In the book, I will draw on research and data to answer many of the questions about the nature of racism, where it comes from, why everyone should care about it—and the steps that we can take to eradicate it.
In addition to knowing whether
something is true, the second challenge is knowing why
it is true. This reflects the subtle difference between knowledge and understanding. I love to cook, but I’m by no means a chef. I know what to do—for example, add yeast and a pinch of baking soda to bread dough—but I have no idea why
I’m doing it. What is actually happening at a chemical level? Why do I have to put the dough on a cold surface? Why does it have to sit and rise for a specific amount of time? I am not quite sure. This lack of deep understanding would put me at a huge disadvantage if I were ever a contestant on the Food Network show Chopped,
where you are handed a mystery basket of unusual and unexpected ingredients (e.g., blood sausage, pineapple, croissants, quail eggs) and given thirty minutes to combine the ingredients into a distinctive and delectable dish (e.g., a blood sausage bread pudding with roasted pineapple glaze). I wouldn’t possess sufficient understanding of the basic chemistry and physics (e.g., emulsification, convection) of culinary science to combine and engineer the ingredients in such a masterful way.
Similarly, many managers are “cooks” when it comes to understanding racism—they know the kitchen basics but not necessarily the whys and hows. Other managers do not know their way around a kitchen at all but are willing to learn. By the end of this book, you will be well on your way to becoming a master chef. As on Chopped,
in many social and organizational situations you will find yourself without a cookbook or manual of step-by-step instructions. But that’s okay. After reading The Conversation
you will be able to draw on a foundation of knowledge and understanding to help guide you. If you have a deeper understanding of what racial bias is, where it comes from, and when it is more or less likely to emerge, then you are in a better position to prevent it, or create interventions and solutions when it does occur.
CREATING A “RADICAL” TRANSFORMATION
When you were reading the book’s subtitle, the phrase “radically transform” may have jumped out at you. The word radical
often gets a bad rap. As I intend it, however, the word doesn’t refer to zeal or extremism but rather to radical
’s true etymology—radix
—the Latin word for “root” (and the root vegetable “radish”). My hope is that The Conversation
will produce not a superficial but a “root,” foundational commitment to eradic
ate, or uproot, racism. I have witnessed radical change at the individual level and some at the organizational level, even if society at large has yet to show a “radical” change on racism. Nevertheless, I continue to think that profound societal-level change is possible, and I believe it will happen by leveraging the power of individuals and large organizations. Grassroots efforts, as well as pressure from organizations like FedEx and Nike, in getting the Washington Football Team to drop its racist mascot and moniker are one example of how individuals and organizations can promote antiracism. I will elaborate on other more complex and profound approaches and examples of antiracist strategies in the final chapters of the book.
To be clear, I am not claiming that conversation in general (or The Conversation more specifically) alone is a panacea, or that incentives are not important. Self-interest, economic gain, and short-term gratification can all be effective motivators. Sometimes carrots (or the threat of sticks) are necessary to bring people to the table in the first place. What I have discovered through my work and life experience, however, is that rewards and punishments can induce immediate and temporary movement but rarely generate profound and sustainable change. By contrast, conversation, if done in the right way, can be a powerful tool for bringing people together and developing support for enduring solutions.
Ultimately, people are the regulators and agents of social transformation, which means if enough people want change, then it will happen. But social change requires social ex
change. In other words, we have to start talking to one another—especially those outside our social circle. Nothing will improve until we begin to have honest and informed conversations about race and decide, as a community, to do something about it. The problem is that many people feel uncomfortable or ill-equipped to talk about race—or they fear that talking about it will only make things worse. Or they dive in too quickly, without a clear structure or objective, and beat a hasty retreat once the dialogue becomes difficult.
aims to change all that by increasing confidence, competence, and commitment to engage in racial dialogue. In this book, I have culled theory, data, and research from a range of scientific disciplines, including social psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, organizational behavior, political science, history, and evolutionary and molecular biology to address the fundamental question of how we can better name, understand, discuss, and resolve the problem of racism in society and the workplace. Social science is critical to this effort because it enables us to peer into our minds and into our reality in a way that our subjective perceptions alone do not allow. When we dive into the research findings, it is not to minimize the importance of personal feelings or opinions but rather to test and complement them by providing a more objective perspective on the world. To keep you engaged, I bring personal anecdotes and experiences to the table, integrating the science with vivid stories and metaphors that I hope readers find memorable.
To structure and guide The Conversation, the book follows my PRESS model (P
roblem Awareness, R
oot Cause Analysis, E
acrifice), which can be applied not just to racism but to any personal or societal challenge. The PRESS model is described in detail in my 2020 Harvard Business Review
article “How to Promote Racial Equity in the Workplace” and in “Forum 1: How to Talk About the Problem,” the section that concludes Part 1. It provides a big-picture overview of the necessary steps to achieve stable and enduring racial progress. One secret to doing effective antiracism work is the ability to have open and informed Conversations about the nature of the problem, how to increase concern about the problem, and finally what can be and will be done to resolve it.
was written to be accessible to everyone—whether you are a corporate executive in New York, a farmer in Nebraska, a factory worker in Milwaukee, a preacher in rural Utah, an entrepreneur in Atlanta, a police officer in San Diego, a schoolteacher in San Antonio, or a DJ in DC. It is for anyone who is bothered by the current level of racial tension, wants to learn more about its causes, and is invested in becoming part of the solution.
I ask for only one thing as you read the book—patience. Patience with yourself. Patience with others. And above all, patience with the process. After reading the first chapter or two, you may start thinking, “Just tell me what to do to fix it.” Please resist the impulse to skip ahead. Einstein once said that if he had only one hour to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes thinking deeply about the problem and only five minutes on the solution. A focus on solutions without thoroughly understanding the problem is akin to prescribing medicine without first diagnosing the patient’s condition. The palliative approach—soothing the symptoms without treating the underlying disease—is likely to be unproductive, or even counterproductive, in the long run. The same principle applies to social problems.
The book consists of a total of twelve chapters—designed to be read sequentially
—with each chapter building on the previous one, like a miniseries. Each chapter might take, on average, about two hours to read. So the investment of reading time—to do The Conversation
right—amounts to twenty-four hours, or one full day. In addition, each part concludes with a “Forum” section, which will help recap the most important topics covered in the part and offer Conversation starters aimed at generating instructive and productive Conversation with others in your family, organization, or community.
Are you willing to invest one day of your life to substantially improve our society? I am confident that it will be worth it.
Copyright © 2021 by Robert Livingston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.