The following is a conversation between Robert Livingston, Author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Dr. Robert Livingston, Author of The Conversation

Denver: The ratio between words spoken and action taken is uncomfortably high when it comes to racial equity in our organizations and institutions. One reason for this is that it’s a very difficult issue to talk about, but a new book provides a common sense and pragmatic approach to help move the conversation forward. In fact, it’s called The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations. And it’s a pleasure to have with us its author and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Dr. Robert Livingston

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Dr. Livingston!

Robert: Thank you, Denver. Thanks for having me here. 

Denver: Let me start if I can, Robert, about what it was like for you growing up and how you experienced race relations in those formative years. 

Robert: It’s a good question. I think it probably has some impact on my decision to study this particular topic.

Interestingly enough, I was quite sheltered from racism growing up, and one of the reasons is that I grew up in an environment that was almost exclusively Black. So my neighborhood growing up was a middle-class to upper-middle-class Black neighborhood with Black professionals, dentists, lawyers, doctors. My elementary school principal, who was a Black woman, lived in the neighborhood. And so, it was very nurturing and very safe, and very positive. And all of the images that I received about Black people were positive. 

Now, I wasn’t isolated from the rest of the world. I knew abstractly that white people had a view of us that was not flattering, but it didn’t quite register. It was almost amusing when you would hear these things in passing that didn’t seem to be real. 

And so, it wasn’t until I went away to college, and I actually studied in New Orleans, the Deep South, because I grew up kind of in the Middle South or the New South, but then I moved to the Deep South, and it sort of slapped me in the face, and I became intrigued by it. I couldn’t quite understand the level of what I considered to be delusion, and it was a delusion that people seem to have a big investment in. It was almost like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s like, “Can’t you see he’s stark naked?” And they’re like, ‘No. What a beautiful robe!” And so I just became very intrigued by it; so I started to study it to see what’s really going on? Are people that crazy? 

 And so that kind of kick-started, piqued my interest in the study of racism. And then, as I started to see more and more problems, it took on a more pragmatic focus to say, “OK. It’s not just about understanding this; how can I use this knowledge to improve the situation for my country?”

Denver: That’s sort of like the distinction between invention and innovation. Invention doesn’t do any good until you innovate, and you can put it to use and put it to practice and create value. And I can see how you went through that journey of studying it to say, “Hey, it doesn’t do me any good unless I can create value in the marketplace and have people use it.”

Robert: Exactly. I also made the shift professionally because I started off my career in an academic department. So I started off in a Psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and you just ask basic scientific questions. There is no pressure for application. But then I was offered a job at a business school, and it was an offer I couldn’t refuse because business school salaries are astronomically higher than academic department salaries. And the big plus is you don’t have to spend all your time writing grants to get money to do research. They give you the money. And so they say, “We want you to spend your time doing research rather than getting money to do research.” That didn’t make sense to them. So I said, “Where do I sign up?” 

But the trick was when I signed my blood on the dotted line– some would say in the academic field, “When I sold my soul to the Devil,” one of the things that I had to do was apply my research. I could no longer just ask theoretical questions.

I think racism is a force. It’s a noun more than an adjective, and it is the “current.” But anti-racism, the noun, is the act of swimming against the current, like a salmon.

Denver: So Robert, how would you define racism? 

Robert: I have a really vivid metaphor in my book where I describe a stream. And it’s a stream with the current, with a downhill flow, like most mountain streams, and it flows out to sea. And fish live in the stream, and if the fish do nothing, the current will push them closer to the sea, and there are some fish that swim with the current. 

Traditionally, if we use the current as racism, which I think is a force that pushes society in a certain direction. And I think race is unidirectional. We can talk about that more. I don’t think it’s a bi-directional force. I think it’s a unidirectional force like the flow of a river down the mountain. If racism is that system, that hydraulic system, that force, people like to think of racism as the action of fish. Are you swimming downstream, or are you swimming upstream? But I think if you do nothing, the current will push you in the direction that it’s traveling in. 

So, to me, I don’t like to apply the term racism to people because I think racism is a force. It’s a noun more than an adjective, and it is the “current.” But anti-racism, the noun, is the act of swimming against the current, like a salmon. So, they swim upstream to spawn and produce all these lovely outcomes for not only your species, but the entire force. There’s research that shows that the trees around a salmon stream grow to be twice as large as the trees that are farther back because of all the nutrients that it gets.

