Tracey Thompson (MBA ’22) breaks down this 400-year long view of the Black Life in America, and how we can be better at discussing and dismantling it.
When I first got approached to write an article about Black History Month, it was my instinct to turn it down. One part of me has never loved the performative idea of using a month to squeeze in the celebration of a culture that has been omitted and misrepresented throughout history, yet appropriated daily. To me, Black History Month, along with the celebration of every culture and identity that makes up the United States, starts on January 1 and ends on December 31. Another part of me felt that if the Harbus wanted my perspective, nothing stopped them from getting it from September through January.
But then I thought about the times that I’ve seen peers rush to sing every lyric to the latest hip hop song, yet struggle to find one word to say about police brutality towards Black Americans.
I thought about the times that I’ve heard the same people who vehemently complain about implicit bias against women in the workplace, not understanding why implicit bias against minority women needs to be talked about.
I thought about one instance last semester when my walk in Harvard Square was interrupted by a man screaming on a megaphone: “Black Lives Matter is ruining the white family.”
I thought about another instance in which one of my section-mates and I walked down Cambridge, and were ambushed by a woman screaming: “Just leave us alone you fucking niggers! Can you even read? Do you even speak English? Where’s the other fucking nigger? Get out and leave us alone here!”
I thought about the fact that my instinct was to not tell my peers these stories, because conversations about race make people uncomfortable.
It is frustrating to see a culture that was built out of a rich history of pain, perseverance, and excellence be so easily appropriated, yet so easily dismissed in the next breath. To see people decide that equality ends at their affinity group. To feel stifled in sharing my experiences because of how long this country has avoided talking about the race problem that it created.
Why We Talk About Race
If you’re tempted to stop reading here, I can imagine that it might be because you don’t understand why we have to keep talking about race. To be clear, not everything needs to be made about race, nor should race not be the first lens through which you diagnose someone’s character. However, to outright deny race is to deny systemic racism. Meghan Burke, author of Colorblind Racism, says that the desire to believe that everybody has an equal chance at success is deep rooted in individualism. According to this concept, problems like poverty and inequity are due to personal moral failings that can be overcome, not symptoms of a larger broken system. If someone believes that they’ve solely earned success through hard work, without understanding that the advantages of their group began 400 years ahead, members of that group are more likely to win. Taking that into a corporate environment, if you believe your employees, and even your customers, all have the same playing field, you are setting yourself up for a culture of inequity and failure to respond to social change.
The ⅗ Rule
Before going further, it may be helpful to outline the systemic racism referred to.
The Black life in America is rooted in a central concept from Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution. A law that defined enslaved Blacks as ⅗ that of white Americans. That original law created the fundamental idea of the Black person that has not been eradicated, yet just revamped in what I like to call the iOS updates of racism. To explain this idea further, the only American institution created specifically for people of color is the American Slave Trade. Slaves were recruited as an inexpensive source of labor and legally became a form of property—a commodity frequently used as collateral in all kinds of business transactions and traded for other kinds of goods and services. Black people produced some of the most essential goods of that age, and slave labor formed the backbone of the American colonial economy. In short, Black people built this country for free.
While many people think that slavery ended with the 13th amendment, the truth is that slavery was never truly abolished. The 13th amendment still allowed slavery for “the punishment for crime.” Shortly thereafter, the War on Drugs emerged. In cities such as Seattle, even though ⅓ of the drug transactions involved crack, ¾ of drug arrests were crack related, and 79% of those arrested on crack charges were Black. Black women would often get arrested during Police Prostitution sweeps, in which police officers recruited men to solicit favors from women, and then arrested women on prostitution charges. These led to the overcriminalization of Black people. 50% of Black people are sentenced for drug-related crimes, the number of Black men in prison has surpassed the number of men enslaved in 1820, and African American women are three times more likely to be in prison than white women. Moreover, with 5% of the World’s population, the United States holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, holding a rate of incarceration that surpasses every other country.
Slavery also had a structural impact on the education and wealth gap in this country. Following slavery was the Jim Crow era, part of which detailed when, where and how formerly enslaved people could work, and for how much compensation. In some instances where Black people saw prosperity, events such as the Tulsa Massacre occurred, in which mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and businesses of the affluent Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Through Redlining, the FHA subsidized builders who mass-produced subdivisions for whites—requiring that none of the homes be sold to African Americans. This created a system in which certain zip codes had high concentrations of African Americans, zip codes that are not given sufficient budgets to provide quality education. Statistically, test scores, graduation rates and future employment track worse in predominantly Black zip codes, not because of a lack of student ability, but, as highlighted in Candice Sumner’s 2016 Ted Talk, because of a lack of teacher resources and student support.
When you think about the cycle of wealth, if each of your ancestors were blocked from success through slavery, segregation, laws, and violence against their prosperity, you are inherently behind those who have not. If you can’t get a quality education because of the circumstances you were born into, it is harder to get into a good college, get a high paying job, and subsequently put your child through a better education journey—restarting the cycle again. This all leads to a wealth gap in which the typical Black family has one tenth of the wealth of the typical white family. It can be easy to look at Black students at Harvard such as me and say that we were able to break the cycle in an argument for individualism. Many are. But I want to note that neither me, nor any of the Black students in my section, were born to families from this country. Being a first-generation child of immigrants comes with its own complexities, however, there is a level of privilege inherent in not having a family in which each generation was prevented from success on account of this country.
