The editor of the Miami University Dolibois European Center newsletter asked me to write to our US students a piece to explain my motivation for participating in a #BlackLivesMatter demonstration that took place on a wet and cold Friday afternoon outside the US embassy in Luxembourg. Under the circumstances, and with the high risk backdrop of a large gathering spreading the Covid-19 virus, my motivation clearly was not “a fun day out”. My motivation and, I believe, that of many of the over 1,500 demonstrators present (a lot in Luxembourg!) was far more complicated and enduring. Motivation is a personal story, and here it is.
Every now and then, it’s good to shake things up. I like to follow the adage that if you keep developing, you will never be obsolete. I had decided that 2020 would be a year of change, and it certainly is – some of it self-driven, some of it as a result of the winds of fate.
Since leaving mainstream banking in 2012, I have run a portfolio of separate activities; all in the field of ethics, compliance and governance. I have been teaching at MUDEC for a decade, I run executive and director workshops, and I hold a couple of directorships at not-for-profit institutions. I have a website platform for idea-creation. This year, I have plans for my platform and to find time and opportunity to push the topic of democratic freedoms and values. Then … along came Covid-19, inspiring our MGT291 professor / student videocast “A semester like no other”, and then came the George Floyd video and the ascent of #BlackLivesMatter – again.
As a Norwegian European, I believe strongly in democracy, social justice and equal opportunities. For years now, as my ex-students will have noticed, I have been pushing the message of diversity, inclusion, and stakeholder / values-led management; both as a professional and as an educator. I believe in this with a passion. As a professor, I have to keep my opinions and political views to myself. I issue a “public mental health warning” to incoming students every semester that in European political terms, I am a moderate, left of center type of person and that they may consider some of my opinions and teachings very “liberal” in US terms. However, when you teach a subject around the concept of organizational behavior and positive psychology, it is hard not to come across as “liberal” to many Americans. Perhaps one of the biggest schisms between US and European politics is that Europe believes in the welfare state, the US largely believes in a health sector market; Europe has a more collectivist approach to its communities, whereas the USA is far more individualistic (students may revisit Chapter 13 of our MGT291 text book, “Surviving Organisational Behaviour”).
Generally speaking, outrage at social inequality has been building ever since the financial crisis of 2007/08. Until then, it was difficult for many to feel justified in complaining too much, as it seemed that everything was “on the up”, as they say. Rising social inequality went largely under the radar as economies continued to grow. However, the crisis ushered in an era of austerity that placed the spotlight firmly on the disparity in impact it has had on the “haves” and “have-nots” – A wave of general discontent resulted in the Occupy movement in 2010/11 with its focus on the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the “top 1%” in the world. The world had gone from one of reasonable social equity, where CEOs in the 1970s earned maybe 50x that of the average worker, to 500x. The disparity was suddenly visible to everyone.
Since then, the financial crisis has had a series of very tangible and obvious outcomes. People started to identify themselves as “the left-behind”; a section of society that are merely considered “fodder” for big business and for whom government cares less for than the rich and powerful, privileged, self-perpetuating elite. Large sections of the electorate lost trust in political institutions and its agencies, and nationalist populism started to increase as people looked about them for someone to blame. It’s a process we have witnessed time and time again throughout history, and it is a threat to democracy, community, welfare and prosperity. Since Occupy, we have had Brexit in the UK, the election of a US president on the ticket of “Make America Great Again”, the rise of extreme right political parties like the AfD in Germany and the National Front (now the National Rally) in France. We have also had the advent of right-wing terrorism with xenophobic slaughters in countries as far apart as Norway and New Zealand. It may be that nationalists have points of view that should be heard, but they are also voices of exclusion that often target ethnic and social minorities – often anything or anyone that is different from a narrowly defined nationalist perspective. As a citizen, and as a professor of management, I believe that diversity is to be encouraged and that it is a driver of innovation, invention and creativity. At the end of the day, people grow tired of not being heard or seemingly cared for; they yearn for an opportunity to “take back control” as was a major slogan for the UK Brexit campaign.
Racism has been, and remains, a problem for most societies. In Luxembourg, we are a very diverse, educated and well-off population led by an openly gay Prime Minister. The forces of conservatism are there, but the benefits of openness and diversity are generally welcomed. Luxembourg may not be perfect, but it is ahead of the EU pack on social inclusion; in many EU countries there are minority groups who feel discriminated against. Sometimes a perceived injustice will result in a riot, but for the most part racial and social justice issues are managed well enough to avoid too much “outrage”.
The US have enjoyed long periods of admiration. Under iconic leaders like Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy – even Reagan and more recently Obama, the US symbolized democracy, individual freedom and hope. The US has often been on a pedestal in such matters. However, there is also a darker side to US history that every European knows of, including the genocide of native Americans and slavery (although the role of Europe in occasioning both are less spoken of).
Regrettably, it is easy for Europeans to compare its own racial and social inequality with the US and to feel comparatively superior. We see George Floyd type images and hear stories of unjustified police killings all too often. We see the underrepresentation of black or Asian groups in US politics and challenge poor US tourists on the topic if the occasion allows. Until now, it has – for the most part – been viewed as a US problem. Why demonstrate outside the US embassy unless it involves European interests, such as the impact of the Vietnam or Iraq wars – or US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord?
For me, and many of those in my circles, what we witnessed in the George Floyd video came at the end of a flurry of viral stories on social media highlighting US injustice. For years now, President Trump’s handling of international matters has been compounded by his open xenophobia concerning non-white groups in the USA. After the perceived naivety of George W. Bush, the temporary relief and stability offered by Obama, and then the abandonment of empathy towards old friends and allies by Trump, the fear of another 4-year term is real. We have been “shaking our heads” and (perhaps condescendingly?) feeling sorry for our US cousins for some time – when we saw the extreme cases of injustice, the distress and desperation of black cousins across the Atlantic, Europeans wanted to support them.
Personally, I would have gone to demonstrate irrespective of Corona, rain, sleet or snow. I want a strong USA to stand up for freedom, equality and justice in the world. I want these things in Europe too, even if our interpretation of how to achieve these values may differ. I have admired the USA most of my life; I feel disappointed and just a little betrayed. I feel anger.The Corona Age has given many people time to think about society and democracy. In management speak, the Social of ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) in business has been highlighted. The plight of underprivileged, struggling members of the workforce and society have been highlighted. European nerves were already raw, US injustice just lit the fuse.