But nevertheless, my thing is, there’s no difference between ordinary people who are just treading water and racist people who are surfing the current. They’re all going to end up in the same direction and in the same destination — out to sea. Anti-racism is being a salmon and actually investing the effort, the time, the energy dodging the perils, the grizzly bears who are out there, to get upstream so that you can spawn. So, I make a difference between anti-racism and everything else because whether you’re silent, whether you’re standing by, whether you’re actively working to strengthen racial hierarchy, all of those things, in my opinion, serve the same purpose. So, I describe racism as a force.

Denver: Let me ask you about that current and let me ask you about that force because you believe that it can be changed; that it is a solvable problem. Racism is a solvable problem. Why do you say that? 

Robert: Yes. So if we build on this metaphor and I’m kind of tap dancing now into a new category, I think we’ve got people who are beavers, who can build a dam and stop the current, at least in theory. So, I think — and in fact I’m going to be a little audacious and say: it’s not just my opinion, it’s a fact — I say racism is a solvable problem much in the same way that substance abuse such as alcoholism or drug addiction, those are solvable problems. Obesity, that’s a solvable problem in most cases. A lot of problems that affect people are solvable. I even think climate change in many respects is a solvable problem. 

Now, whether people will solve it or not is an entirely different question.

Denver: Absolutely.

Robert: And I think there are some problems that are not solvable. So if someone came to me and said, “Hey, Rob, I’ve got a problem.” And I say, “What’s your problem?” And they say, “I’m going to die someday, and I want to live forever.” I would say, “Well, then, you’ve got a pretty big problem because that’s not solvable.” So mortality is not a solvable problem, at least not today.

Denver: But they’re working on it, I hear. 

Robert: They are, and they’re getting better. We’re getting many more centenarians than we had even 50 years ago. So we’re getting close but, as of today, it’s not a solvable problem. But I think racism is, which means that if we as people get together and decide that it’s just not the way that the world should be structured, then we could, in theory, end it. It’s solvable. And so, my book is really about: How do we go from solvability to solved? 

Denver: Let me ask you about the title of your book because many books, Dr. Livingston, that are advocating for change do so in a more pointed way, but The Conversation suggests a different tone. What’s your thinking behind that? 

Robert: So I called it The Conversation because early on in my career, and I’ll just tell you a story, I was naive and foolish enough to think that facts were enough to sway people. “Expose them to the truth,” whatever the truth is, they’ll say, “Oh my gosh!” It’s like— 

One of the factors that determines what people believe and how they behave are social relationships with other people, what other people think, and the interchange. 

…Social change requires social exchange, which means if things are going to change, we have to start talking to one another. 

Denver: I was wrong! I just changed my mind. That’s never happened to me. 

Robert: No! You show them a picture,  hard evidence of the emperor in underclothes, and they’ll stop saying, “What a beautiful robe!” You just say, “Look! Here’s the video.” But then I became a better psychologist. I said, “That’s just not the way people operate.” And one of the factors that determines what people believe and how they behave are social relationships with other people, what other people think, and the interchange. So I say social change requires social exchange, which means if things are going to change, we have to start talking to one another. 

So I’ll give you empirical evidence of it, and then personal evidence. So there was an interesting study that was done in the 1950s at the Red Cross, where they were interested in getting women to serve more organ meat for a bunch of good reasons. First, it’s nutritious. Secondly, there were food shortages and a lot of the organs — heart, liver, kidney — were going to waste because they assume people didn’t want to eat it. So they went on an informational campaign and gave them information about the economic benefits, the social benefits, the nutritional benefits of serving organ meat. So that was one condition. 

Another condition. They gave them that same information, but in addition to that, they gave them a certain period of time to talk about it. And then they were interested in a simple dependent variable. How many women started serving organ meat after that? So in the information condition where they just got facts about why it’s good to serve organ meat, it went from 0% to 3%. So there was some change; 3% started serving. But in the condition where they had a chance to have a conversation about it in the midst of the facts, the compliance rate jumped to a whopping 32%. 

Denver: So more than 10 times.