Probably the most well known devaluing the Black life has been in the terms of violence. From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people lynched, 3,446 were Black.
In 2014, Eric Garner died by police chokehold after being approached for selling cigarette packs without tax stamps.
In 2015, Sandra Bland died in police custody after being pulled over for a traffic violation, and being told by a cop “I will light you up.”
In 2020, Breonna Taylor died after police officers badgered down her door in the middle of the night, returned one shot with eight shots to her, and left her on the floor for 30 minutes as she died. When her boyfriend walked out of the apartment alive, police officers said that it was “unfortunate” that he too did not get shot. It took over 200 days to press charges against Breonna Taylor’s murderers, and the final ruling on her life was that shooting the wall of her white neighbor was a crime, but shooting her wasn’t.
Breonna Taylor’s life was deemed to be worth less than a wall by the US Government. It was deemed to be worth less than ⅗ of a human.
Some have looked at Breonna Taylor’s life and assumed that she got put in that situation because she was in Louisville, Kentucky, or that she was mixed up in bad company. Those are both false.
“Fucking nigger”—the words screamed at my section-mate and I that night in Cambridge last semester—were the same words that Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers shouted at him after they shot him to death. As I think about that night, I think about the fact that if that person had the power to shoot us, whether it be through personal ownership of a gun or government enforcement, nothing would have stopped her from doing so. If she had the power to shoot us, despite graduating at the top of our classes, having successful careers, and getting into Harvard Business School, my section-mate and I would have died as “niggers” questioned about our ability to read. We would have died because of the concept that we were less than. Because she perceived our life to be ⅗ the value of hers.
I do not share that story to get sympathy. I have been afforded great privileges on behalf of this country, and of people of all colors. But I do want to show that racism happens in our backyard. That racism is not privilege agnostic. And that it is not going to go anywhere until we start talking about it.
How Can We Be Better
Acknowledge White Fragility
Before I continue, it will be helpful to define White Fragility, as outlined by Robin DiAngelo in her 2011 book: White Fragility.
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
Too often have I seen the argument used that voices are stifled because of socially conscious groups, that vocalizing the experiences of marginalized groups then prevents someone who does not share that experience from having their point of view. The uncomfortable feeling of being the “only one” is an understandable one. It is a feeling that marginalized groups have often normalized throughout our lives. And we have fought for the opportunity to use our voices. In that vein, it is not the responsibility of Black people to stifle their voices in order to make everyone else feel comfortable. People should not be attacked for making comments on topics that they are uncomfortable with. However, being respectfully challenged is not being “attacked,” or “canceled.” It is the reality in which a viewpoint that has been long held in America for 400+ years, from which many have benefited, is finally being dismantled.
Have Hard Conversations
I don’t love the “cancel culture,” but I do support accountability. I believe that people sometimes don’t know what they don’t know, and they should have the opportunity to grow and learn from imperfect comments without immediately being eviscerated. But what is harmful is the refusal to learn. What is painful is listening to people demand grace regarding their viewpoints, yet not understand that that is the same grace that Black people have asked for regarding their basic right to live. What is problematic is gaslighting marginalized people for how they respond to offensive comments. Instead of putting things on “cancel culture,” start doing the work to understand where White Fragility comes into play, and the systemic forces underlying it. Instead of running away from conversations because the majority doesn’t hold your views, accept that that may be the world you enter post-graduation and learn how to understand other perspectives. We will all one day be on boards, manage, work with and sell to people who look, think and act differently than us. And it is doing a disservice to this experience to not learn how to navigate that.
Take the Time to Engage
HBS is a rare opportunity where people are willing to be vulnerable about their experiences and share their cultures. Throughout this month, we have been able to have a case about reparations, conversations about race, and celebratory events such as wine and whiskey tastings. These have been invaluable times, not only to educate others on my experiences with race, but to learn about theirs, and understand more deeply why it’s uncomfortable to talk about this topic. I leave each of those conversations grateful for my time at HBS, and particularly grateful for the people my section who have shown up time and time again to have these conversations—from non-Black section-mates holding conversations on how to be equitable leaders; to pods of different ethnicities, sexualities and backgrounds participating in deep conversations using We’re Not Really Strangers: Race and Privilege Edition.
The truth of the matter is, we all came to HBS in the time of a racial reckoning. The first step to solving a problem is talking about it. While more work needs to be done, HBS has put forth a tremendous amount of effort to do its part. I hope that we all can take advantage of the effort and come out of these two years better prepared to talk about race, as the most silent leaders have proven to be the weakest ones. I hope that as we go onto build and grow businesses in this economy, we can use our privilege to do justice to the people who built this economy on their backs. As I close this article, I want to pose a question that Mellody Hobson posed in her 2014 Ted Talk: If I walked you into a board room, and it was full of all Black people, you would find that weird. When will we find it weird that the majority constitute all straight, white men?
The answer starts with us talking about it.
Tracey Thompson is passionate about equity, innovation, and shifting the status quo. She started her career in entertainment and currently works in Venture Capital. She believes in creating space for people to build their own tables instead of joining ones not built for them, all while being unapologetically a woman and unapologetically Black.
Also published on Medium.