A moment for change
Growing up in 1960s and ’70s Virginia, racism was always present, in forms direct and subtle. Each experience carried a message: to “know your place” and stay there. During my years as a student at Dinwiddie County High School, I remember being in the crowd when we hosted majority-Black Petersburg High School for a football game. Petersburg beat us up and down the field that late fall evening. As the game drew to a close, a local Klan group burned a large cross on a field adjacent to the high school. Each individual leaving the game, white and Black, had to drive past that burning cross, so large it could not be removed until the next day using special equipment. It was quite an ominous sight that has left a lasting and searing image forever in my consciousness.
Coming of age with aggressions like these, African Americans in our commonwealth arrived at three mindsets regarding racism: rage, departure or indifference.
I had grown accustomed to attitudes and institutions that shadowed the Black experience in Virginia. Visiting the Lee Monument as George Floyd protests swept the nation, I was shocked to see my two daughters, now in their 20s, moved to tears by the messages of protest painted on the monument. Similar to the burning cross at my high school, Richmond’s Confederate statues functioned as a bulwark for the attitudes and actions that overshadowed our experience as Virginians. My daughters’ reactions revealed to me the resolve of this next generation to no longer accept past and present racist values within their everyday experiences.
Having spent my career in the financial services sector, I bear firsthand witness to efforts to bring diversity and inclusion to the banking sector. At Bank of America, we have made progress — but as an industry we still have a long way to go. While health care and education have led the way in diversifying ranks, a visit to any banking conference demonstrates the ways in which the financial services sector has not kept up with the pace of change.
George Floyd’s tragic killing in May 2020 set in motion a powerful wave of protests, stirring discourse within our households, our offices and the halls of government. We are looking again at the impact of institutional racism and what it means today to be Black in America.
When I look at my two daughters, embarking on careers and charting their independence, I see our potential and our future. We cannot expect these future leaders to be inspired to achieve their full potential if they do not first feel included, valued and respected. This starts with ensuring there are leaders and role models who look like them and have shared similar life experiences. I truly believe that we can’t continue to expect low-income children of color to be what they can’t see.
I am glad to see members of our business community committing themselves to listen, learn and take action. I offer my voice and my experience as a small piece of the incredible journey of African Americans in Virginia and look forward to seeing what we accomplish together as we work toward a more perfect union and a greater commonwealth for our children.
We are making progress daily, but there is more work to be done.
Leadership in our business community — and at many of our civic, philanthropic and cultural organizations and institutions — still only partly reflects the full diversity of our vibrant community, in all its many wonderful forms. If we expect to realize our full potential, then this is a goal we all need to embrace.
I pledge to work toward this goal and increase my efforts toward achieving this objective. I call on fellow leaders in our community to join me in this effort.
My generation had to walk past symbols of racism every day. We want a better place for those who come after us; for our children to not have to walk their children past these same symbols and experience the same prejudice and discrimination — to know instead that their “place” is anywhere their talent and drive can take them.
We must not let this moment that has turned into a movement pass without creating vital change for the future of our commonwealth.
Guest columnist Victor Branch is Richmond market president for Bank of America, managing $23.8 billion in customer deposits.