Robert: Ten times higher than just the information. Yes. So that’s the power of conversation. And, I’ve seen that in my work, in my consulting, where I will give lots of facts like about organ meat, but in this case, it’s about, systemic discrimination in society, and people will nod. But then in some cases, you will have one person of color who breaks down in the room and tells their story, and then everyone’s all ears. And then they say, “Oh! Now, I believe in this racism thing.”

Denver: That’s a lot of research you did for nothing. 

Robert: Exactly! Not just me, all my colleagues. Everyone’s like, “What are we doing?” There’s convergent validity and there’s replication and there’s longitudinal data and all that goes out the window. Someone tells a story; then they’re convinced. And I said, “Aha!” I need to stop resisting this and embrace this because we are not computers that just function on data, on input; that we’re people who respond to other people. And I need to infuse this with the social element if I have any hope of really moving the needle. 

Denver: Absolutely right. Well, as far as I’m concerned, I think I need some data and at least three conversations to get me to eat organ meat, just so you know. But you have created a model, Robert, for addressing this in organizations, and you call it PRESS. So I want to walk through each of those letters starting with “P,” which is problem awareness, which suggests not everyone sees this as a problem. Would that be correct? 

Robert: That would be very correct. So one of my colleagues in the business school, Michael Norton along with Sam Summers did a really powerful study several years ago where they asked a large, nationally representative sample of whites and Blacks two simple questions: “How much racism do you think there is against white people in American society?”  And then how much racism do you think there is against Black people in American society? And to make it interesting, they asked them about past decades, the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s.

Black and white people agreed that there was a lot of racism against Blacks in the 1950s, and there was almost no racism against whites in the 1950s, but that’s where the similarities end. Over time, whites are perceiving a very precipitous decrease in the amount of racism towards Blacks concurrent with a really steep increase in the amount of racism against whites, such that by the 2000s, recent years, those lines intersect, meaning that white people now believe there’s more racism against white people than against Black people. And you can say white people because it’s a nationally representative, random sample. Black people don’t agree. They think there’s less racism now than there was in the 1950s, but they still think there’s way more racism against Black people than against white people.

So already, Denver, we have a problem, which is we can’t agree on whether there’s a problem or who the problem afflicts. 

Denver: That’s a big “P”. What about organizations that have strong commitments to diversity? Do they discriminate less? 

Robert: No. And that’s the sad thing. I think they believe they discriminate less, but they don’t. So there’s a study by Sonia King and colleagues that looked at the process of whitening resumes, that in order to cope with discrimination, people of color — they look specifically at Asians and Black professionals– that they engage in the process of whitening the resume.

So if your name is Lakeesha A. Washington, you would change your name to L. Ann Washington, if Ann is your middle name. And they sent off these whitened or unwhitened resumes to 1,600 different companies that were advertising for various jobs. And some of the companies, 800 of them were gung-ho about diversity. They’re like, “Please apply! We’re looking desperately! w\We’re dying for diversity! If your name is Lakeesha, sign up for our job. We really want diversity.” And they sent out these resumes and it turns out, for both Asians and for Blacks, when you sent an unwhitened resume, the chance was… or if you sent a whitened resume, the chance was double that you would get a call back for an interview. And that statistic was the same for companies that were race-neutral and companies that were gung-ho about diversity on paper. They discriminated to the same degree against Lakeesha compared to L. Ann Washington. 

Denver: That is quite a study. And I would imagine also: organizations that are committed to diversity can get a little complacent, thinking we’ve done our bit so you’re not pushing as hard. You think it’s almost in the rear-view mirror. We have a diversity program, and therefore we can take our foot off the gas.

Robert: Exactly. And I think it’s because of the “P,” they’re not fully aware of the magnitude of the discrimination that exists in the organizations. I think there are many organizations that believe that diversity policies, or even diversity statements, are sufficient to make them immune from diversity. It’s like a magic cape or a forcefield or something. Once we have that —

Denver: Go to our website. We have it right there on our website. What else do you want? 

Robert: That’s right. That that’s all you need to have a discrimination-free environment. 

