Setting the Context: Leading the Conversation on Diversity Part 1

September 29, 2020
Tension mounts all around us. Groups clash. Connections fray. Our enemies exploit our divisions. Again. How might any of us, particularly leaders, approach these troubled times? How do we make the conversation about diversity any different, any more effective this time around?
I’d like to take two passes at this large, heated and intimidating topic, one in this newsletter and one in an upcoming one.
I’ve worked on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion for more than 30 years. I don’t suppose to have answers, and studies have shown the at best limited and short-term impact of conventional work such as standard ‘workshops,’ something I have, for the most part, avoided and yet are quite the rage again. I continue to explore less conventional approaches in an attempt to find more effective approaches. One involves just checking to ensure that we secure a few facts in our shared memories. Sounds obvious and perhaps unnecessary, but often it is not. Getting a few facts right can make all the difference, since differing context all but guarantees different meaning. How we see affects what we see and what we feel.
We all come from a stream of events, a stream that shapes us. Today is not just about feelings and perceptions, as important as they are. S*** actually happened. That s*** shapes how we feel and perceive, i.e., what an event today means to and how it is experienced by one person or another, by one group or another AND how, in turn, we experience another group’s experience. We know, for example, that about 75% of the meaning of words derives from the context within which they occur. Establishing a shared, collective memory of what has actually happened in our past to shape especially the most painful aspects of our present might well help secure more of a shared context. That could then lead to an enhanced understanding and felt experience of who and where we are today as well as of what we might do next.
In this spirit, I offer below an annotated bibliography of historical works that I have found useful in trying to advance my understanding and my felt experience of the stream of events that constitute our racial history. Grasping our past, like grasping the experience of any one of the many groups that comprise America, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender groups, requires work, the work of carefully attending to the ‘other’, the fabric of their experience, including but hardly limited to our presence in it. These group histories amount to the stories that, if woven together, provide a more complete and more integrated narrative of us all to us all. To fail to do so is to miss, arguably grievously so, a profound opportunity.
The group histories can serve as the first step in weaving a larger tapestry, should we wish. We cannot weave a tightly knit group without knowing its members, and neither can we effectively weave together groups whose stories we do not know. Such integration might serve to clarify who we are both separately and together, the stream in which we stand, and what role we might play both in the moments we share today and that we will face tomorrow. First, we need to know the stories, to share them, indeed to experience them.
I wrote related articles that you might find merit a look: Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Lessons in Change and Leadership Change and the Nineteenth Amendment, but a wide range of scholarly writing provides a depth of context and so much of the material that, could we integrate it into our story of ourselves and our country, could profoundly change the way we regard and converse with one another. I offer a few suggestions from historical work that I have found valuable. To name some, of course, is not to name other important work, and I am but a historical layman.
What follows is a personal list based on my experience; I’ve undoubtedly left out valuable historical work. Furthermore, I have not even touched the psychological, social psychological, and sociological literature (aside from that of DuBois), much of which offers so much. Finally, given the moment, this list focuses on Black enslavement and its legacy and on race (itself a relatively recent construct) and not on the other all too real, pressing and ongoing human rights struggles.
First and foremost, read Caitlin Rosenthal, either her 2018 Harvard Business School book Accounting for Slavery or her chapter in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016) edited by Beckert and Rockman, a collection through which to pick. Rosenthal chillingly presents the business of slavery by detailing its accounting practices. The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. DuBois is more than a century old now, but it remains a truly seminal work about the world of Blacks in America. David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize winning and standard-setting biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018) presents an extraordinary life from enslaved to skilled and relentless, internationally heralded battler for human rights. Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988) chronicles the initial pass at dismantling American apartheid. Peniel Joseph lays out the intersecting and evolving lives of two of its most prominent leaders in The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (2020).   The Other Slavery (2016) by Andres Resendez details the enslavement and forced labor of indigenous Americans from Columbus onward–little known, ignored, even buried, head-shaking history.
The ‘modern’ examination of the economics of slavery began about the time I was finishing college and my ‘full time’ study of American history, Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974) being an important marker. The history of slavery and its economics has moved well past ideology, anecdote and case studies since then. The study of slavery has become very quantitative and well grounded in the documented functioning of slavery—slave societies in the South and slave dependent economies in the North—Southern slave plantation cotton, Northern (and European) textile mills, New York (and European) financing… an ‘alternative’ definition of ‘The American System’.
The 21st century has seen much powerful work in this historical tradition. Douglas A. Blackmon captures the essence of his Pulitzer Prize winning book in the title: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2009). Blackmon, a Wall Street Journal reporter, offers a careful examination of America’s development of its apartheid system. That system captured international attention, including by the Nazis who visited the USA to study it, and then referenced, documented, and utilized it in constructing their own race laws, as delineated in Yale Law School Professor James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017). That system also yielded mind boggling and sob inducing medical research on Blacks (to accompany that on Native Americans, immigrants, prisoners…) such as the Tuskegee Study.
American and European slavery long intertwined and careful analysis of them bangs up against conventional understanding of what powered European colonial dominance. In fact, the history of slavery pushes into the domain of how to consider capitalism: The Price of Emancipation: Slave Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (2010), by Nicholas Draper and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014), by Edward Baptist, as well as the aforementioned Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016) edited by Beckert and Rockman.
Another mention is necessary here of Caitlin Rosenthal—as noted above, she lays out the accounting and management practices developed under slavery (more modern than what the North was then using) and argues that they presaged the development of scientific management late in the 19th century. In other words, just as this line of business history leads us on the macro level to the doorstep of capitalism and European expansion, it also leads us on the micro level to the doorstep of management and business practices…and not ‘just’ that Europeans and American colonists operated the Municipal Slave Market on the site of present-day Wall Street between Water and Pearl streets from 1711 to 1762, selling Native Americans and Blacks.
Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote in 1929, “History is on every occasion the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another.” Restated, historians have found of interest what we may well put to good use in this troubled, increasingly ominous and oddly pregnant age of ours. Leaders especially may want to familiarize themselves a bit more with the historical context that shapes how others experience even their best intended efforts at discussing– let alone advancing — diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Be well. Stay well.