Note from Cynthia Adams, Managing Director and General Counsel-Litigation, Regulatory & Employment at Jefferies
George Floyd & Mental Health
As Rich and Brian so compassionately reminded us earlier this month, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, during which we are urged to take great care to address the stresses, the traumas, and the challenges that often weigh so heavily upon us. As this month draws to a close this weekend, I find myself deeply wounded, angered, afraid, frustrated, and harboring a host of other indicia of pain. It has been a very tough week to be black in America. Even when you’re a successful senior legal executive at an incredible global financial services institution with a commitment to diversity and inclusion from the highest levels of our organization.
Here is the menacing racial question that confronted my 14-year-old daughter and me at the beginning of this week: So, you can’t even be a Harvard-educated, black male birdwatcher in Central Park in broad daylight enjoying … birds … without being brazenly, falsely accused of threatening the life of a white, educated, professional woman who, by the way, practically strangled her own dog during the incident? The ease and swiftness with which Amy Cooper weaponized race, police action, and privilege to falsely accuse Christian Cooper hurt my soul, yet was sadly familiar to me. “My God, she could have gotten that man killed by the police,” I told myself. I also thought to myself as I often do in these situations, “Thank you, Steve Jobs, for inventing smart phones with video capability. Your invention is saving black lives.”
And then George Floyd happened: Mr. Floyd was not resisting arrest, his hands were cuffed behind his back, he was pinned to the ground and he could not breathe. He said that over and over, “I can’t breathe.” And he was right—he could not breathe and he died. The knee of a uniformed, on-duty law enforcement officer was against his throat for over 8 minutes.
I wept and recoiled in absolute horror. It’s all too much, as a human being, as a woman of color, as a parent of a young teen of color, as a person of faith, as a lawyer committed to fairness and justice, and as a taxpaying American citizen who has both experienced and witnessed racism, bias, micro-aggressions, and entitled ignorance at every stage of her life. And now my sweet, innocent daughter has begun living that cycle too.
So today, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month and in tribute to George Floyd, I speak this truth openly: Every single day, I—and millions of other Americans of color— carry the pain of the open wound of being black in America, no matter how we appear to be on the outside, regardless of our socio-economic or professional status. We are taught to internalize it quietly and obediently to survive and perhaps eventually thrive. So, you go along with your life, you work hard to get along with others, you try to get ahead, and achieve success and lift others while you climb, all while masking a pain that hurts like hell every single time. Maybe you develop hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or cancer …
You are confronted with death after death of your fellow American citizens of color to senseless violence by police, former police or Americans standing what they’ve deemed to be their ground: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and the tragic list goes on and on. We say their names, we weep in front of our televisions, we pray in our churches, we give to civil rights causes, we work within our communities, and we have dire discussions with our children, our families and friends, especially our black male relatives, about what it still means—and does not mean—to be black in America.
And then we leave our homes and churches and go to work at our various offices and work locations, trying to compartmentalize our lives bravely, committed to living at a higher level of consciousness while seeking and seeing the greater good, even when we know that too often that fundamental human courtesy will not be returned. That is the ritual, the cycle of many of our lives, and it represents a collective, persistent cultural psychological trauma. Sometimes, it is just so hard to breathe. We are exhausted.
I am a proud culture carrier for ethics, integrity, emotional intelligence and respect at Jefferies and in our industry. A few months after arriving at Jefferies in 2012, I wrote our first “Business of Integrity” training, and I will be forever thankful to Mike Sharp for his leadership and support in that effort. I coined the phrase “Business of Integrity,” which we still use, and I included an impactful quote from Dr. Martin Luther King regarding the silence of good people. I also included the borrowed tag line, “When you see something, say something.” Here is where we connect the dots in all this.
Integrity matters. Always. What is also always true is that the silence of good people will always be like air fueling a raging forest fire—you can’t see it but you know it is there as you witness the fire’s path of destruction. That is not just my opinion—that is a confirmed historical fact proven in every crisis of humanity. Our beloved country and our communities are experiencing a supreme crisis of integrity. That may seem like a gross oversimplification, but hear me out.
People who operate with integrity speak truth and live with fundamental fairness and honesty, no matter where they are and no matter who they encounter. They certainly don’t wrongly accuse fellow citizens or murder fellow Americans who are black. They don’t engage in or tolerate racial biases and insensitivity. They don’t dismiss, ignore or minimize the cultural trauma of other groups because they can’t relate, they don’t care, they have better things to think about on a warm Spring day, or they choose not to see color (which, for the record, is not what diversity and inclusion is about). They never, ever blame the victims or say, if he or she had just, if they would just … Instead, they acknowledge the gravity and horror of the situation, they reach out, they listen, they empathize, they sympathize and then they get to work making sure their own spheres of influence are sanitized against the diseases of hatred and bias and collectively aligned behind integrity and justice.
Among some, I predict a certain reaction, with perhaps a slight discomfort rising. Something like this: “Cynthia, what that police officer did was pure evil and so abhorrent to decency, humanity and justice. I share your pain. I am not racist, I am not a bigot, I don’t condone violence, I support diversity and inclusion, I am good and I live with integrity?” To that, I will respond: Allow me to clarify the question. The question is not “Are you/am I one of the good people?” The question is “Are you/am I one of the silent good people?” In other words, we have all seen something. Shouldn’t we all then say something? Isn’t that what integrity calls us to do?
I also sense a certain, other reaction: What about those looters and rioters, you ask? Who wants to appear supportive of that lawlessness? Let me be 2000% clear: No one here is condoning violence or criminal activity. Please don’t make this about that. Stay focused. Don’t stop at those images raging across your screens of civil unrest. CNN is doing its job, but America (and I) need you to do another one. Do the courageous, very uncomfortable soul work of staying focused on the image of George Floyd lying dead on the ground for absolutely no justifiable reason in America in May 2020 due to police violence. Know that your friends, colleagues and relatives of color might be feeling a particular sense of grief and anger. Join me in asking these questions: How did we get here, why are we still here after countless generations, and what can I do (or stop doing) in my own sphere of influence to be good but not silent against injustice? We desperately need your help. We cannot do this alone. As the saying goes, no one can help everyone, but everyone can help someone.
So proud to be on Team Jefferies and confident that we will do our part. Thank you for all you are doing and will do to address these issues, including things in the works now. And thank you for giving me space to send this note for the sake of our collective mental health.
With deep exhaustion but raging hope for the future,