Denver: I’m going to ask you one other question about the “P,” problem awareness, and let’s say I’m the leader of an organization. Is it right for me as a leader to say, “We have a situation here that we need to address in terms of racism within our organization?” Or is it better to just not be that judgmental but to create a container where a conversation can ensue about this particular issue, and let it come up through the ranks of the team and the employees?

Robert: That’s a great question. In my opinion, I think it absolutely — and I have an unambiguous answer about this. I think it absolutely has to start with the leadership. Any sort of step towards progress on this front has to start at the top. And I think the leaders set the tone for the rest of the organization as well, and they set the agenda, certainly. That’s a part of the definition of being a leader. And so, you send a signal to the rest of the organization about what the priorities are, and I think it’s important for leadership to take a stand on it and identify it as both a problem and something that is worth fixing. 

Denver: Let’s move on to the “R” of PRESS, and that’s the root cause analysis, and I can see we’re beginning to dig down a little bit deeper here. Tell us what happens. 

Robert: I think root cause analysis goes way deep. So in my opinion, and I don’t like to put a different weight on these different stages because I think they’re all important, but I think root cause analysis is one of the most important of the five steps because it will inform the best strategy, which we’ll get to later, or the best course of action.

So let me give you an example. Sometimes people can be sick. You can have cancer and not know there’s a problem because it’s latent and you don’t have symptoms. And that’s a problem because you won’t get treatment for it because you don’t know there’s a problem. But sometimes you do know there’s a problem because you see symptoms, or you experienced severe headache or nausea. And you go to the doctor, and then their job is to diagnose you because headaches can be caused by lots of different things. It can be caused by dehydration. It can be caused by stress and anxiety. It can be caused by coronavirus. 

And the reason it’s important to do that diagnosis or root cause or examine the etiology is because it will inform the best course of treatment. If it’s due to dehydration, then part of the prescription will be to get you to drink more fluids. If it’s caused by stress and anxiety, that’s a different cause, and so it’s a different treatment. 

Denver: I got it. Can organizations effectively address root causes without outside help? And it reminds me of that old joke. When one fish asked another fish “How’s the water?” And the other fish replies, “What the hell is water?” So living in that fishbowl, can you identify those root causes, or do you really need somebody with an outside perspective to help you?

Robert: That’s a good question. I think you can, but I think it’s always better to get an objective outside opinion. And the great thing about being a consultant is your livelihood doesn’t depend on the CEO liking you. You go in; you sign a contract; you speak truth to power, and you go on. You have a full-time job. But I don’t think that’s the case for people within the organization. I don’t know if they would dare have the same level of candor.

But assuming that a safe space is created, I think there are people within the organization that might provide some perspective.  I think it’s important to get both an inside perspective– because many times I don’t understand the complexities of the culture within an organization that people within it understand– but then many times, as you mentioned, I’m outside of the fishbowl so I can kind of see the whole panorama of what’s going on. 

So, to answer your question, I think it’s important to get both, and you certainly do need the outside perspective, at least that, but I think complementing the outside perspective with the inside perspective will tell a richer story.

Denver: I think you’re absolutely right. That blend does seem to make sense. The “E” is for empathy. And despite what you said about root cause analysis, I think you think empathy might even be more important and the most difficult to be able to grasp. Talk about that. 

Robert: Yes. So, you’re right. I think root cause analysis is a close second. Empathy, I think, is the most important.

And in terms of root cause analysis, just to go back to that a little bit, before we do empathy, I think one of the big problems that leaders make is they externalize racism in their organization, or they attribute it to a few bad actors, or a few rotten apples, rather than diagnosing more systemic or cultural underpinnings of the problem.

Denver: I see. 

Robert: And the reason why I say that’s important to empathy is: I think it allows people to sometimes downplay the importance or the severity or how diffuse the problem is throughout the organization. Because if you can isolate it to a few discrete units, then you can say, “Oh, the problem’s not so big.”

But like anything, I think the most important question is: Do you care enough about the problem to want to change? And that’s the same with obesity. It’s the same with someone who’s struggling with addiction. There was an old strategy by Nancy Reagan that was: Just say no. And it’s incredibly so simple that it’s daft in a way, but it’s effective. If someone said, “What’s the best way to reduce my alcohol consumption?” It’s like, “If a beverage has alcohol in it, don’t raise it to your lips.” But that seems overly simplistic.

