George Nichols knows that when he does his four-to-five-mile walk every day, he is not the president of The American College of Financial Services.
He is not the former top-level executive of New York Life.
He is not the former Kentucky insurance commissioner.
He is a threatening black man.
People who know Nichols would likely see him as the affable 60-year-old man and capable leader he is. But Nichols knows that is not what many other white people see.
“At my age and at my level of success, I still have to calculate how I make sure I’m not perceived as a threat when I walk into an environment where I may be the only black,” Nichols said.
His is the only black family in his upscale neighborhood, so he knows the drill when he goes for his walk. He strides briskly, doesn’t look at anybody’s house too intently, greets everybody and wears bright colors so the neighbors can recognize him.
But that does not mean every police officer driving through the neighborhood recognizes him. Like a month or so ago during his walk when Nichols was wearing the hood up on his jacket in the rain. He saw a police car approaching, so Nichols put his hood down for the police officer to see it was him, while Nichols hoped it was an officer who would recognize him.
“I knew that’s what I needed to do to be safe, so he could see it was me,” Nichols said. “But then I also thought if he’s one who sees me all the time, he probably looked at me and said, ‘Why the hell does he have his hood off? It’s raining.’ But in my world, I have to think about that.”
In His Skin
Nichols has to be aware of his skin color whenever he is in a predominantly white environment, which is most of the time. If he has a complaint or an issue in a store or restaurant, he makes very sure his tone is as even and gentle as possible. When he gets on an elevator with a lone, unknown white woman, he makes certain to appear as unthreatening as he can be.
Nichols clearly does not relish speaking about these experiences, most likely preferring to talk about American College initiatives and how to advance the insurance and finance industries. But the death of George Floyd, the man killed by a policeman who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, pushed Nichols to speak out.
In a letter Nichols wrote and posted on American College’s website, he lamented witnessing yet another injustice in a long line of them. And while he condemned the destruction wrought by the riots, he said it can’t be surprising that rage is boiling over. He hoped that this time there might be a better outcome.
“I really hope our nation is ready to listen,” Nichols wrote. “But, more importantly, I hope that those marginalized and mistreated for so long are heard and understood. Because this is bigger than a commitment to hiring a few more people of color or setting up a diversity council or cloaking the systemic struggle black people face with a program that means well, but stops a few steps short of feeling uncomfortable.”
That is why he is venturing out of his own comfort zone to speak about the experience of what it is like to be black in America, no matter how high on the ladder that person has climbed. And Nichols had a lot of climbing to do, rising from a childhood spent in a Kentucky housing project.
It was in fact a white policeman who opened the first door of opportunity for him.
Nichols was a sixth-grader in early 1970s Bowling Green, Ky., where segregation was still a fact of life. The relationship between African Americans and the police was as fraught as it was everywhere else. But not every white cop was the same. This one opened the gym after school to get the kids off the street and onto the basketball court.
This policeman also saw that not every black kid was the same.
“He noticed how good I am,” Nichols said. “And he tells the varsity coach. And then the coach comes down and sees me. And then he goes back to his white neighborhood and tells his friends that there’s this sixth-grader that is coming up who’s really a great basketball player. So my name is out there. So when I arrive in junior high and my hometown that now has a mixture of white kids and black kids, and white kids have heard about me.”
That first open door led to others that allowed Nichols to show his stuff athletically and intellectually as he attended college, rose through professional ranks in health care and health insurance, and eventually became the state’s first black insurance commissioner. From there, he became a key executive at New York Life for decades before becoming the president of The American College of Financial Services.
During his career, he has watched racial incidents erupt, call attention to injustice and then fade.
“During Trayvon Martin, during Ferguson, during Michael Brown, there was a discussion around having a conversation,” Nichols said. “And there were companies that had that conversation. And I applaud those companies.”
But when crisis after crisis passed without real change, Nichols had to wonder what’s the point of the conversation?
“When we have it, are you listening?” Nichols asked. “And even if you’re listening, did you really hear me?”
And what is it that he wants people to hear? One is to recognize the inherent disadvantage that black Americans suffer. Nichols is aware that white people often look to him as an example proving the rule that anyone can succeed in the U.S. if they apply themselves. But he wants people to understand that he is the exception, not the rule.
“Someone is sitting there saying, ‘Oh my God, George! You’ve had an unbelievable career. You’ve made it. You have a nice home. You have a nice car. I don’t understand how all these issues are there,’” Nichols said. “Well, wait a minute. You can’t disregard going all the way back to slavery and not understand the implications of that.”
