AT&T CEO Delivers Rousing Speech on Racial Tension in American Society

Speaking in front of a group of 2,100 AT&T employees at a conference in Dallas, Randall Stephenson encouraged open and honest dialogue on race.

Randall Stephenson, chief executive officer of AT&T Inc., in 2014
Randall Stephenson, chief executive officer of AT&T Inc., in 2014 Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson spoke poignantly on the issue of racial tension in America at a Sept. 23 conference for AT&T employees in Dallas.

At the eighth annual National Employee Resource Group Conference, Stephenson took the stage and encouraged AT&T employees to have candid, open dialogues about race and inequality. The speech was captured on video by one of the conference attendees and posted on YouTube.

“There’s no other group in the AT&T family that I would rather start this dialogue with than you, the AT&T ERG Group,” Stephenson began.

“You are a model for how you can take a really large body of people with radically different backgrounds, beliefs, ages, religions, sexual orientations,” he said, “and we’re demonstrating how you can not only live together, but you can love each other, you can compete and you can win together.

“Sadly, racial tension is ripping apart the very fabric of our communities right now,” Stephenson continued, noting the high-profile police-shooting cases in Ferguson, Mo.; Falcon Heights, Minn.; and Baton Rouge, La., as well as the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla. Stephenson also mentioned the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

“We got a problem,” he said.

Stephenson noted that there were some in attendance who may have the attitude that police need to crack down and gain control over the communities where these troubles have occurred, while others acknowledge that protesters are expressing “legitimate, pent-up anger over injustice and violence.”

“There’s going to be several people in between those two ends,” he said. “The question I have to ask is, where are you on this?”

Stephenson told the crowd how he was ashamed to learn of the racial injustice faced by his close friend Chris, an African-American cardiopulmonary physician from southern Louisiana. He said he wondered how the two of them could never have discussed the matter of race.

“If two very close friends of different races don’t talk openly about this issue that’s tearing our communities apart,” Stephenson said, “how do we expect to find common ground and solutions for what’s a really serious, serious problem? Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension, and we are too polite to talk about it, even among our best friends.”

The executive said that he gets Chris’ anger when someone responds to a Black Lives Matter protest by saying, “All Lives Matter.”

“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 issue,” he said.

Stephenson acknowledged that race is a difficult, tough issue that is not pleasant to discuss, but said that we have to start communicating.

“If this dialogue is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T, I feel like it probably ought to start with me,” he said.

But he said that mere “tolerance” is not the answer. “I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other,” Stephenson said. “Tolerance is for cowards.” He said that being tolerant requires nothing but being quiet and not making waves.

Stephenson ended his speech on the following note: “Do not tolerate each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.”