When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some saw it as proof that the color of one’s skin could no longer hold people back from achieving important leadership roles in the United States.
Not true, says Harvard Business School senior lecturer Anthony J. Mayo. “Obama’s election created this false illusion of a post-racial society, where many people thought we had transcended issues of race,” he says. “But that was not the case at all.”
It certainly wasn’t the experience for many of the black business executives included in the book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, co-edited by Mayo, University of Virginia Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, who is a visiting scholar at HBS, and David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College and a former professor at HBS.
“These African American executives never reported feeling, even during the Obama years, that race was no longer relevant or that we had somehow collectively moved beyond race in the workplace,” Roberts says.
The picture that emerges from the essays in Race, Work, and Leadership echo the same message: Race not only still matters in the American workplace, but it remains a powerful barrier that prevents African Americans from ascending to leadership roles.
The data is indeed bleak. While an increasing number of African Americans are earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees, the number of black people in management and senior executive positions remains scarce and stagnant. Today, there are only three black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and not one of them is a woman.
What doesn’t help, the authors say, are recent incidents in the news, including the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2018 arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks after employees called the police to complain they were trespassing, even though they were just waiting for a business acquaintance.
“Given the racist rhetoric and vitriol in the air right now, racism is more prevalent today than we would have hoped,” says Mayo, the Thomas S. Murphy Senior Lecturer of Business Administration. “We’ve made some progress in the workplace, but we still have such a long way to go. It’s more important than ever to discuss what organizations can do about it.”
The book describes the experiences of African American workers and offers advice to black employees who seek to advance in their careers. It also provides these recommendations for companies that are intent on building diverse workplaces:
After two fatal police shootings of black men in 2016, Tim Ryan of PwC asked his staff to gather for a series of conversations about race. Two years later, when one of PwC’s own black employees was shot to death by an off-duty police officer, Ryan emailed his employees with a plea to keep talking.
Yet, the explicit discussion of race is considered taboo at many companies, and, more often than not, business leaders remain silent on the issue. That cloak of silence from the top tends to enfold all employees. Ellis Cose, an author of several books about race and public policy, writes that young black professionals who aspire to advance to senior leadership positions typically adopt the strategy of remaining silent about race and inequality to avoid being labeled “agitators.”
In a 2017 study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and colleagues, 78 percent of black professionals said they have experienced discrimination or fear that they or their loved ones will, yet 38 percent felt it is never acceptable to speak about their experiences of bias at their companies.
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