What is the nexus between knowing there’s a problem and getting to the strategy and the solution is your investment in actually solving the issue that’s in front of you. How important is it to you to have diversity, equity, and inclusion? How important is it to you to lose five pounds? ” It’d be nice if I could take a pill and make it go, then I would do it, but I’m not really, really invested.”

 And similarly, how important is racism? I would argue that a big chunk of the white population is either apathetic, meaning “It would be great if we didn’t have racism, but for me, it’s not the end of the world.” Or they’re actually invested in a system of hierarchy because they gain something from it to the extent that there’s a caste system or system of privilege, “As long as I’m on top, then it kind of puts me in a better situation. I feel a little guilty, and it’s a little immoral, but I’m not going to invest all my time and energy into this because I simply don’t care about it as much.”

I think this is the key to solving the problem, is getting people to have enough concern because the strategies are not that hard; it’s getting people to care enough to want to do something about it.

Denver: I can see the “PRE” is really the more important in a society that runs to the S. And you’ve also indicated that there’s a predisposition among people in a society, three different levels of those people who want it all, those who don’t care, and those who do care. Give us a little bit of information on that. 

Robert: So this is kind of I’m interpreting a lot of the research on social value orientation, which is an interesting set of studies, and they’ve been doing this work for decades, where you look at people’s preferences for how resources should be allocated among different people.

And so, in one instance, they get a choice between, you get $500, and another person gets $500. That’s choice A. Choice B is you get $550 and the other person gets $300, so you get 10% more. And then option C is you get $500 and the other person gets $100. And they just want to know: Do you pick A, B or C? And when I asked this in person, about 95% of people say, “Oh, I choose A.” But when it’s done in a real experiment with real money, 95% of people don’t choose A. 

A is a pro-social option, and about 46% of people choose that option, the $500-$500. About 38% of people choose the option where they get $550 and the other person gets $300, and that’s because they’re trying to maximize their own personal gain. That’s called the individualist. They’re sort of indifferent to what the other person gets. They’re more focused on what they get, and they’re going to choose the option that puts the most money in their pocket. Whether the other person gets $300 or even $600, or $0, they’re relatively insensitive to that. They’re focused on the amount of money that they get. 

And then you have the competitor, which to me is the most fascinating of the three, who would choose the $500-$100 option. In other words, they’re both throwing money away from the community because in that option, the joint payout is $600 because one person, you get $500, the other person gets $100.

In option A, it was  $1000 because you got $500 and the other person got $500. So you’re sort of throwing $400 out the window, and it’s not costing you anything to give that other person $500. But you’re a competitor. To you, winning means there has to be a loser and you can’t be Mount Everest without a valley. If all the other mountains are taller than you, you’re no longer Everest. So they’re actively seeking inequality. 

What’s really fascinating about that option, Denver, is that they’re willing to forego $50 because they could have chosen option B where they get $550. And so, they’re taking a hit to make sure the other person doesn’t have anything. That’s what I call an active commitment to oppression. Fortunately, only about 12% of the population falls into that. But that’s a lot of people. That’s one out of eight, and there’s some research suggesting that people who are competitors tend to be overrepresented in leadership positions, and so they can have an impact even though they’re only 12%, a bigger impact on the rest of society. 

 So those are different levels. There are people who really care about the community, let’s say. There are people who are apathetic. They really care about themselves, but they’re not out to hurt the community. If the community does well great, but that’s not their primary concern. And then there are people who are actively seeking to create hierarchy and to put themselves on the top. 

Denver: And what I’ve seen sometimes is that when you have those kinds of people, it makes everybody else a little bit more that way, because if somebody’s trying to take everything… You go to these department head meetings, and if the concern of the department head meeting is the Harvard Kennedy School, you’re all on the same page. But if you see one of your colleagues trying to get all the resources, you kind of have to fight for those resources back although it’s against the type you would be. 

Well, this was a great lead-in to strategy because just listening to you, I understand that strategy is going to be a little bit more complex because you have three kinds of people in your organization, so it can’t be a one-size-fits-all. And the first “S” is for strategy. And I would imagine there are a lot of people out there who think PS, which is problem-solving strategy, because that’s the way our society goes. I know the problems: get a solution, but I know that’s not a good formula. In this, you talk about three interconnected categories. Tell us about those. 

