According to a recent news story, a 38-year-old African American flight attendant had a heart-to-heart discussion about racism in the U.S. with a passenger who turned out to be the CEO of American Airlines. (She hadn't recognized him because he was masked.)
The conversation--which both parties characterized as deep and meaningful--was sparked by a book she saw him reading on the plane: Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.
The situation was newsworthy, in part, because I suspect that very few CEOs are reading that sort of book. In fact, given CEO book recommendations over the past decade, they'd be more likely to be reading a book that celebrates meritocracy, like Atlas Shrugged.
CEOs like to think of themselves as having won the game of business by playing on a level field. In all the years I've interviewed and spoken with CEOs, I've heard a lot of "we celebrate diversity" but not once "I'm successful, in part, because of white privilege."
And that, of course, is absurd. Racism is built into entrepreneural funding, even to the point where highly successful African Americans are automatically suspect. A recent study at Stanford University found that
When venture capital funds are managed by a person of color with strong credentials, professional investors judge them more harshly than their white counterparts with identical credentials ... It's not simply a pipeline problem. African Americans who are most qualified, those with the best track record, are getting blocked the most.
Not surprisingly, not even 1 percent of venture capital-funded founders in the United States are black. The Center for Global Policy Solutions explains how this expression of institutional racism has an enormous adverse impact on the economy:
Due to discriminatory financing practices and a bias toward companies primarily operated by white males, America is losing out on over 1.1 million minority-owned businesses, and as a result, forgoing over nine million potential jobs and $300 billion in collective national income.
So, clearly, if you're a successful enterpreneur, racism has played a role in that success, which makes it contigent on you to understand how and why you've been unfairly advantaged and, more important, why African Americans are sick of all the talk about diversity that's not backed up by action.
For me, personally, I didn't see my white privilege until I had a black son. He's 15 now and--as anyone who watches the news knows--is at much greater risk than his white schoolmates of being stopped, frisked, injured, or even killed by the police.
Beyond that, I know that he'll eventually be at the butt end of the belief--which is, let's face it, all too common a belief in corporate America when you strip off the diversity veneer--that people of color in general, and specifically those with African heritage, aren't as smart.
With that in mind, here are the five books that, once you've read them, will peel the scales from your eyes so that you can see clearly how racism is resulting in bad and stupid decisions, both in the boardroom and the ballot box.
For convenience, I've linked the titles to the Barnes & Noble website. Get yourself educated on this, because it's an issue that's not going to go away until those who hold the power of privilege decide to change.
Subtitle: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
Author: Robin DiAngelo
Summary: Illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to "bad people." Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. This in-depth exploration examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.
Subtitle: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do
Author: Claude M. Steele
Summary: A vivid first-person account of the research that supports his groundbreaking conclusions on stereotypes and identity. He sheds new light on American social phenomena from racial and gender gaps in test scores to the belief in the superior athletic prowess of black men, and lays out a plan for mitigating these "stereotype threats" and reshaping American identities.
Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Summary: Offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation's history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of "race," a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men--bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Subtitle: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Author: Michelle Alexander
Summary: First published in 2010, this book refutes the popular misconception that the civil rights movement eradicated Jim Crow, when in fact the so-called War on Drugs has merely redesigned Jim Crow so that the prison system and a repressive and often violent police force now enforce the same racial caste system.
Subtitle: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II
Author: Douglas A. Blackmon
Summary: Using a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, the author unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude shortly thereafter. By turns moving, sobering, and shocking, this unprecedented account reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the reemergence of human labor trafficking, the companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.