Black History Lessons: Why HR Needs to Study the Past
“You must unlearn what you have learned.” – Yoda
“Truth is powerful and it prevails.” – Sojourner Truth
“History is philosophy teaching by example.” – Thucydides
Some of my earliest memories of my Grandpa Bob are of me sitting with him watching the History Channel – back when it actually showed history. We would watch any World War II documentary we could. As we watched, he told me about his experiences as a young boy in Chicago during WWII. His brother, my great uncle Pete, moved to Portland, Oregon, to help build ships for the war effort. My grandpa, being far too young to enlist or build war machines, stayed home to endure food rationing, citywide raid blackouts, and news of family and friends perishing in faraway lands fighting fascism, imperialism, and racism.
My love of history grew from these earliest memories. So did my love affair with American history and all the traits that came with it. Exceptionalism, manifest destiny, rugged individualism, self-made millionaires, patriotism. As all American schoolchildren are taught from day one of kindergarten – America is the greatest country in the history of mankind with liberty ad justice for all. We’re better because of these aforementioned traits. Wear the red, white, and blue proudly for nothing can be better.
Except, those traits, while indeed making America what is is today, are certainly a type of baggage, and they are at best an exaggeration and at worst outright lies.
History is a funny thing. It is written by the winners, as the saying goes, and who are the ultimate winners of American history? Anglo-Saxons from England. The same Anglo-Saxons who simultaneously fought fascism, imperialism, and racism while committing the same crimes behind the very thin veil of feigned superiority – sometimes ironic, always ignored.
Perfection is a double-edged sword. It is negative, yet it adds value in a world that is not perfect. Nothing is perfect, and yet perfectionism is a standard we have to keep in front of us to let us know what we could be if we aspire to be better – if only little by little every day. (Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that).
However, this is America. An imperfect model of perfectionism. Fascism? Not in America! That’s Italy! Imperialism? Not in America! That’s Japan! Racism? Not in America! That’s Germany!
Never mind that many of FDR’s policies were the pure definition of fascism – much more Zeitgeist in the 1930s than we care to admit. Don’t pay attention to Manifest Destiny! That’s not the same thing as imperialism. Ignore Slavery, Jim Crowe, and Separate but Equal – oh and while we’re at it, ignore the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment Camps, and the Indian Removal Act.
I’ve been trying to find words that are meaningful in a small attempt to honor Black History Month and how it can influence the HR profession in a reflective way. I’ve stated on social media platforms multiple times that Black History is American history. There is no “White” history without “Black” history in these United States, and most certainly vice versa. They are linked, and the textbooks and classrooms have done their best to hide that from students.
As part of my history library, I have a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. It’s a classic originally published in 1995 with several reedits in 2008 and 2019. This past week I scoured over two chapters in particular to remind myself of history that was kept from almost every American school child.
“Gone With the Wind:” The Invisibility of Racism in American History Textbooks and John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: The Invisibility of Antiracism in American History Textbooks were incredibly powerful chapters detailing how American history is mostly unknown to Americans – Whites and Blacks alike and everyone in between.
This next passage in particular jolted me. I believe the times we are currently living in helped grant me better context and understanding I otherwise never could have seen. Loewen recalls a story when he was presenting Reconstruction to his mostly Black students at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. He was amazed at how many students thought Blacks failed in local government after slavery was abolished because they were Black, not because of the interference from racist former Confederates (and complicit northerners tired of Reconstruction policy).
“For young African Americans to believe such a hurtful myth about their past seemed tragic. It invited them to doubt their own capability, since their race had ‘messed up’ in its one appearance on American history’s center stage. It also invited them to conclude that it is only right that whites be always in control. Yet my students had merely learned what their textbooks had taught them. Like almost all Americans who finished high school before the 1970s, they had encountered the Confederate myth of Reconstruction in their American history classes.” (pg. 157, 2008 edition)
Loewen continues by explaining the “Nadir of American Race Relations,” the period between roughly 1890 and 1940 when Blacks were re-relegated to second class citizenship and American race relations were at an all time low. Racism was not hidden or veiled. Racism was unabashedly open for all to see.
