235 : Working While at War (w/ ESPN’s Howard Bryant)

Zach has the honor of welcoming Howard Bryant back to the podcast on this special Saturday episode. He and Howard touch on several elements of our current civil rights protest, and Howard graciously explains why he disagrees with the sentiment that white folks are just now really understanding and seeing the evils of racism. Check the links in the show notes for ways to pledge your support!

*This episode features occasional explicit language.*

Connect with Howard on TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn, and don’t forget to check out his website.

Learn more about Howard’s latest book, Full Dissidence, by clicking here.

Interested in finding out more about Howard’s other books? Click here to be redirected to his Amazon page.

Donate to Black Lives Matter by clicking here.

Split a donation between 70+ community bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizers by clicking here.

You can pledge your support to a variety of institutions by clicking the following links: Know Your Rights CampNAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Campaign Zero.


Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and I have my daughter Emory in my lap. Say something, Emory. You gonna say something? No? Okay. And, you know, this is not the norm, right? Like, typically you’re gonna listen to See It to Be It with Amy C. Waninger or The Link Up with Latesha with Latesha Byrd. However, as we look at the world around us and the chaos that continues around us–like, we’re not teetering towards chaos, we are in a chaotic time. And we see the state by way of their police force abusing everybody. It’s a unique time, and so we wanted to make sure today–not Tuesday, but today–that we actually had a really in-depth and frank conversation with someone who understands the concept of dissidence, and that’s Howard Bryant. Howard Bryant is a senior contributor and writer for both ESPN and NPR, and he wrote a book titled Full Dissidence, and it tackled the reality of protest, and he really analyzed and assessed Colin Kaepernick’s protest and really broke down white power structures that maintain the status quo in spite of dissidence. And, you know, we also talked a little bit about–and you’re gonna hear this–the responses of many of these corporations and how authentic they were in actually addressing the problem. And so, you know, one point of feedback, and you’ll notice this, is that organizations are going to–and they’re doing it now, and they’re going to continue [to do it]–to treat racism as this abstract concept, and so it’s up to those who are in positions of authority and have courage to speak to tie those words and concepts into tangible actions, right? So it’s not enough to say, you know, “We have to do better and be better and treat people better and open our hearts and minds.” That’s not actually what changes. What changes is actually structures and policies to actually make a difference, right? Enacting pillars or means of accountability and repercussions for bad behavior. That’s how you change, and so to all the organizations who are seeking to make these statements, understand, like, we’re in a different place, and folks are looking to hold folks accountable in a different way. [laughs] I just saw a Google Sheet that’s been going around that actually really starts getting tangible about how authentic some of these folks are when it comes to anti-racism, and, you know, it doesn’t just stop out there. It continues within organizations, right? Like, your company does not have this magic barrier that stops racism, and so that’s important, and so we talk about that, and I wanted to make sure–because we didn’t have a lot of time with Howard Bryant so I didn’t have time to do a bunch of intro stuff, we just got right into the questions, so I wanted to make sure to give a little bit of context. I pray that everyone who’s hearing this is staying safe. Definitely support everybody protesting. You’re seeing on Living Corporate, we are trying to amplify as much as we can. You’re gonna see some links to donate to different protestors and bail funds and things of that nature. You’re gonna see that in there. My hope and my desire is if you’re an aspiring ally and you listen to Living Corporate regularly that you would check those links and donate. You don’t have to donate to Living Corporate, just donate. Just click the links. Just please donate to those links. Shout-out to all my people. Love y’all. ‘Til next time. Peace.

Zach: Howard, welcome back to the show. How are you doing?

Howard: I’m good. How are you?

Zach: Man… you know. [chuckles]

Howard: [chuckles] Staying sane during all of this?

Zach: Trying to, trying to, trying to. Look, you know, we had you on not too long ago, and you’ve seen a lot, I know, in your life in terms of civil struggle. I think I was a kid when the Rodney King riots happened. In your estimation, is this the largest civil rights protest that you’ve seen in your lifetime?