Robert: So in terms of strategies organizations can take to solving the problem, I think they have to attack it on three levels. One level is at the individual level… sort of people’s hearts and minds. And, I think organizations have some ways to do this, often organically, by matching candidates and who they hire to the culture of the organization.

 So if your organization is the mafia, you’re not going to get warm, fuzzy people. They just don’t fit the organizational culture or the organizational mission. And if your organization is Buddhism, well, you’re not going to get murderers or psychopaths because it just doesn’t really fit the mission of the organization or the culture. 

And so, fortunately, there’s a little bit, a little bit, just a tiny bit of self-selection when people know what the organization is about, and they sort of have a choice of which organizations to choose, and then there’s a little bit of a filtering process. But I think there also should be an education or developmental aspect where the organization is training people and trying to mold people into the kind of citizens that they want within their organization. And again, I’m being nonjudgmental because if you’re the mafia, you want to make them tougher and more murderous and more callous. And if you’re a Buddhist, you want to make them more compassionate, more selfless. But either way, I think there’s some inculcation that goes on.

The second is at the cultural level, which as you mentioned, Denver, they’re interconnected? So the cultural level is about soft, informal rules. And I put rules in parentheses because they’re not written. And that’s the beauty of culture is people understand it, and there’s been lots of research on culture.

And so, it’s really a set of social norms around what is appropriate, inappropriate, what’s good or bad, and these norms can have a profound effect on individuals. And you just mentioned this before, in your example of people who defect, or people who don’t cooperate; it can make would-be cooperators more competitive because now they’re in a culture and in an environment where they have to conform their behavior to what the norms are, even if it doesn’t fit their nature, what they would prefer to do organically. 

And then the third category is what I call institutional. So we’ve got individual, cultural, and institutional. The institutional refers to hard rules. So these are policies, laws, practices. They’re not soft to say, “It would be nice if you did this. And we’ll give you a glare or a disapproving glance if you don’t.” Here, “we’ll give you the boot if you don’t.” So you’d be fired. Like there’s an actual rule, a hard rule. And I think you sort of need to have all three of those working in concert to have the greatest impact, appealing to the individual, the cultural, and the institutional.

Denver: You give a wonderful example in your book on the institutional. I’d like you to tell that story. And it had to do with the real estate development in Boston’s Seaport District. Share that with us. 

Robert: So it was the Massachusetts Port Authority, also known as Massport, that was interested in getting more diversity in the building industry because Massport owns billions of dollars of land, and all of the big developers there are pretty much white men and white Irish men in Boston.

And they were thinking, “How can we get more inclusion in this really exclusive industry?” And so they changed their policy. A bunch of leaders got together, and they just said, “We’re going to do this. And we think we have enough clout and leverage to do it because the Seaport District of Boston is such a booming high-rent district that people will still want to build there.” It may not work in Topeka, Kansas, because people would just say, “OK, I’m not going to play ball,” but here they had other incentives to play ball. 

And what they did was change their selection criteria for who gets the bid to build a hotel or a convention center or a commercial office building on their land, from focusing on just the finance– whether you have the money, the team– whether you have the infrastructure and the design– whether it’s aesthetically and functionally pleasing;–to adding a fourth criterion, which is diversity. And they weighted diversity the same as the other three. So your diversity plan counted as much as your financial portfolio. 

Denver: All four are 25% now. 

Robert: Exactly. Each of them was 25%. And what that did was it changed the game because as one of the developers said when I interviewed him, “I’m not racist. I’m just busy.” And what they were saying was: they’ve used the same contractors and subcontractors for the last 35 years. And guess what? They all looked like them. Just for whatever reason. And now, though, they had an incentive to go out and do some research to say, “Are there women-owned architectural firms? Are there people of color who own structural engineering firms? What about the commercial space on the first floor of this hotel that we’re building? Can we get minority-owned businesses from the community and subsidize the rent so that they can have their delicious food served in this really high-end district that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to afford because of the rent? They actually had to sit down and think about these things because they were being graded 25% on how well they did. And it changed the game.

And the developers after the fact said, “Oh my gosh. I met all these cool people that I’m going to use for business going forward, but I never would have done it if they hadn’t changed the policy. Because my job is to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time possible, and this slowed me down a little bit. But in the end, now that I’ve done it, I’m so glad that I did.” 