“There are four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. — four. We make up 12% of the population. And on the Fortune 500, we have four. I know a lot of blacks who work their butts off, and they’re smart. And you tell me we only have four.”
The implications are the hundreds of years of inherited inequality, with generation after generation passing through slavery, Jim Crow and institutional disadvantage. If it were only a matter of hard work, there would be far less inequality today.
“If that were true, then would you expect to see more diversity when you look at an organization or any other thing that we do in this country?” Nichols asked. “I read an article today that said there are four black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. — four. We make up 12% of the population. And on the Fortune 500, we have four. I know a lot of blacks who work their butts off, and they’re smart. And you tell me we only have four. Is it that blacks don’t want to be CEO? Is that the reason? It’s hard for me to believe that.”
Nichols, as the American College president, and the leaders of other key life insurance organizations signed a letter pledging to work together against racial inequality. It was signed by the leaders of the American Council of Life Insurers, the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, and LIMRA, LOMA and LL Global.
The letter is one of many public statements issued on the issue. But what can organizations, companies and individuals in life insurance do?
“I think that where a lot of organizations commit dollars, which I’m so grateful for, in investing in the black community, I’d really like to see not just the gift, but the commitment,” Nichols said, adding that includes guidance.
Nichols had some steps:
» LISTEN: Listening to hear means not just waiting for the crowds to say their piece and go away. It is understanding that life is fundamentally different for black Americans, from inferior prenatal care all the way through the stages of life underserved by health care, education, the legal system and business. It is not for a lack of trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps; it’s for the lack of bootstraps.
» COMMIT: Companies and individuals can recognize that they can make a difference. Nichols credits a long line of white men, starting with that police officer who helped him by giving him an opportunity.
» INVEST: The dollars are important, but so are the time and attention. A committee and a report are not going to get the job done.
» SHOW UP: Black communities are traditionally underserved by businesses ranging from supermarkets to financial services. Recruiting African Americans and other minorities is a start, but if those groups don’t see the organizations in their communities, those efforts are less likely to permeate.
Nichols said while the money that organizations donate is needed, change will happen with authentic attention, the kind he got when he was coming up — “The fortune that I have had in getting mentors who said, ‘I’m going to bring you in. And I’m going to help develop you. And instead of saying, go left instead of right, I’m going to teach you why left is better than right, or why right is better than left.’”
In recruiting efforts, quotas are not always effective because the focus is on the number rather than the goal, Nichols said. Many companies have recruiting programs, and many of them don’t work well. It is time to rethink those approaches, he said.
“Most successful financial advisors I know are probably part of a study group,” Nichols said. “And they’re part of a diverse study group — not diverse in ethnicity, or even gender sometimes, but diverse in business practice. Well, if we have historically not had a lot of black financial advisors, and they can only create study groups among themselves, how much do you think they’ll learn? So, could we get some of those white financial advisors?”
The most important part of the list is the “showing up.” Successful recruiting is an important step, as is serving black and other minority communities. But serving is not just a matter of making sales.
“People, organizations, financial services firms, see today that the spending power of the black community is huge,” Nichols said. “So, they want a piece of that. But in addition to taking a piece of it, I’d like to see them do more to help grow it, because another part of the challenge for the black community is an economic issue. And we have to help them. And that’s knowledge.”
Part of The American College’s mission is spreading financial literacy, and Nichols wants that to expand to financial well-being.
Life insurance has a long history in black communities of providing low-face, final expense insurance. In fact, one of the few white people Nichols ever saw in the projects was a debit agent who came by with a small book to collect $2.68 for his mother’s $500 whole life policy.
That tradition should grow into the generational wealth that has helped sustain advancement in white communities, he said. Even in his own case, he learned the important basics but not the secrets to wealth that sustains generations.
“Here’s what George was taught: Get a job, pay your bills, put some money in insurance and hope you have a little bit left to save it. What stock market are you talking about? What investment are you talking about? I mean, what insurance plan are you talking about? My parents said, ‘Just have enough insurance to bury you.’ They never said, ‘And one of the best ways for us to transfer wealth, despite what we may have done in our lifetime, is life insurance.’ We didn’t discuss it that way. It was a burial policy.”
The life insurance industry has the opportunity to be a fulcrum for deep change spanning generations by teaching skills and values.
“You help people learn and develop on their own, and help them grow and develop on their own. And so we make gifts, and again, those gifts do great work,” Nichols said. “But if we abide to do this through understanding and empathy, you have to actually be in it to understand it.”