By Hayling Price, Harvard MBA/MPP ’16
HBS has come quite a long way. As an American, one of my fondest memories here was the section flag ceremony that highlighted our mosaic of international perspectives. As a straight man, I’m also proud to be on a campus that observes National Coming Out Day and recently commemorated 50 years of women in the MBA program. We may take these moments for granted, but they’re a big deal for an institution that’s moving past a decades-long culture of exclusion.
While we’ve demonstrated the capacity to examine and celebrate key dimensions of diversity, the HBS community has often fallen short of addressing race to a meaningful extent. As we approach reentry into the workforce, we ignore the reality of this context at our own peril. This Black History Month, it’s time we take a step back to understand how these dynamics affect members of our community every day.
Since RC year, a few of my classmates have told me that they’ve struggled in earnest to understand the connection between race and inequality. This is especially understandable coming from my friends raised abroad, as the construct of race emerges differently across nations. During these honest conversations, I often reply that racism was codified in the foundation of the United States, and has been broadly institutionalized across business and government in the years since.
Beyond the legalized segregation that limited the employment and educational prospects of African Americans, discriminatory lending and housing policies yielded what we know as the urban ghetto. Since then, limited opportunities for mobility have confined many black families to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. More recently, the nation’s economic recovery has been especially sluggish among blacks, whose employment rates and wealth regeneration have significantly trailed those of other racial groups in the U.S.
These conditions are the latest chapter in a persistent reality for African Americans that dates back to the transatlantic slave trade, when cultural links to ancestral homelands were severed and individual family units were ripped apart for the sake of commerce. In the twilight of our first black presidency, this legacy remains extremely relevant for a majority of black people living in America.
While the relationship between race and inequality in America is certainly complex, it isn’t difficult for most African Americans to describe how this dimension of their identity has substantively impacted their lives. If we’re looking beyond anecdotes, look no further than the National Bureau of Economic Research—its 2003 study found that “very white” sounding names received 50% more callbacks for job interviews than “very black” sounding names as recently as 2002.
As recent political events have ignited communities and campuses nationwide, direct conversations about racial profiling and micro-aggressions have become more socially acceptable. Since then, both student leaders and the HBS administration have taken steps to elevate these issues on campus, which had largely been taboo for discussion outside of designated “safe spaces.”
Conversations and symbols of solidarity are important, and I’ve been encouraged by the increasing airtime these issues receive through campus events. But what happens when the Town Hall Meetings adjourn? For these events to have transformative potential, the empathy they engender must push us to address our biases and recognize racial injustice at the systemic level.
Listening is an important first step, but these developments are meaningless if they’re not challenging us to reexamine how we think about race in 2016. Campus discussions can bring us together as a community, but we could go a step further by reimagining how to leverage the privilege that comes with an HBS degree. As leaders aspiring to make a difference in the world, we’re mistaken if we think a sticker or Facebook post constitutes real change.
Here at Harvard, many of our counterparts at other graduate schools have chosen to deploy their expertise in fields such as law, education, and public policy to advocate for racial equity. To some MBAs, the business sector is a largely apolitical realm that is no place for direct conversations about race. Down the road, we may recall our friend who felt marginalized in a case discussion, but how will we consider these voices as we make ethical decisions from the halls of finance, entrepreneurship, and beyond?
Once we leave the academy for pursuits across influential industries, many of us will be harnessing the power of the free market to shape life in the 21st century. For now, Black History Month at HBS gives us another lens through which to explore an all-important question: through each of our careers, how will we work to make capitalism more inclusive in an age of growing inequalities?