On a Monday in August last year, students in Paul Harper’s Race and Business Ethics MBA class at the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business watched the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, a “critique of corporate America — but more importantly, a critique of how the Black image is used in popular culture,” Harper says. At a key point in the movie, he says, “one of the characters literally dancing in a minstrel show says, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ ”
Before a week had passed, Black Americans en masse were echoing that message — asking, as writer James Baldwin famously did, whether the American dream comes at their expense.
The Sunday after Harper’s class watched Bamboozled, Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back several times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin — the latest in a string of police shootings that had catalyzed a summer of outrage in Black communities. It was the latest in a long string of shootings and killings — in Minneapolis and Louisville in 2020, and in Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore, New York, and a dozen other cities in recent years. Between 2014 and 2019, police in the U.S. killed more than 6,500, and a quarter of those were Black people.
Protesting Blake’s shooting in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association refused to play. “And then Naomi Osaka comes out in tennis and says she’s not playing, then the rest of the NBA says they’re not playing. All of a sudden by Friday, all professional sports stop playing,” Harper says. Real life had mirrored the fictional events and message in Bamboozled, making the connection between race and business in America even stronger for Harper’s students.
B-SCHOOLS MUST RECKON WITH THEIR ROLE IN HOLDING BACK BLACK COMMUNITIES
Bamboozled is essential material in Harper’s Race and Business Ethics class, which he is teaching again this spring after a successful debut last year. Another is Baldwin’s 1960s speech on the question “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Following George Floyd’s murder last summer, Harper felt like the students were asking for, and needed, something different from traditional business school offerings. He wanted to provide a space to have conversations around race and abuses of power.
Currently, he says, there aren’t any business schools that are sufficiently addressing racial justice issues.
“I’m not saying nobody has diversity initiatives,” Harper says.
He pointed to the business schools at Howard, North Carolina A&T State University, and other historically Black colleges and universities. “I’m not saying there aren’t business schools that are really good, that don’t have significant Black populations.” What he is saying, however, is that racial justice is different from DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative — and more meaningful. It’s the racial justice piece that he cares about.
“What is the role of business in improving society? That’s the question I’m asking,” Harper says. To find the answer, he says, business schools and businesses must focus on social and racial justice.
“I don’t think it can play the role of leading society forward for the betterment of its citizens broadly, without owning up to the role that it has played in holding significant communities back and exploiting communities,” he says.
CORPORATIONS MUST SHOW COMMITMENT TO RACIAL JUSTICE
At all business schools, including his alma mater, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, and where he currently teaches, Pittsburgh’s Katz School, “These conversations are just getting started,” Harper says.
For B-schools to improve their record on racial justice, he says, corporations need to show they’re committed to investing in people and students working in the space. “That’s not the same as investments they may have made historically in the diversity-and-inclusion ecosystem,” Harper says.
The investments make sense, he adds. A recent analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey showed that companies with more diversity outperformed their counterparts. But to retain their diverse employees, business must invest in justice-focused initiatives beyond diversity — the work Harper is getting at.
“The knowledge for what racial justice is going to mean for businesses and business schools? That knowledge is being created now,” he says.
He says that at the faculty level, the Katz School has done a lot of new racial work in the last year, forming committees and task forces to look at everything from curriculum to operations and hiring. Harper says it’s a top priority for Katz Dean Arjang Assad.
TO KNOW WHERE WE ARE GOING, WE MUST KNOW WHERE WE HAVE BEEN
The curriculum is still getting sorted out. Harper is working on that knowledge creation in myriad ways, including with his students in the new class and in a web forum he’s participating in on the intersection of race, business, and ethics. In the first installment of the series, Harper and other panelists discussed “the role of race in business school curricula and research valuation.”
Hands down the most important thing for schools interested in improving in racial justice, he says, is curriculum.
“You have to offer the kinds of courses and the kind of in class experience that’s attractive to a broader set of people.” It’s essential, he says, that a curriculum includes a history of racism and business in America. “It’s hard to say what businesses should be doing better, could be doing better, what role they could play in moving society forward,” he says, “if people don’t understand where society’s been.”
B-school curricula need to be more inclusive to highlight examples of woman-owned enterprises, Black-owned businesses, and the historical contributions of immigrants. Current narratives around the history of business, Harper says, “don’t include the contribution of so many communities to the excellence of our American economy.” He adds, “You would think it was all just a handful of people in Boston, a handful of people in New York.”
When students see themselves represented in the curriculum, and not just as a token, that will be the thing to bring diverse students to B-schools, he says. Schools should also seek to create leaders for a broad set of industries, not just investment, banking, and consulting.
The curriculum, Harper says, is where the rubber meets the road.
‘NOT JUST SOMETHING A B-SCHOOL WOULD DO TO SATISFY A HANDFUL OF BLACK STUDENTS’
It matters who’s teaching the courses. Harper ‘s background is in education and Black leadership, business ethics, and social justice. This week he was awarded the prestigious Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award from the University of Pittsburgh for his work “to improve racial justice by advancing inclusive innovation, in particular by encouraging Black entrepreneurship” and “developing a partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to advance local economic development projects and investment in Israeli startup companies.”
Harper cautions against just any faculty member — perhaps moved by the current racial climate — teaching a course on racial justice. Instead he feels they need to have extensive experience and research in the field — like Robin Derry, professor at the University of Lethbridge’s Dhillon School of Business, whose expertise is in intersectional theory, feminist ethical theory, and critical business ethics. Derry is co-leading some of Harper’s racial justice work.
Another leader in the work is Bobby Banerjee, professor at the Business School at City University (formerly Cass) in London. Banerjee, the author of “Corporate Social Responsibility: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and “Organizations, Markets and Imperial Formations: Towards an Anthropology of Globalization,” leads a movement calling for the “decolonization” of B-schools.
When schools are thinking about new courses and initiatives, a huge mistake Harper sees is the misconception that only Black students are interested in courses about race. Of the 25 students in his fall class, he points out, 23 were white. “It is not just something a business school would do just to satisfy a handful of Black students,” he says.
Because race is just one piece of a large and complex puzzle, Harper is also designing a class on gender and intersectionality. Another class idea that might be in the works is one on post-colonialism and business, given that most people engaging in this sphere are from colonized communities. In a recent interview with Pittwire, Harper said, “Moving forward, corporations will need new leadership who are trained to understand, recognize and affirm calls for social justice emerging from the stakeholder ranks, and there will be fierce competition for the alumni of those schools who can provide that kind of strategy and business ethics training.”
Register for the one-hour Feb. 12 forum on Racial Justice, Social Theory, and Business here. Register for the next forum in the series, on Racial Justice and Business Technologies, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center and scheduled for March 5, here.
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.