Ibram X. Kendi says antiracism can solve wealth management’s diversity issues

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Ibram X. Kendi’s concept of antiracism has been deemed radical by some.

The 39-year-old author, activist and MacArthur Fellow believes that simply being “not racist” is not enough. Instead, the nation’s history of inequality must be acknowledged, and active steps must be taken to dismantle the foundation that has allowed it to continue for generations.

He believes the same approach can be taken to address the racial problems that persist in wealth management, calling those who continue to stand by and do nothing the true extremists.

“It’s radical to live in a nation where there is widespread racial inequity and to think that the inequities are the result of a particular racial group being inferior,” said Kendi, founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. “It’s radical to not recognize the actual policies and practices behind those disparities, and then allow those disparities to persist. Black people don’t have less on average wealth because there’s something wrong with Black people.

“What are the past and present policies that could have led to those disparities, and how do I go about being a part of those campaigns to eliminate those policies and create more equitable policies for all?”

Kendi’s remarks came during a fireside chat about the meaning of antiracism and its implications for the financial services industry that closed the 2021 CFP Board Center for Financial Planning Diversity Summit and Career Fair.

The conversation saw Kendi and CFP Board Managing Director D.A. Abrams sit down for a virtual face-to-face where they talked about the country’s racial awakening in 2020 and the role financial planners can play in the pursuit of progress.

Abrams led the discussion by mentioning the change that has happened across the nation following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. During that same period, Kendi’s 2019 book “How to Be an Antiracist” became a New York Times bestseller and maintained a position on that list for nearly a year.

The two men touched on the wealth gap from the vantage point of financial planners, with Abrams asking how advisors who typically provide assistance to high net worth clients can have an impact.

Kendi said financial planners can encourage clients mulling philanthropic pursuits to give to organizations that support underserved communities and invest in companies owned by people of color.

“Financial planners can show the data that demonstrates it’s not a bad investment to invest in those types of companies,” he said.

On the topic of recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, Kendi said the formula to success is one part data, one part culture. Just as firms heavily rely on data to assess their bottom lines, the same should be done to intelligently diversify staff.

“What are the racial demographics of the community that’s served? That becomes something that a company can shoot for to be close to,” he said. “And equity is not saying that if the national Black population is 12%, we have to literally have exactly 12% percent of employees be Black. But be in the range as opposed to having 3% of employees be Black.”

Abrams agreed, stating that the demographic goals for a firm serving Salt Lake City will probably differ from a firm serving Philadelphia.

The culture component relates to being highly engaged with staff members. Firm leaders should routinely ask employees how they’re feeling and aggregate those experiences to assess what changes need to be made to create a greater sense of belonging.

Abrams followed by asking how to best implement change once it has been determined that change is needed. Should firms seek buy-in from their people before making a move, or should movement be used to motivate?

For Kendi, leaders should begin with action, or run the risk of continued inaction.

“Historically, when we look at people who have changed their minds, particularly on race, it’s been more likely for them to change their mind after a policy had been instituted and once they begin to realize that this new law is actually not going to harm them,” he said.

Kendi then gave the example of a white, male advisor who is resistant to overt diversity efforts experiencing greater career success once the makeup of his team includes Black and brown colleagues.

“That white male is getting raises and he’s making that connection, so now he’s supportive of diversity. And studies show that more diverse teams that feel a sense of belonging are more profitable and more efficient,” Kendi said.

Kendi added newly minted allies, like the white advisor in his example, must also be willing to endure the pain that often accompanies sweeping change. That means supporting, and advocating, for something previously seen as threatening or adversarial.

But to be successful, antiracism must be about grace as much as it is about action. In a discussion about cancel culture, Abrams asked how the financial services industry should address past racism that comes to light, or current racism unearthed by someone willing to speak up.

Kendi said part of being antiracist is taking complete ownership of racist acts and being clear about your intentions to correct the behavior.

“Typically those who are racist always deny when they’re being racist. They don’t have the ability to admit that they just said a racist thing or that they did something that was racist 20 years ago,” he said. “So we have to give people the grace to acknowledge, admit and repair.”

Kendi closed the discussion with a message for those just starting their antiracism journeys who may be feeling overwhelmed by all the information shared during the discussion. He assured them that not having all the right answers is nothing to be ashamed of.

But whenever that feeling returns, think about the people directly harmed by the inequality in the industry. He said clarity can come by taking a moment to slow down and think deeply about your own understanding of the issues, seeking help when necessary.

“Americans commonly claim they’re not racist but don’t have a working definition of the term. So it’s inconceivable to claim you are not something if you don’t know what that something truly is,” Kendi said. “Really sit down and define the terms. Hopefully define it based on expertise that other people are providing, but define the term for yourself and begin to really assess those ideas.”