Denver: That is a great story. And it really talks about the power of proximity, that we do things just because it’s around us. I remember when I was in school, I would be on a floor, and all my best friends would be on the floor. And we would go and play ball together. We’d go to dinner together. But the next year, they moved to a different dorm and you hardly see them, except while going across campus. Proximity is a lot. So when you can change the rules of proximity and you get to know other people, all of a sudden these new relationships blossom. 

 The second “S” is for sacrifice. “OK. Here we go, Dr. Livingston. What’s this going to cost me? What am I going to have to give up to make this happen?” What would you tell someone who says that to you? 

Robert: I would say: nothing in life worth having is completely free. We just don’t live in that world, but it won’t cost as much as you think. So nothing is free, totally free. But it’s not nearly as expensive as you think. And so what I mean by that is: organizations won’t have to give up nearly as much as they presume they’ll have to give up if they do this whole diversity thing right. And I think two things that they assume that they’ll have to give up is some measure of fairness and some measure of quality.

In other words, I think a lot of people think that pro-diversity means anti-white or that you can’t be good at diversity without discriminating against white guys. So, then they say, “OK. Well, that violates our notions of fairness.” And then the second is, and I think this is even more pernicious, is that diversity means low quality. So you can’t improve diversity without decreasing standards or the quality of the organization or the workforce. And I would challenge people to reconsider both of those. And if you want, I can give you data on both of them. 

…Discrimination actually refers to how one behaves or one’s actions towards a group. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you think, explicitly or implicitly. What matters is what you do. And so, discrimination provides an escape hatch for prejudice. 

Denver: You have a lot of data on that. But that first one you talked about… I think probably you’re right. A lot of whites believe it’s a zero-sum game, right? So I think words are really important here, and they get conflated. So I’m going to ask you about a couple if you have time. One is, what’s the difference between discrimination and prejudice?

Robert: And that’s a really important distinction.

Prejudice is an attitude or a feeling, a negative feeling typically, about an individual or a group. So an example of prejudice would be,” I don’t like Muslims.”  That would be prejudice against Muslims. Discrimination actually refers to how one behaves, or one’s actions towards a group.

So if I could give you an example, imagine that you’re a taxi driver in New York City who doesn’t like Muslims, but you’re driving the taxi and you see a Muslim couple standing in the cold in the rain, hailing the cab. The question is: What do you do? If you keep driving, or you keep driving and splash water on them, or you keep driving and give them an obscene gesture as you’re rolling by, that would be prejudice with discrimination. But if you decided to pull over and say, “Good afternoon, ma’am or sir. How are you today? Where can I take you?” That would be prejudice without discrimination. In other words, those negative feelings are still there, but you haven’t acted on those feelings. 

Research shows that, of course, prejudice and discrimination are correlated, but not that highly. So the correlation is around 0.3 or 0.4. It’s not one. So in other words, it is possible to have prejudices without discriminating, and it’s possible, in theory, to discriminate without having prejudice. So if I’m a bar owner, and a 15-year-old walks up and says, “Hey buddy. Serve me a beer,” I would say, “You’ve got to get out of my bar.” I would technically commit age discrimination, but it’s not because I hate 15-year-olds. It’s because of other reasons that have to do with common sense and legality. 

These are two independent constructs, and I make a distinction between them in the book because I think all the action is in discrimination. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you think, explicitly or implicitly. What matters is what you do. And so, discrimination provides an escape hatch for prejudice. 

Denver: That is a great clarifying answer. I’m going to ask you another one, which is I think even conflated more, and that is the distinction between equality and equity. I see them used interchangeably all the time. 

Robert: Yes, and they couldn’t be more different. 

So imagine, Denver, you and I and two friends go out to dinner and we all ordered different things, and the bill comes. The bill is $200 and it’s four of us, but we ordered different things. The question is: What’s the fair way to split the bill? Well, fairness can be construed as equity or equality. In this case, equality would be we all pay the same thing. So we would each pay $50. We just split the bill four ways — $200, four people. We each pay $50. That’s equality. 