And the world did see. American racism influenced Hitler, and apartheid was influenced by segregation. These facts are not as well-known as they should be in America, or if they are, Americans pretend to not know.
The nadir, in part, came about once White northerners abandoned Reconstruction efforts in the decades following the Civil War. Whether they were tired of the fight, worried about other things like economic struggles, or caved to racism, matters not. Whites in the north had an opportunity to do the right thing, and ultimately, their inability to do so caused one of the great shames in American history that continues to negatively affect society today.
“The nadir left African Americans in a dilemma,” Loewen writes. “An ‘exodus’ to form new black communities in the West did not lead to real reform. Migration north led only to segregated urban ghettoes. … Many African Americans lost hope; family instability and crime increased. This period of American life, not slavery, marked the beginning of what some social scientists have called the ‘tangle of pathology’ in African American society.” (pg. 161-167)
“Tangle of Pathology” is a phrase from the famed Moynihan Report that helped launch many of the War on Poverty Initiatives during the Johnson Administration in the 1960s. The report remains controversial to this day, but it’s well worth a read.
Low Black morale, low self-worth, family structures damaged, no hope, high crime – Loewen was talking about these things that came about during the nadir, but if you read that today, wouldn’t you think it was written about contemporary America in some way?
This is one reason why modern day “Black Pride” posts on social media are so powerful and in many ways necessary. For years, Blacks have been taught in American classrooms that their race had nothing to be prideful about – no accomplishments worth celebrating. Blacks had no special skills, were not as smart as Whites, and needed Whites to protect and guide them. As we continue down our own national reckoning, many are learning this isn’t the case and never has been the case. Blacks have contributed positively to this Country in so many ways in spite of the racism that hung over their head like Damocles’ sword.
What does this have to do with HR? Everything. The latest trend in HR is to recognize (finally?) that HR is people work. Workplaces are a direct reflection of society. They mirror one another. That’s why it’s so important to see posts about Black doctors, Black inventors, Black CEOs, and Black superheroes. For our entire history, Americans have been taught that Blacks couldn’t be any of those things! HR can be the voice in the room that helps push workplace systems towards equity and belonging. HR is an ally that can push cultural and policy initiatives to allow structures for Black success – not to be a reason for their success because many Blacks don’t need that help, per say. They just need what everyone else needs – structural support. HR needs to fight to create the workplace structures necessary for success, ensure that all have access to those structures, and then get out of the way. Many Black professionals have succeeded in the past and present despite overwhelming systemic roadblocks. HR has a sacred duty to help remove those roadblocks and move aside.
If society and work reflect one another, then the Black experience in every day American life is part of the Black experience in everyday work. Loewen discusses how racism kept Blacks out of unions, stripped them of their federal jobs (like post deliverers or patent office workers), and relegated many to the fringes of employability. While today is undeniably better, this doesn’t mean Black Americans have it great at work.
A simple Google search for “black americans bias at work” yields about 72,900,000 results in 0.49 seconds. Workplace bias, discrimination, and hostility are all very real and happen daily despite White denial of such acts. While Black slaves were emancipated 158 years ago, their lives were daily battles for life, liberty, and happiness. Many were forcefully kept from those basic tenants of the American ideal. Today, the Black community STILL deals with this daily battle, even if the terms and conditions look somewhat different. It’s no wonder that Black self-esteem and self-worth have been eroded for decades upon decades. It is why Blacks showcase Black success with so much pride and zeal. Blacks have been told for generations by their history textbooks that their race is too stupid, too backwards to become doctors, or engineers, or successful. That myth continues to be devastating, yet it’s being chipped away piece by piece. Follow any Black professional on LinkedIn, and you’ll see how wrong that lie has been.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once thanked his teacher, Rusticus, for instilling in him the notion that reading to “get the gist” of something isn’t enough. It’s lazy and patronizing. We must read carefully, deeply, and attentively to truly understand. This is why a deeper reading of American history is so important – not just for HR practitioners – but for all Americans.
HR practitioners NEED to know history to be better at our jobs. Until I began to dive into the Mariana Trench of lost racist American history, it didn’t click. HR pros NEED to understand why Title VII exists, why the EEOC exists, why ERGs exist, why DEI principles exist. Not a high-level understanding to get the gist that “diversity is good and leads to better numbers!” That’s true but shallow. These policies and programs exist because throughout American history policies and programs existed for the exact opposite reasons – to keep Blacks OUT of American life – specifically White American life.
This is why Black History Month exists. To celebrate the incredible contributions Blacks have made to this country and our society. It also exists to remind us that many Whites did all they could to keep them from contributing. Separate but equal was NEVER about the latter and always about the former.
The overall point of this post is to present a different perspective to HR professionals (and hopefully anyone else curious enough to read it) about how history can make use better at our jobs, more understanding of our roles. It wasn’t to necessarily present a “how-to.” I am not necessarily the expert on that. I can tell you what I do and have done over my years as an HR professional, but Google is a powerful tool. Typing “psychological safety for blacks at work” yielded over 4 million hits. If anything, Google, learn, implement. Do what is right NOW because so many before us did not.
So, HR professionals, pick up a book and read deeply about true American history. It will make you better, and just as importantly it will make work better for so many, especially Black colleagues, if you implement the wisdom gained into tangible action.
I want to finish this by saying we have a long way to go unfortunately. Racism is so deeply engrained in the American psyche, and Lies My Teacher Told Me only reinforced that with me.
In a prior professional life, part of my job was designing bus routes. Public transit is vital to low income, elderly, and disabled persons. After designing a new route that would lead to better access for disadvantaged groups, the “bus stop” signs began going up. A few days later an official called me to discuss a complaint they received. A woman called to complain that a bus stop was placed in front of her house. She expressed her displeasure about the usual public transit complaint nonsense – property taxes, noise, traffic, etc. None of this is true. But what made her complaint anger me the most was when she told the official that she didn’t want “those people” getting on and off in front of her house near her children. “Those people?” We both knew what that meant. “Those people” only meant one thing – “criminal” Blacks that lived on the undesirable part of town. In this racist’s mind, the public transit system was only used by “those people” so they could get to the good parts of town to cause trouble. “Those people” certainly didn’t need access to jobs or the supermarket. They needed to remain on their side of town, which, not coincidentally, had no employment centers or food centers. I asked the official if they called her out on that comment, and regrettably, but predictably, they said “no” claiming it wouldn’t have helped the situation. I was disappointed in that response, but not surprised.
The lesson of this story is deep – the official didn’t call out racism so racism was allowed to proceed unchecked. I personally learned a hard lesson, that silence is acceptance, but it changed me. It might not be outright transparent racist policy anymore, like making undesirables ride the back of the bus, but it’s still racism when someone fights to ensure opportunities exist for some and not all.
I love my Grandpa Bob. He’s a funny, smart, well rounded Southside Chicagoan at heart. (Quick aside, Chicago – a northern city – is one of the most segregated cities in all the US). He taught me many things, one of the most important being that history is important. It’s just not treated as such. Learn history, become uncomfortable. Learning the true history of America doesn’t negate the inspiration that America has been. It helps us better move towards embodying those ideals laid out in the Grand Experiment that we’ve failed to embody up to this point. The only way to become what we can be is to let go of what we truly are.
It’s long past time that White America acknowledges and accepts our racist history. Only then can we adapt. Acknowledging doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us good people. In America, the sins of the Father or Mother aren’t passed down to the Son or the Daughter – with the caveat that the Children recognizes those sins and takes steps to correct them. We may not have caused the Great Sins of the past, but we MUST take action to correct their long term outcomes. We must continue to aspire – everyday. Even if it’s little by little. Eventually, America can realize the promise it set out to achieve – life, liberty, happiness for all people.
HR professionals can be leaders in this space by doing the right thing. Acknowledge. Accept. And act.