Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Race Matters

Bert A. Spector

“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” W.E.B. DuBois famously observed of the United States.  Despite the occasional proclamations of a post-racial society in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, race has continued to dominate American life well into the next century, a fact startlingly brought home in our just-completed Presidential election. As I argued in Discourse on Leadership, what is remarkable is how little attention the issue of race and leadership has received in the academic world.

Leadership discourse often excludes race.  A review of the indices of two prominent business leadership textbooks, for instance, finds no listings under either “race” or “ethnicity.”  That’s rather startling.

The leadership pipeline – the career ladder that, from the outset of one’s employment, offers the potential for upward mobility in the corporate hierarchy – disadvantages people of color.  In his 1999 book with John Gabarro, Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, and again in a 2001 piece, David Thomas focused on the biased construction of that pipeline.

Thomas and Gabarro argued that individual bigotry surely accounted for a significant degree of resistance to equal treatment.  They were less focused on the “mean spirited actions of bigots,” however, than on what they labeled “institutionalized discrimination” which was supported by a number of factors:

  • The tendency of networks of individuals to seek each other’s company – referred to as homophily – that worked to build both in-group and outsider identification.
  • The tendency of white employees to label black subordinates as “high risk” because of negative attributions concerning attitudes toward work.
  • Additionally, people “habitually seem to prefer working with people who are racially similar. Thus, while superior-subordinate relationships that cross race lines may provide the interaction needed to get work done, they often fail to lead to close interpersonal bonds that form between mentor and protégé.”

These were among the ways in which individual racism gets baked into institutional processes.

Thomas pushed these observations about institutional resistance to their logical if uncomfortable conclusion in his 2001 piece, “The Truth about Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters.”  His message was explicit.  He placed it right there in his title: “race matters.”  To be race blind was, in essence, to be race ignorant and resistant to minority advancement.  Whites and minorities “follow distinct patterns of advancement” in what are separate “tournaments” for access to top positions in organizations.

In particular, future black executives found themselves parked in middle management positions for far longer periods of time than their white counterparts, who tended to achieve a “fast track” designation earlier in their careers.  As a “pernicious result,” many high-potential minorities “became discouraged” by what Thomas fearlessly labeled a “separate and unequal” two-tournament system.   Creating an environment for success, then, involved not race blindness but race consciousness to the barriers that existed within organizations.

There’s little reason to believe the situation has improved much since Thomas’ work.  Consider this:  with the January 2015 resignation of McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, there were only five black CEOs at America’s five hundred biggest companies.[1]  In the upcoming years, the federal government and courts are likely become less supportive of, even resistant to, efforts to overcome racial barriers.  There is, in other words, much work to be done by business executives and academics alike.


[1] “Only 5 Black CEOs at 500 Biggest Companies,” CNN Money, Jan. 29, 2015, accessed at http://money.cnn.com/2015/29/news/economy/mcdonalds-ceo-diversity.


About The Author

Bert A. Spector

Bert A. Spector (PhD, American History) is Associate Professor of International Business and Management at Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business. His research ...

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