AT&T CEO Calls for Dialogue on Racial Tensions: ‘Tolerance Is for Cowards’

AT&T CEO Calls for Dialogue on Racial Tensions: ‘Tolerance Is for Cowards’

Randall Stephenson urges employees to begin ‘difficult’ conversation on racial tensions

AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, seen before a congressional hearing in June 2014, has called on his employees to ‘start communicating’ about racial tensions in the U.S. ENLARGE
AT&T Inc. Chief Executive Randall Stephenson, seen before a congressional hearing in June 2014, has called on his employees to ‘start communicating’ about racial tensions in the U.S. Photo: Bloomberg News
By
Thomas Gryta
Sept. 29, 2016 5:31 p.m. ET

When AT&T Inc. T 0.31 % ’s Chief Executive Randall Stephenson took the stage last week to talk to hundreds of employees, he didn’t give the usual corporate pep talk.

Instead, the 56-year-old Oklahoma native talked, often in personal terms, about how racial tensions are ripping apart American communities. He called the recent shootings of black men and police officers “troubling” and urged his employees to begin a conversation to find common ground.

“Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension and we are too polite to talk about it,” Mr. Stephenson told the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation. The comments were delivered Friday night and posted on YouTube by an attendee.

“It is a difficult, tough issue. It’s not pleasant to discuss. It takes work, it takes time, it takes emotion,” he said, “but we have to start communicating and if this is a dialogue that is going to begin at AT&T, I felt like it probably ought to start with me.”

It is a rare step by the leader of one of the country’s biggest corporations into the delicate issue of race relations. AT&T’s Dallas headquarters is just blocks from where five police officers were killed during a July protest that was sparked by fatal shootings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. About 43% of the company’s more than 270,000 U.S. workforce are nonwhite, according to an AT&T report.

AT&T has weighed in other political controversies in the past. In 2014, it spoke out against a Russian antigay law ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics. In 1975, it was the first major corporation to ban discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation.

Mr. Stephenson’s speech centered on the story of an African-American physician and veteran whom the telecom boss described as one of “his closest friends in the world.” Mr. Stephenson said he was stunned he wasn’t aware of the racism his friend faced growing up in Louisiana and throughout his life. He said his friend makes sure to carry his driver’s license when he jogs in his own neighborhood in case he gets questioned by police.

“If two very close friends of different races don’t talk openly about this issue that is tearing our communities apart, how do we expect to find common ground and solutions for what’s a really serious, serious problem?” he said.

Mr. Stephenson is the son of a cattle feed businessman who joined the information technology department of Southwestern Bell, a precursor to modern AT&T, in 1982 immediately after earning a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Oklahoma. He worked his way up the ranks and has been running the $251 billion company for nine years.

He said he now able to understand his friend’s anger when someone responds to a Black Lives Matter protest by saying, “All lives matter.”

“When the president says, ‘God bless America,’ we don’t say, ‘Shouldn’t God bless all countries?’” Mr. Stephenson said. “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.”

He dismissed calls for tolerance as falling short of what is needed. “Tolerance is for cowards,” he said. “Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged.”

“Do not tolerate each other,” he added. “Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.”

AT&T spokesman Larry Solomon said the CEO wanted to speak about racial tensions to the gathering of 2,100 employees who are involved in internal nonprofit organizations. Presented with prepared remarks by his staff, Mr. Stephenson opted to write his own speech.

Mr. Stephenson has taken stands outside of AT&T previously. As a board member of the Boy Scouts of America, he publicly supported changing the group’s policies to make it more open at a time when the organization banned openly gay scouts and leaders. He is currently the national president of the Boy Scouts.

Write to Thomas Gryta at thomas.gryta@wsj.com


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