“Tolerance is for cowards.”

That’s just a slice of the blunt talk that AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson gave to company employees last week as Charlotte erupted into protests over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred last Friday, Stephenson’s frankness underscored a sense of personal alarm over the spread of racially charged violence in the United States. Spurred on by events, he spoke urgently about the need for difficult conversations about race — and in so doing became one of the most outspoken corporate leaders on the Black Lives Matter movement.

randall-stephenson

Randall Stephenson, chief executive of AT&T Inc.

Tolerance and inaction, Stephenson said, is what keeps prejudice and resentment alive behind a curtain of civility, and it’s tearing the country apart.

“Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension,” he said, “and we’re too polite to talk about it.”

Recounting the experience of one of his closest friends, Stephenson described how the effects of race are often hidden to those who don’t grapple with it on a daily basis.

Stephenson admitted he had always been somewhat “confused” by the racial views of his friend, a black physician who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when he saw him address a mostly white church congregation about being refused service at restaurants, being called “boy” and even fearing being stopped by police in his own neighborhood, Stephenson finally understood the depth of his friend’s frustration.

“Now I’ve got to tell you, I get his anger when somebody responds to the Black Lives protest by saying ‘all lives matter,'” Stephenson said. He added:

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 said he was stunned to hear about his friend’s experience, but is now determined not to be a bystander.

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Michael Bailey
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