“In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
-Mathew Desmond, New York Times Magazine August 18, 2019 “1619”
I like to think of myself as an ally on issues of race and a generally good person. I am an activist for redefining the economics of business in such a way that profit is not our sole North Star. I am an author who writes about Bravespace workplaces in which people can show up both perfect and flawed and do great things together. I am CEO of a Certified BCorp, part of a movement repositioning business as a force for good. I am a diversity and inclusion practitioner committed to allyship.
And yet, I am embarrassed to admit that I actually did not know or ever actually think about the economic realities of our modern business mindset related to race and to slavery. I wasn’t taught it in school, including graduate studies in leadership theory, and it has never been talked about in any of the small and large systems I have worked in over more than 35 years. Nonetheless, Desmond’s headline in the NYT groundbreaking journalistic feat grabbed my attention and his words continue to stick with me with their relentless and eye-opening expose´about the cotton plantation as America’s first big business. Desmond brings out of the dark the brutal reality that our US version of capitalism “didn’t just deny black freedom but also built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth divide that annually grows wider.” As he says, American capitalism, then, is founded on the lowest road there is, a fact that is rarely (if ever) talked about in business and industry.
If you haven’t read or listened to the many great works contained in 1619, then read them here or listen to them via podcasts here. Every one of the 17 pieces in this monumental journalistic masterpiece is written by a contemporary black writer, and the succinct history the compilation rewrites is brutal, gruesome, and disturbing. It tackles the treatment of black Americans by shining light on our shared shameful history, and I think it is a seminal influence for where we go from here in the world of work and in society.
I am struck by how easy it might be for white businesspeople like me to just not read 1619. To ignore it would be a perfect example of white privilege: we get to simply skip the full story and keep our heads down deep in our legacy stories about how our ancestors bootstrapped their way to success creating the white wealth that permeates all aspects of our culture. The wage gap between white men and black has widened and is as large today as it was in the 1950’s and according to the Pew Center reports that although a majority of Americans believe that it is important to organizations to promote diversity, less than 25% (1 in 4) believe that race and ethnicity should be considered in hiring decisions. So, we agree with the notion that inclusion makes productivity and culture better, but we actually can’t see our way to material change by consciously choosing adequate representation across difference.
It is time we, white organizational leaders, made it our business to:
Educate ourselves about the brutal realities of how our economic system was built upon a rotten and shaky foundation that allowed its success: slavery and the complete and utter dehumanization black people in service of profit.
Once we’ve waded through our difficult self-educational process, grieve the loss of innocence we feel at what we were never taught, become resilient and brave, and show up. Our white ancestors did not have to LIVE this particular history, but we are obligated to look at it, believe it, and feel its magnitude.
Deepen our awareness of how the history of violence to black bodies resulted in extravagant profits to some (white people) and complete annihilation of others (black families and communities.)
Explore systemic racist practices that continue persist today in our organizations and commit to dismantling them in order to ensure both equity and inclusion of all.
Use our insider group status to actively tell the complete story about our roots as a nation and the contribution that slave overseers made to even current leadership and management practices, both before and after the civil war and civil rights.
Radically disrupt our pathological pursuit of measurement and productivity as a singular definition of success (if you haven’t seen Margaret Heffernan’s recent talk on the human skills we need in business today, have a listen here!) It drives unfathomable behavior now as it did in the birth of our nation’s commerce.
In inclusion labs and workshops over the years, I have heard white person after white person ask black colleagues with incredulity, “Why does slavery always have to come up? It is irrelevant in today’s world where we have no slaves.” I can see the impulse beneath the statement, especially for problem-solvers and fix it people who want fast and easy answers to generationally contextual race problems. They are trying to “help.” But it is a naïve, privileged, problematic ask.
To my white colleagues, consider how paying attention the full story of our shared past is essential to our effectiveness at creating a world tomorrow where equity is actually possible for our children. Read the 1619 NYT Magazine cover to cover. Sit with your feelings, as rough and ragged as they may be. Talk to people, including other white people, about what you think and feel, rather than just burdening people of color with your incredulity, asking them to receive your shock and despair. This history and these stories are not news to them. Most of all, use your white privilege with grace to contribute to the organizations in which you work in ways that manifest real and equal rights, privileges, and equity. History, when we examine the whole story bravely and closely, helps us rewrite a different future.
And thank you to every contributor and to the New York Times for telling this history.
*Photo by Trisha Downing