Confronting Racism and Inequity in Our Cities and Our Prisons: REAL Politics

Confronting Racism and Inequity in Our Cities and Our Prisons: REAL Politics

The National League of Cities has launched a leadership training initiative with the attractive acronym REAL. It stands for Race, Equity And Leadership . . . a challenging combination.

Embracing the challenge, the National League of Cities’ own NLC University (sister institution to our FLC University) is bringing a leadership summit, Leading through Tough Times, to Orlando from September 16 to 19. (I’ll be there, giving the keynote on Friday.) Throughout the summit, in addition to other leadership topics, attendees will be “getting REAL,” wrestling with the realities of persistent racism and inequality and strategizing about how to change those realities in our communities.

It’s not easy. It’s never easy to change old habits. It’s never easy to identify, acknowledge and then change some aspect of an organization or a community’s culture that marginalizes or, worse, intimidates some to gratify others.

But there is a need for change, and that means a need for leaders who have the courage to point out those REALities and then lead the charge for the necessary change.

Along the way, leading can get messy. Strong leadership may offend, sometimes deeply . . . the price one pays to lead.

I was thinking about this last point when I read about Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones’ recent decision. Secretary Jones is requiring the top officials responsible for prisons and probation to reapply for their jobs or apply for some other position in the department, rather than allowing tenure in office to determine their title and authority.

“Smart,” I thought. “Classic Machiavelli.”

Niccolò Machiavelli was an astute observer of the real world of politics in a time when politics seems to have lacked any boundaries of conscience. It was all about power: how to obtain it, how to expand it, how to retain it . . . and how to stay alive.

The rules have changed (at least for us in this country), but the fundamental realities of human nature and the lust for power have not.

One of those realities is that one can anticipate that those with autonomous power, those who owe us nothing, are unlikely to follow us unless they’re inclined to go the same way. Recent case in point: the failure of the Florida Legislature’s two chambers to agree on a new congressional district map.

Neither side owes the other anything. Both cherish their power and their prerogatives. And the House and the Senate, arguably from the 2012 legislative session forward, were going down different paths. Result: no resolution.

But if one has the capacity to place others in one’s debt for something they value (like a position with status and power), and one employs that capacity effectively, it is remarkable how often those formerly unresponsive individuals begin to hang on one’s every directive or suggestion.

This is my advice to strong mayors (I’m serious). No senior person (I’m speaking only of exempt, non-civil-service-covered employees here) in the previous administration should be allowed to think he/she is entitled to an office, let alone a prestigious or lucrative one. Every senior person should be required to submit a letter of resignation or to reapply for a position in the administration. Every senior person should know, as a matter of fact, that they hold their position because their current boss believes they should have it.

And just to lend credence to the reality of the process, it’s good to accept the resignation letters of one or two folks, or decline to hire them upon application. Message: this “resignation” or “reapplication” thing isn’t just window dressing.

It’s tough . . . painfully so for families whose lives may be turned upside down, for career public servants who end up being sacrificed on the altar of effective exercise (and perhaps consolidation) of power, and for those who served under their direction, who now must adjust to a new leader.

Perhaps if the organization was running perfectly, without serious problems, none of this would be necessary. Perhaps if every senior administrator was quick to acknowledge, in word and in deed, the authority of the new head, it would be ridiculous to pursue.

But the Florida Department of Corrections isn’t such a place . . . and racism and inequitable treatment clearly persist in at least some of its facilities.

Just as they do in our cities.

They persist because we have allowed them to. They persist because we have not confronted their advocates (brazen or subtle), and our own internal tendencies to judge and classify others by something other than the content of their character.

Confronting the advocates and our own prejudices requires more than a smile and a firm handshake. It requires a keen understanding of the inner workings of human hearts and minds, a firm commitment to bring about the change we need to see, and a steely will.

A copy of The Prince in the back pocket might help, too.