Howard: I don’t know. That’s a good question, that’s a really good question, considering a few things, right? I was, what… Rodney King, I was 22, and that was nowhere near close to this. I mean, that was–that was disbelief followed by sort of [retrenchment?] followed by rage, because let’s not forget that Rodney King happened over a year. Because first it was the beating, then there was the trial, you know, and then there was the uprising, and that happened in ’92, but Rodney King actually got beaten down in ’91. And so there was that, but this is also–then there’s also Ferguson, and so what was happening in Ferguson and Baltimore, all of these things were sort of separate. So I think yes, actually when you really think about it in terms of one sort of linear scale moment, yes, this is the biggest reaction, this is the greatest singular reaction that I’ve ever seen, and I think that it’s been a long time coming. I think that there’s so many different avenues that you can take when assessing something like this. Obviously if you’re Black you’re sort of wondering “What took so long?” I think even if you’re just an observer you look at it and say, “Okay, why now? Why Minneapolis? Why was this one the one that linked everybody?” All kinds of great questions there, and then I think the other question that you have here too when you look at it is “What is going to come of it?” And happening during a pandemic. I mean, I swear, man, I believe–I woke up the other day wondering if I had, like, fallen down the stairs and been in intensive care and nobody told me. I mean, I woke up–I woke up and had all these messages from all these people, all my white friends. “If there’s anything I can do.” I’m like, “What happened?” Then I get another one going, “Oh, I’m so worried about you right now.” I’m like, “What happened?” I’m checking my phone, I’m checking the news. I’m like, “What happened? Why is everybody texting me making sure I’m okay?” Then I check my email. “Just really worried, you know, about you and yours, and anything I can do,” I’m like… “What happened?” And now you’re recognizing that “Oh, they’re getting it now. This one got to them.” And I’m not even trying to be funny. I literally had no idea why I was getting all these messages, because for us this is normal. This was like, “Okay, this is one of many.”

Zach: Exactly, right? And I saw you tweeted about this, and I’ve actually talked to my colleagues about this too, but there seems to be, like, this large sentiment that white folks are just now really understanding and seeing the evils of racism, and, like, what do you make of that? What do you make of this phenomenon?

Howard: Yeah, I don’t make any–I don’t believe that for a minute. I think it’s something totally different, and I think that we’re in the middle of… I don’t know if you’re an Alfred Hitchcock fan or not, but Hitchcock mastered the art form of the MacGuffin, and the MacGuffin was essentially the red herring. It was the thing that made you think the plot was, but it wasn’t. Like, if you’re watching–like, if you watch Psycho it’s like, “Okay, it wasn’t about the $40,000 he stole after all, was it? It wasn’t that. It was this.” I don’t believe that I’m actually gonna say this, but I’m gonna say this, and I was talking to Roland Martin about this the other day. I really believe that racism in some ways is a bit of misdirection, [that?] racism is not the issue. The issue is policing. The issue I think white people are tired. I think the country’s tired. I think after three and a half years of this administration and this buildup, I think that people are recognizing there’s no way out, and I think that if you combine that with a pandemic where everybody’s been in the house for three months, I think things are starting to–I think it’s sort of, like, a perfect storm in a lot of ways, and I think that the visceral nature of that killing… I think Eric Garner was one thing, and I think Eric Garner was every bit the same type of killing that this one was, but I think Eric Garner happened in such a flurry that I don’t think that people paid as close attention because Eric Garner and Ferguson were right next to each other, and I think that there was still enough misdirection–and I also think there was something else, and I think that there was a feeling too that there was going to be some form of accountability because you had Barack Obama in the White House and he was talking about accountability and talking about [?], and so there was this feeling that maybe the system was actually going to maybe kind of do something down the line, but here with this administration, I think they’ve made it very, very clear that this is the norm, and watching that murder and having it be a physical murder–it wasn’t that he got shot or anything, you literally put your knee on the neck of somebody while he was held down, you know, apprehended by three other officers. There was no reason for it. It resonated. I think people saw it because their lives have shut down. I think it’s easier to ignore this stuff when your life is moving on. You, like, take a little look and you keep going, but everybody’s been stuck in the house, so everybody’s been paying–I think people paid much more attention to this because they didn’t have anything else necessarily, because it feels like the country is falling apart, right? I mean, it already feels like, “All right, we’re talking about the economy and everybody’s losing their jobs and you have 40 million people out there on unemployment AND you’re in the house watching videos all day in-between Zoom chats.” All you’re doing is you’re online. So something about it hit in a way that it didn’t hit in other ways, and then on top of that the marshal response is very different, where you have a bunch of white kids out there, this looks like–I mean, so when you say “my lifetime,” technically my lifetime? No, because I was born in 1968. So this feels like ’68 in terms of when you see a whole bunch of anti-war people and, you know, when you see white people–when you see white people getting the shit beat out of them by police, you know that something’s happening.

Zach: They getting whooped out here.

Howard: Exactly, and they’re out front. And I think there’s something else too worth paying attention to, and that is this may be a delayed sort of effect of the last 12 years. I think that if the 2008 election was your first election, you were 18 years old, you’re 30 years old now, and in 2008 you had a belief that this was gonna be different. Not just black people, but everybody on that side had a belief that that election was finally going to turn a corner and that these corners were going to keep being turned, and they’re not, and now you see this frustration. And on top of that, that generation, that generation believed. I mean, we talked about this last time. The thing that I was really worried about, I was worried about it for black people, I’m now somewhat worried about it for white people in a lot of ways, is that they believed in 2008, that this country was free and that all you had to do was break that logjam, and I think that logjam, first you break it with Obama, but then after that you break it with his reelection. So you think, “Okay, maybe we normalized this idea that anybody can be president,” then it’s been backed up with nothing but retrenchment. You know, 1. you look at how Hillary lost, 2. you look at how Brett Cavanaugh got to the Supreme Court, 3. you look at how Elizabeth Warren was essentially humiliated, even though she was clearly one of the smartest if not the smartest candidate who was running for office. So now you have these white people, and white women in some ways especially, finally realizing what it’s like to get punched in the face politically, you know? Where you finally start to realize “Oh, we’re getting it too,” and if you start to add up this accumulation on top of an administration that has essentially been cracking down, whether you’re talking about immigration, you’re talking about–it’s all of these things together, and then you see this black man getting killed in essentially slow-motion for 8 minutes and people are like, “Enough,” and then the dam breaks. And it’s an election year as well. So I think there are so many things that are happening. You know, and this is how it usually works, right? And how it usually works is that it’s all the things. It’s never “the one thing,” it’s all the things combined that create the breaking point, and the Trump reaction to the breaking point, to essentially build a fortress around the White House, to have prison guards who are unidentified out in the streets policing D.C., to essentially unleash police on everyday citizens, you know, to do that, to have them fire into crowds of white people… this feels like dystopia. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re nearing chaos.” No, we are in chaos right now. We’re in it.

Zach: I want to pivot a little bit and talk about some of the responses, like, that we’re seeing from these major brands, and I’d like to stick to sports [chuckles] for a second. Is there any bigger example of cognitive dissonance than Washington making statements or [?]?

Howard: Oh, and the Chicago Blackhawks or the Braves? Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, you know, but once again, people talk all the time about weaponizing your politics, right? And usually when they talk about these types of weaponizings they talk about political correctness or they talk about virtue signaling or they use all of these very insulting terms to essentially ridicule people of color or people who are gay or Black people or whoever about their identity choices, identity politics. You hear all of these different insulting terms, right? There’s no greater example of political correctness than the National Football League acting like they care about this. All they’re trying to do is send a message that they’re on the right side of this when their history shows 100% they are not on the right side of this. They’re on the opposite side of this. And the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Blackhawks and the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians and all of these teams with their racist logos are gonna say that they care about this, that they actually care? And all of these teams, every team in the National Football League who essentially took Colin Kaepernick and ruined his career, they took his career from him, are now going to say that they’re in support of Black people? But if you notice, it’s a very delicate dance because they don’t want to mention the word “police.”

Zach: I was just about to say it’s interesting to see that machine coming together, right? Like, they’ll talk about [?] “Racism does not align with our values,” [but] they don’t talk about the police brutality. Mainstream media isn’t talking about widespread police abuse.

