The Black Male Experience from the C-Suite to the Street

The author says the commonality of the black male experience remains consistent no matter what the economic status or job title. Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty

With the entire country seeing demonstrations following the Ferguson decision, I've had colleagues and business partners ask me my thoughts—not from my perspective as the chairman and CEO of a $55 billion organization—but as a black man in America.

You would think my experience as a top executive would be different from a black man who is working in a retail or food-service job to support his family. Yet, he and I both understand the commonality of the black male experience that remains consistent no matter what the economic status or job title.

This piece is not to complain about what is, but instead offer hope that we can harness the positive energy from the demonstrations for change and start a new chapter in America based on better understanding of race relations.

As Americans, we must deal with behavior that is unacceptable in today's global world. The first step in changing negative behavior is to understand the underlying imagery of the black male, which doesn't represent reality. Whether it's Michael Brown in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin with his Skittles, Eric Garner who died after a choke hold, or the 12-year-old killed because he was waving a toy gun, when you see a black man killed, the imagery is more complicated than one might think. For example, words used by the white police officer to describe Michael Brown included some such as hulking and demon—words that bring up images going back to the days of slavery.

If you're not black, it's hard to relate to situations as a black man might. So you know I'm speaking from a realistic rather than theoretical standpoint, here are a few personal examples I've experienced in the past couple of months:

  • Recently I was shopping in an upscale store, and I was being watched and also followed by an overly anxious person. This was not someone trying to be helpful, but someone who was assessing why I was there. Other shoppers did not have "help" following them throughout the store.
  • I have gone to dinner at fine restaurants and had the food server explain the tipping program, since apparently black men don't understand this concept.
  • Sometimes I observe two or three white customers ahead of me and after me pay by credit card—and I am the only one singled out to provide proof of who I am before I can make my purchase.
  • Most CEOs when they are out exercising don't have car doors locked as they walk by or women move to the other side of the street hugging their purses. Even as a CEO, the black male experience is my reality.

Years ago, my father taught me explicitly how to behave myself if ever confronted by a police officer, and I experienced being disrespected in my early 20s by someone who was supposed to protect my rights. I hold to this day that the biggest battle within me was the rage at how I was being treated while having to do what my father told me and respond appropriately. If I acted out how I was feeling at the time, I might not be here today.

So where do we go from here? In the Ferguson situation, we need to disregard the small percentage of criminals who are getting publicity for their destruction of property and instead pay attention to the sincere marchers and protestors who are voicing their demands for change. This is our opportunity to focus on improving race relations for the future, especially for young black men and also for those picked up to be deported based on their race. A few ideas have great potential to revolutionize race relations:

  • I endorse the idea that every police officer videotapes interactions as the first major step to protect both individuals and the police officers.
  • We must engage community activists to sit down with police, the government and local businesses to work together in different ways. Over time we will see the current environment of police officers going to white neighborhoods to "protect and resolve issues" and going into black neighborhoods to "combat and control" change to become a culture of police officers being in all neighborhoods to protect and participate.
  • We must collectively support local school and church leaders as they reach out to youth and adults to start a more positive dialogue to make all our neighborhoods safer.
  • We can ask businesses in our communities for their support as we build a greater sense of community, both locally and nationally.

The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can become a reality for everyone if we eliminate issues standing in the way of improved race relations. I love this country and we've made so much progress, but we're not there yet. With deeper understanding and thoughtful and positive participation, America—and Americans—can live up to our full potential in a country built on diversity of thought, spirit, race and experience.

Bernard J. Tyson is the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente.