Op-Ed: 'I Fit the Description'
I have wrestled with whether or not to speak out about recent racial events. The pandemic, WFH, and staying busy have made it convenient to avoid the discomfort of engaging my feelings and my colleagues on the issues. But, silence is not an option. So, after some emotional conversations within the Brown family, I’ve decided that I should also share some thoughts with my J.P. Morgan family.
I watched the video of George Floyd begging, pleading, and ultimately calling out for his mother before dying. A police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while three other police officers watched. Seeing this vicious murder completely wrecked my spirit. It is impossible for me to un-see the look on George Floyd’s face or to un-hear the desperation in his voice. I was overcome with disgust, sadness, and a very healthy dose of anger. A lot of anger! It was absolutely infuriating to watch. But, while anger was the strongest of these emotions, it is merely a by-product of the main driver – fear.
The video of George Floyd’s murder enrages me because, more than anything, it frightens me. Why? I fit the description. I have never met George Floyd, but as black men in America, we share a common bond. I saw George this morning, while brushing my teeth in front of a mirror. I see George when I am talking to my three sons. We all fit the description.
Any notion that my station in life would insulate me from the threat of police brutality was scrapped early in my Wall Street career. In May of 1999, I was a young bond trader and Vice President at Morgan Stanley. It was Mother’s Day and I was driving home to surprise my mom. That profile likely resonates as a non-threatening one to anyone reading this. But, on that day it became “...a black subject traveling southbound on U.S. 13 in a late-model SUV with New Jersey tags...”. Driving down Virginia’s eastern shore, I fit the description.
Subsequently, being stopped for driving 12 mph over the speed limit transitioned to me being asked to “step out of the vehicle,” the vehicle being “searched for weapons,” and 15-20 minutes of provocation and intimidation by two police officers. There I was, alone, on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge with nothing but water in every direction. I was terrified. What did I do? I complied. I answered insulting questions. I bit my tongue, said a lot of “yes sirs,” and I prayed. And while I’ve lived to tell the story, I rarely feel brave enough to share it with co-workers.
I am sharing this story now, with an aim of starting the conversation. For my colleagues that also fit the description, it is my hope that you will be brave enough to share your stories. I know you have some, as I have others. For my colleagues that do not fit the description, it is my hope that you will be brave enough to listen to those stories. Sounds simple, and it is, but it will not be easy. Keep it simple and uncomfortable. In that uncomfortable space is where deep, meaningful change occurs. It’s where we become more than co-workers. It’s where friendships are established. And most importantly, in that uncomfortable space of knowing and being known, hate cannot survive.
Lastly, while I am disgusted, saddened, angry and fearful, I am not defeated. I remain hopeful. As I look at these protests around the world, I see all types of diversity. This excites me. I believe that George Floyd did not die in vain. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” I plan to look up and see the stars. Will you join me? While we cannot eradicate our shameful past in this country, we can absolutely finish strong. The ask I have of my J.P. Morgan family: Let’s get on with the first-class business of finishing strong!
Michael is Co-Chair of the Corporate & Investment Bank's Leadership Forum
and a Managing Director in Global Securitized Products.