Howard: Well, that’s what I mean about racism in its own way being a red herring. It’s a MacGuffin. The goal here is not to eliminate racism. That’s not the goal, right? The goal is for the system that you tell us to trust to do its job and arrest those four cops and prosecute them and have the juries out there recognize that crimes were committed and convicting them and of course putting them in jail, and on top of that we’re forming laws that give police this wide latitude to do these things in the first place. But if you focus on racism, you don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to do anything. So you concentrate–so all we’ve been seeing here is “Oh, we’ve gotta–oh, Black Lives Matter, and, you know, we have to be better and be kinder to people, and we need to–you know, racism is the pandemic, it’s the second pandemic.” I don’t care about any of this. What I care about, I care about the actual concrete structures changing, and they’re acting like this, and what they’re doing is that they’re selling this to the public to make it sound like there’s nothing they can do. They could go back to session right now and change the damn laws. That’s what they can do. And when you think about on the other side, right, when there is a scourge that they feel is affecting society and affecting crime and everything else, all of a sudden there’s plenty of concrete steps when it comes to black people. When they find black people as a scourge, all of a sudden you’ve got all kinds of tangible, concrete resources and solutions. You’ve got tougher laws. You build more jails. You put more cops on the street. You have more resources. You have longer prison sentences. Suddenly the entire machine actually works with concrete steps. But when you’re asking white people to hold police accountable, it’s “Let’s abolish racism. Let’s be nicer to each other. Let’s one day open our hearts and be the society we say we want to be.” No. No. You guys go to session and you take those cops and you put them in jail. Let’s have a little conversation about one other thing, right? Fear. Let’s talk about fear for just a minute, right? One of the reasons that you don’t walk into an office and you look at your female coworker and you say, “Nice rack,” or you say, “Nice ass,” or you make some comment on her, right, you don’t do that. Not anymore you don’t. Why don’t you do that? It’s not because the minute you walked into that building suddenly your heart opened up and suddenly you were a nicer person and you weren’t a frat boy misogynist asshole anymore. It meant that when you walked in that building you knew the fear of what was gonna happen to you if you talked to your coworkers by that. So what we’re really talking about is you know damn well you’re not a nicer person. You just know not to talk like that ’cause you know you’re gonna lose your career.

Zach: There’s consequences and repercussions to that, absolutely.

Howard: Right, there’s consequences and repercussions to that. So why doesn’t that get applied to policing? That you are going to lose everything if you act like this. If you changed the laws and you changed the cultural attitudes and said, “Listen, if you do what you guys did to George Floyd, your careers are over, we take your pensions, you are prohibited from working in this field for the rest of your lives,” it would change. And on top of that, and to you police departments, these civil settlements that we have to pay that are in the billions, they’re coming out of your budgets and your pensions. You would see a behavioral change overnight. “And if we catch you on video punching some teenager who’s already in handcuffs, you’re done,” and it’s an immediate felony charge, and all of a sudden if you start applying three strikes to the police the same way you apply three strikes to some dude buying a dimebag, all of a sudden you would see change, but instead what you’re seeing is “Oh, well, open your hearts and let’s be kind,” and they’re using racism and the utopian society as some sort of goal when actually none of this would have happened if you had arrested those guys and put them in jail the minute it happened.

Zach: 100%. You’re absolutely right, right? And I think it’s actually happening also in the corporate space too, you know, and I want to talk about dissidence, and I know we have a little bit of time left, but I want to get to this. So the last time we spoke about, you know, we talked about the concept of full dissidence, and it’s interesting because I think Black professionals across the industry in North America that I’ve definitely seen, they’re seeing these companies treat race as an abstract, and they themselves, similar to how you’re saying about, you know, the policing system and how there are things that we can tangibly change, they too are seeing how things can be tangibly changed. I’m curious though, before we get even into work, what are your thoughts about the video that just dropped from the NFL players. Is that an example of the dissidence that you’re speaking about?

Howard: Partially. It’s on its way. It’s on its way, and what I like about that is I feel like they’re recognizing that you have a responsibility here. And let’s face it, the NFL opened up the door here. They all did. Hollywood did, sports did, everybody did, and now the question’s gonna be “Are you gonna walk the walk? What are you gonna do?” And now people want to see what you’re gonna do. So if you’re the NFL, are you gonna put out 33 of these statements, 32 teams and one league all putting out statements, and then blackball a guy? Well, what good is the statement? Are you going to put out all of these statements about how much you’re down with Black people and then prohibit them from expressing themselves? Are you going to do this and, at the same time, make everybody celebrate police? And how are you going to celebrate police and military when you have the police knocking down 75-year-old men and you have the National Guard pointing weapons at its own citizens?

Zach: And killing folks.

Howard: And killing folks. Are you able to do that? You aren’t going to be able to do that anymore. So I like what the players are doing. I also feel like the larger unspoken part of all of this is also the idea that your white fans are more important than your black fans. Because let’s face it, if you had respect for your black fans, you wouldn’t have done that to Colin Kaepernick because most black fans supported Colin Kaepernick. So what you were really doing was you were sending the message to your white fanbase saying, “We got this,” right? And I understand it at some level. I understand it at a fear level, the fear level being, “Well, listen, this is our business model, and if people abandon our business model what are we gonna do?” But then, you know, it’s fear versus courage. Do you have courage to also say to those people, “Listen, A. it’s a free country, this is his protest, B. he’s right, we have issues and we need to fix them, and C. in a sort of way, I dare you to leave. You ain’t going nowhere. You’re football fans. You love this sport, you love this game. Are you really going to tell us that you’re no longer gonna watch the National Football League because one guy on a team you don’t even follow is taking a knee about an issue that he cares about?” But that’s really not the issue. The issue is that what he did inflamed all of them, the people who run the game. He offended their politics, and he forced a reckoning that you’re seeing right now with the Saquon Barkley video that those guys did, and interesting respect seeing Pat Mahomes on there because, you know, for lots of reasons. You know, I mean, 1. people have been talking about the biracial element of this, you know, where does this leave the biracial kids? Well, Pat Mahomes told you. “I’m Black. That’s where it leaves me.” And it also leaves you somewhere else. When the superstars get involved things change, and the superstars have a quarterback, and Pat Mahomes is a superstar quarterback.

