Byrne: I have no doubt about that.
Charles: Whatever economic heterogeneity there is, there is this shared-race specific anxiety that many, many black people feel. I certainly can. And that informs my rage. I’m not engaged in any anti-police denunciation here or anything. I’m not doing that. You ask me how I felt and why, I’m telling you,
Byrne: Many university officials and business school deans have issued statements condemning racism. I thought that yours was especially heartfelt, and clearly expressed your anger and your shock.
Charles: If I were to talk to my nephews and my cousins, and I do all the time, I tell them don’t be a knucklehead. And by that, I mean be extra cautious. You know why? Because there has never been a time when I felt that my education or my achievements, whatever they were, protected me from random adverse police outcomes. Indeed, there have been times when I have feared the opposite. There have been times when I feared or worried precisely because of where I live or what I do. I am more likely to attract unwelcome attention than would otherwise be true. So I don’t know a day when I thought that whatever small achievements or medium-sized achievements I have act as a shield against this thing. This is what I meant earlier about the unified nature of black disgust and rage. There is something about this that black people get, because it doesn’t matter if you’re top of the class at Harvard Business School.
Byrne: Do you believe we are at a special moment in our history, where the outrage, the protests and the increased public awarness can bring positive change?
Charles: I think you have mentioned a couple of reasons why the moment might be special. In this moment, where a citizen can record something, disseminate it immediately, and organize efforts to protest it, that’s a big change. One view is that social change is glacial. Between now and whatever day, I’ll be at 0.6, then the next guy will at 0.7. But when one examines racial progress in the United States, one is struck by the sharpness of change. Things are going along and then somebody decides, “No I’m not gonna go to the back of the bus.” And that launches all sorts of things. And then there is Civil Rights legislation that is just sitting in Congress and it’s not moving for a long, long time. And then after an unfortunate murder of a president, something happens. There is a possibility that the intensity, the rage, the passion of this moment suggests we might be on the cusp of such an episode. This is the moment to make change because of how we all feel.
I’ve been struck by the sustained nature of people’s expression of outrage about this, and the widespread nature of that expression of outrage. And it suggests to me that we might be at a moment where people are inclined to do things, to think differently, to innovate, to try. So I do believe we are at a special moment. We may be at a special moment too, because of progress that has occurred along racial grounds. There is lots to regret, but there are things to applaud as well. Here’s one thing: I’m a Dean interested in policy at a business school. Cornell just named a Black man the dean of engineering. The dean of the Harvard Education School is a black woman. I’m gonna stop because I’m going to forget to mention somebody, but you got the point.
Improvements have occurred because of the efforts of people who came before me. There are people in positions, not all powerful positions, but positions that are also not powerless, who can by virtue of their presence emphasize certain things in conversation, suggest various policies, remind those who report to them, who work with them about the importance of this thing. That’s another important historical moment, too. It is not to be devalued. So that’s a second reason, I believe, that this is the moment. As I look at these protests and think about them and listen and read people’s testimonials, I’ve been struck by the multi-racial nature of the outrage, the protest, the activity.
It’s really striking. It’s not a black protest. The letters I receive as dean come to me from students who are not only black or Latino but who are white men and women who are outraged by what they see, who want things to be different. That too is something we should applause, appreciate, and build upon. There is a multi-racial, all encompassing nature of the desire to make fundamental and lasting change. It’s another reason for optimism about this moment.
Byrne: And yet there is a shocking unpredictability of life that as a black American in our country, you can become dean of the School of Management, you can become president of the United States, and you can go out for a jog and lose your life.
Charles: Yes. There are two stories that occurred just around the time of Mr. Floyd’s unfortunate killing. There’s a story of a jogger in Georgia. I don’t know every detail about the case. But there was something about that, too, that deeply bothered me, deeply pained me, lives with me still. There exists in the world, some people willing to do evil things. One can interact with them unexpectedly, randomly. That’s a thing to be very concerned about. I believe that the events of the last month will cause people to reflect upon how they view their fellow citizens and their obligations, their moral obligations to look out for others.
I’m not a jogger, I should be, I need to lose five to 10 immediately, John. But it would be nice to know that there are joggers who are not black, who will be aware of how I’m seen when I’m jogging and who will express some kinds of alliance with me. They might look over their shoulder for me. There could be a kid doing on my corner playing loud music after a certain time and he’s 15 and with friends. I have a choice here. I can decide whether I’m going to call the cops right away or whether I’m not going to call the cops at all. Because calling the cops does things. You unleashed a whole chain of potential events. That’s not a policy that government can affect. That’s something you can do.
Byrne: Very true. What role can higher education play here? We know that Blacks often go to grammar and high schools that are underfunded and that impacts one’s ability to access higher education. What are the prescriptions, the policy changes that we need to see higher education to afford more opportunity to African Americans and other minorities?
Charles: You remember earlier, we were talking about this interracial or aggregated function that colleges and universities play by bringing together different people and ideas. For that function to work well, the place must be richly diverse, period. The benefits of this function at Yale or Columbia or Penn state or Arizona State is very seriously delimited by the representation of other kinds of faces in the room. It is an obligation of great universities to find every way, every imaginable way to create the benefits of diversity.
There’s something peculiar about my kind of school, in that we engage very closely with employers. Students indeed come from the world of work to come here and then go back. We have long-standing relationships with employers are are and can be a major source of Black and Latino professionals in the labor market. Our special location in the job nexus allows us to ask of our employers, maybe even demand of them, various things. We can ask them, ‘What are you doing about career ladders and glass ceilings?’ We have access to corridors of power that other institutions simply do not possess. And they must be deployed for this most important of social goods.
What is it we do at a university? Most professors, deans and presidents think that our preeminent activity is the preservation, the dissemination and the production of new knowledge that improves the human condition. That’s what we do. We call that enterprise, research and teaching. And so what can we do in that space to address this issue? Let’s take the police for example. Again, I am not anti-police. I understand why there needs to be vigorous policing. I get that. But here we are where this thing happens, and it affects me, and it affects lots of people. One possibility is it might have to do with training. It might have to do with the role of the person who has received insufficient training or improper training about how to engage with a person. Another possibility is that there’s something about people who are drawn to certain occupations, like corrections officers and police officers. Would it not be good for us all to figure out how one can identify someone who might be more likely to do something that isn’t right? There are many brilliant people who study in psychology and who think about things like implicit-association tests, IAT, that can reveal something about your implicit bias. Imagine a university deciding to devote some serious time to thinking about IAT tests so during the police admission stage you could identify the X percent. Let’s not argue about the number. But identify the X percent of people who might be inclined because of something they carry in their heart to do what was done to Mr. Floyd. That would be of immense benefit to society, if a university were to do that.
Byrne: Well, let me thank you for sharing your time with us. I learned a lot, and I hope everyone else has as well.