script. Leaders must pursue clarity but avoid certainty. Leaders who live in certainty will categorize and profile dangerously.

Leaders must use foresight to plan from the future back, not just the present forward. Future back, it is obvious that racism is not scalable in a majority-minority future where the mindset of full-spectrum thinking is assumed and the tools of full-spectrum thinking are advanced.

Bob Johansen is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), the world’s leading futures organization, where he served as president from 1996 to 2004. He has written ten previous books on leadership and change management, including the bestselling Leaders Make the Future and The Reciprocity Advantage, and led workshops at global corporations from Intel to P&G, as well as universities and nonprofits. Learn more about his decades of helping organizations prepare for the future and his latest book, Full-Spectrum Thinking, at