Zach: Right, arguably the best quarterback in the league right now.

Howard: Arguably the best quarterback in football, and if he’s gonna be the guy, then all of a sudden the whole game changes.

Zach: Right. So let me wrap up on this one. You know, the last time you were here, you called out how a lot of this diversity and inclusion, corporatized stuff, is actually anti-Black, and I think we’re seeing, like, a watershed moment right now where these organizations and this industry that has largely been focused on white women, if queer identities white queer identities, is now scrambling to hire consultants and create new programs and create new statements to really address their actual black employees, and I’m curious to know, what do you predict is going to happen, and where do you see this ending now that we’re in a situation where corporations and businesses are focused to actually talk about blackness explicitly?

Howard: Well, I’m not willing to go there yet, and I’m not willing to go there yet for a few reasons. One, it’s too new, because I think everybody right now is just in damage control mode. That’s what I think, so that’s my first reaction is “I’m gonna wait and see. Let’s play this out.” What’s gonna happen two, three, four months from now? The world has been moving so quickly that this–who knew that a global pandemic was actually going to be second on the news items now to something else? You never know what’s coming. And to me, I need to wait and see what they do with it, because right now the first thing that these guys are thinking about is putting out the fire, and once they put out the fire, are they going to go back to their regularly scheduled racism? And are they going to go back to the old way that they do things? Look, the bottom line with everything corporate to me, if you want to talk about diversity and inclusion and if you want to talk about advancement and if you want to talk about all of the different ways that the corporate world can be a hostile environment or it can be an encouraging one, to me it’s usually been hostile because I think that people in these industries have always wanted diversity of color without diversity of thought. The real question to me when I think about the corporate world has always been this – “Are you grooming me to replace you?” That’s the question. “Are you grooming me to be the face of your company? Are you grooming me to be the head of your corporation? Because if you are not, then what you’re really saying is I will always have limitations and that you’re always going to be scrambling to mollify whatever crisis we have in the day, that whatever the crisis [?] we’re gonna find some way to calm it down and then go back to what we usually do.” If you are at a point one day where these corporations look at you and they say, “Hey, it’s okay to have two of our top three officers be Black, and one of them is the CEO and one of them’s the CFO, and we’re good,” instead of having your top Black officer always be corporate comm. If that’s the case, then maybe you’ll see some serious change, but to me the real issue has always been the actual limitations. When you look at the–you know, I talk about big government, and you think about advancement and the rise of the black middle class and the destruction of the black middle class, you’re usually talking about government. You’re not talking about corporations. You’re talking about the post office and you’re talking about civil service jobs and you’re talking about–those are the jobs that built the middle class. Corporations generally still do not hire black people in great enough numbers where you’re not relying on the government, you know? When black wealth starts to decline, usually it comes from the shrinking of government, of government jobs. So to me, when you start to see, if you ever start to see, a movement or a shift in those numbers where you have corporations who are willing to groom African-Americans to be real players in their industries, when you start to see that, then you’ll start to see change, and then I’ll look at it and say, “Hey, this is different,” but until then I’m gonna take a wait and see. And then also there’s one other thing to consider about that too. We don’t even know what the world is gonna look like, right? I mean, Black people right now are in the middle of this because of what’s happening in Minneapolis and around the country, but let’s not forget, we are still in the middle of a pandemic, and we are still–we’re only in the first wave of that pandemic, because when flu season hits we may be shutdown again. So we still need to take a long look at the larger picture of what’s happening, but as of today, the corporations have certainly put themselves in the position where it is appropriate to ask them if they’re going to walk the walk.

Zach: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Living Corporate. This has been Zach. You’ve been listening to Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and contributor and NPR writer and contributor as well. ‘Til next time, y’all. Peace.

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