Equity would be we pay different things depending on what we ordered. So, of course, you had the surf and turf, so you’re going to pay $90. And I had the Chicken Caesar salad. So I’m going to pay $20. That’s a huge difference. Because equity is fairness that requires treating people differently, but in a way that makes sense. Equality is treating everyone the same.

And that’s a really important distinction because one, you treat people differently. The other, you treat them the same. But people tend to conflate them. So when I ask parents, “Do you treat your kids differently?” They say, “No. I treat all my kids the same.” But that’s not true. They treat their kids equitably, but not equally. If you have a 15-year-old and a 15-month-old, you don’t treat them the same. At least, I hope not. You can go to jail if you treat a 15-month-old the way you treat a 15-year-old. You can’t leave a 15-month-old alone, but you can leave a 15-year-old alone.

If…you’re treating everyone the same, and their experiences are not the same, then you’re merely perpetuating inequality.

Denver: As long as they don’t let them go to the bar.

Robert: Exactly! There you go. This is the same person who just lets them run wild. And similarly, you could have kids with different dispositions. One kid that’s very independent and confident, and another kid that’s less confident, more shy. And you would adjust your parenting style to the personality of the different kids. That’s equity. That’s treating people differently in a way that makes sense. 

The ADA treats people differently in a way that makes sense. There’s a reason we have accessible parking because if you don’t have the same level of mobility as other people, it makes sense to give you a parking space that’s closer to the building so that you have equal access. All of that is equity. 

What I’m arguing in the first half of the book is that the experience of Black and white people in America is not the same, or the experience of a Black and white applicant, even if their resumes are identical. And we know this because this study has been done a gazillion times. It’s not the same. So if that’s the case, and you’re treating everyone the same, and their experiences are not the same, then you’re merely perpetuating inequality. You have to treat people differently in a way that makes sense. And people do that. 

Denver: And it’s hard because, just from what you said, equality is easy in terms of the math. Equity is more complicated and requires more human judgment, and it’s more subtle; it’s more nuanced, and therefore it’s a little bit more complicated to be able to do that correctly.

Robert: Absolutely. But it’s worth the effort, I think,  if people really want to get fairness, or they really want to correct for disparities. 

Denver: Let me close with this, Dr. Livingston. What can leaders do to combat racism in their organizations, and what can their organizations do to combat racism in society? 

Robert: So I think the biggest thing that leaders can do, and I’ll name three things, but I think the biggest thing that they can do is examine their policies… because as leaders, they have the power to set the rules of engagement, and they have the power to determine how business is conducted. And so I would examine–similar to the Massport case that I just described– I would compel leaders to examine their policies and how they can change them in a way that would create more social justice. 

In addition, I would urge leaders to leverage the clout of their organizations in much the same way that Nike and FedEx did. When the Washington Football Team…”  

Denver: Snyder!

Robert: Exactly. They said, “We don’t agree with this.” And this was an owner that said he would never change the name.

Denver: Ever, ever, ever.

Robert: Ever, ever. And yet, here we are. He did. 

I always say, leaders may not be able to change the world, but they can change their world. They can change the world, and their world is a microcosm.

Leaders can also change the culture. Again, this is the unspoken rules. By walking the talk, by serving as a role model for what an exemplary person in the organization should represent and symbolize… that you have the power, by example, to show other people how it should be done.

Denver: The Washington Football Team.

Robert: There you go! And I always say, leaders may not be able to change the world, but they can change their world. They can change the world, and their world is a microcosm. Many companies have 50,000 employees, 40,000 employees, a lot of the Fortune 500 companies. That’s a lot of lives that you can change. And you can use the leverage and the power, the buying power of your organization, the sponsorship of your organization, to create societal change as in the case of the Nike, FedEx getting the Washington Football Team to change their name.

 And then leaders can also change the culture. Again, this is the unspoken rules. By walking the talk, by serving as a role model for what an exemplary person in the organization should represent and symbolize… that you have the power, by example, to show other people how it should be done.

Denver: Pragmatic tips… the way the book is. It’s a fabulous book. The title of it again is The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations. I want to thank you, Robert, for taking the time to be with us today. It was such a pleasure to talk to you.

Robert: You, too. Thank you, Denver.

Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes for free here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on TwitterInstagram, and on Facebook.

Share This: