America is at a tipping point, as we face the greatest crises since the Great Depression.
We are confronting four crises simultaneously that are inextricably intertwined: racial tensions revealed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing; the ongoing spread of COVID-19; the ensuing economic turmoil; and political disintegration caused by extreme partisan division.
Floyd’s killing ripped off the bandage of America’s idealistic façade and revealed the ugly truth that African-Americans do not have equal opportunities. Nor are they afforded the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” promised to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence, which declares that “all men are created equal.”
Equality is the country’s True North—and America has lost sight of it. Income inequality is greater than it has ever been. Disparities between whites and people of color are widening, not shrinking. People of color regularly face racial injustice. The middle class is shrinking and struggling to stay above water. Ill health and diseases like COVID-19 fall most heavily on people of color. Those on the lower rungs of the social-economic ladder are burdened by underpaid jobs, lack of health care, part-time work, and being unemployed. For many, the American dream seems far out of reach.
It is easy to stand to cheer the American flag and sing the national anthem, but much harder to make the promises of July 4, 1776, become reality for all Americans. As we approach the nation’s 244th anniversary, we are more divided as a nation than we have been at any time since the Civil War. As Abraham Lincoln said amid the turmoil of that conflict, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Lincoln strove to unite Americans as he summoned Americans to have “malice toward none and charity toward all.” Today we have strayed far from his admonition. Far too often, we have malice for many and charity only for people in our tribe. After decades of progress in desegregating our society, we have re-segregated our schools, communities, churches and friendships.
It is time for Americans to set aside our differences and cast off anger, prejudices, and disdain for people who look or believe differently than we do. We are all Americans – white, black, brown, or yellow; native-born or recently immigrated citizens.
This is not a national problem that can be changed by the president. Genuine change must come from us as individuals – in our hearts and minds – and by working within our communities and cities. That is the only way genuine and lasting change takes place.
Ask yourself: What can I do? Then ask: What can we do together? Here’s my list of simple and immediate things I am doing right now:
1. Calling my African-American friends to see how they are feeling and to understand their point of view. Listening to their personal experiences with discrimination.
2. Touring riot-torn areas of Minneapolis and talking to local residents about their hopes for rebuilding. Exploring how and why the health and economic burdens of COVID-19 have impacted lower social-economic groups more severely.
3. Watching films like The 13th and Just Mercy, and reading books articulating the history and viewpoints of African-Americans, including The New Jim Crow and White Fragility.
4. Listening to cable television, checking out websites and reading newspapers articulating perspectives different than your own. For me this includes Fox News, Breitbart, American Conservative and Federalist. For others it might include CNN, New York Times, or The Atlantic.
5. Engaging in dialogues on social media with thoughtful people with different viewpoints in order to understand their perspectives.
6. Listening to what our neighbors are saying and feeling. Exploring what we can do together, such as neighborhood block parties or joining National Night Out, an event that aims to foster better community-police relations.
If these ideas stimulate your thinking, join in and make your own list.
At this tipping point, most Americans are hungry for change, but change will only happen if we as individuals vow to change ourselves and broaden our perspectives. Only in this way can we realize America’s True North and reunite around America’s founding principles.
Rediscovering America’s True North requires unified leadership from all elements of society—our elected leaders as well as community, business, civic and social service and health care leaders, representing all racial and ethnic groups. This is the only way to restore the soul of America.
Only then can we get America back on course toward the promise of the better life to which we all aspire.
Only then can we be the beacon to the world that provides equal opportunity for everyone to work hard, advance along the economic ladder, and realize their unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Only then can we renew the American dream.
Bill George is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He is the author of Discover Your True North.
More opinion in Fortune:
- A black partner’s perspective on why law firms are failing at diversity
- I’m a black tech CEO. Diversity shouldn’t be our end goal; ending the current corporate culture should
- Bristol Myers Squibb CEO: Why the COVID-19 pandemic has me optimistic about the future of medical research
- How investors can support diversity with their dollars
- Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
- WATCH: Baxter International CEO on reopening and leadership during social unrest