Randall Stephenson shares an emotional plea to start a conversation about race: "Black lives matter. We should not say 'all lives matter' to justify ignoring the real need for change."
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There was no mincing of words at an AT&T employee meeting last week focused on bridging racial divide.
"Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension and we're too polite to talk about it," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said last Friday at his company's employee resource group conference.
Troubled by recent shootings and riots in Charlotte, North Carolina; Ferguson, Missouri; Baton Rouge and Dallas, Stephenson gave an honest account of his struggles with understanding the US racial divide.
"Tolerance is for cowards," he said in his speech, which was posted to YouTube on Saturday. "Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and not make waves."
Stephenson pleaded with his employees, "Do not tolerate each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other."
Stephenson, head of one of the largest companies in the nation, brings a high-profile voice to the issue of rising racial tension brought on by the police shooting of black men and the subsequent protests in various cities around the country. The incidents have spurred the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sought to raise attention regarding systematic racism toward black people.
Stephenson admitted to being confused about the views of his longtime friend, a black doctor and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who he referred to only by his first name, "Chris." He said that despite being friends for years, they've never once talked about race.
"If two very close friends of different races don't talk openly about this issue, that's tearing our communities apart, how do we expect to find common ground and solutions for what's a really serious, serious problem?" he asked.
Stephenson said it wasn't until he witnessed the way Chris spoke to an all-white congregation about the struggles he endures as a black man that his views were able to change.
What drew one of the largest reactions from the audience of hundreds was when Stephenson quoted Chris: "When a parent says, 'I love my son,' you don't say, 'What about your daughter?' When we walk or run for breast cancer funding and research, we don't say, 'What about prostate cancer?' When the president says, 'God bless America,' we don't say, 'Shouldn't God bless all countries?' And when a person struggling with what's been broadcast on our airwaves says, 'black lives matter,' we should not say 'all lives matter' to justify ignoring the real need for change."
Stephenson urged his employees to start communicating. "If this is a dialogue that's going to begin at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me," he said.
On social media, reactions to the speech have been positive, with AT&T employees sharing videos of the speech on their personal Facebook pages. Even T-Mobile CEO and outspoken rival John Legere acknowledged his support of the speech.