The Financial Times, 2/3/21
This comprehensive book is a one-stop resource for anyone wanting to understand the causes and manifestations of racism, to examine their own biases — and know what works to advance racial equity at work. It’s also a fluent, jargon-free and at times (rightly) challenging read, and has scores of footnotes. There is nothing wishy-washy here: all assertions are backed up with research and explanations, and there are many examples from Robert Livingston’s life and career. A social psychologist on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he has served as a diversity consultant at many Fortune 500 companies and non-profits.
There is a lot to digest and work on, plus examples of companies getting it right over the long term — JPMorgan Chase among them. These are organisations where “diversity is not the icing on the cake — it’s the flour in the batter”.
The title of the book is just right for this moment, when many more companies are starting uncomfortable conversations around race. The chapters where Livingston gives his advice on how to go about this are invaluable in themselves (“Rule #1: Gather the Facts . . . and Make Space For The Feelings”).
You can, as a starting point, diagnose your own workplace culture on diversity by looking at everyday workplace life. “How people are treated under normal circumstances will not tell you much about the level of racial bias . . . But how quickly or severely a woman or person of colour is written off or punished for making a mistake will tell you a lot.” Livingston then gives clear step-by-step advice to make change in any organisation — and in our lives.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review), 1/15/21
A thoughtful plan to combat racism.
Making his book debut, social psychologist Livingston distills his professional expertise as diversity consultant to Fortune 500 companies, police departments, hospitals, universities, federal agencies, and nonprofit organizations—and his own experience as an African American—to offer a pragmatic, generous, and optimistic guide for confronting racism. “My hope,” he writes, “is that The Conversation will bring people together to talk honestly about race, with the goal of creating profound and sustainable social change.” Lucidly interpreting theory, data, and research from a wide range of scientific disciplines, the author examines how individuals form their ideas about race, identity, and morality; what forces shape their behavior; and how changes might be effected. Tribalism—the need to differentiate between “us” and “them”—is wired into humans, Livingston asserts, contributing to the development of stereotypes and the perception of structural threats (which disrupt the status quo) and psychological threats (which undermine an individual’s sense of self-worth). He explains and illustrates terms such as White privilege, anchoring bias, and implicit bias, and he distinguishes between prejudice (what someone feels about a particular group) and discrimination (how someone behaves toward a particular group). Some people, he acknowledges, deny that racism exists, behaving like fish that “may not notice that they are immersed in water, let alone the dynamics of the stream they live in, because they have become habituated to swimming in a current that has always been there.” Perceptions of fairness, he concedes, “can be based entirely on habit or history.” Livingston proposes what he calls the PRESS system to inspire positive change: Problem awareness, Root cause analysis, Empathy, Strategy, and Sacrifice. This rubric informs the discussion questions that end each of the sections, making the book useful for business, social, or educational groups as well as for individual readers. Racism, Livingston believes, is a “solvable problem.”
A cogent, hopeful contribution to an urgent issue.
Social psychologist Livingston debuts with an optimistic guide for “turn[ing] difficult conversations about race into productive outcomes.” Drawing on his work as a diversity consultant for corporations including Airbnb, Livingston structures the book as a “road map” for fostering the kinds of discussions that can lead to a more equitable society. Steps for uniting people of different backgrounds in the cause of anti-racism include coming up with a working definition of racism, identifying the structural origins of racial inequality, discussing the psychological causes of in-group bias, sketching the moral and economic costs of racial prejudice, and outlining the steps organization leaders and employees can make toward “real progress.” Livingston includes a wealth of sociological research into how stereotypes form and the ways in which Blacks and other minority groups have been held back in American society, and points to the success of recent public and private sector initiatives including a JPMorgan Chase program to improve the financial wellness and educational and career prospects of people of color. Readers looking to implement the lessons of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility in a professional setting will find this to be a useful guide.
Livingston, a social psychologist and professor of public policy, explores the nature of racism and addresses how everyone can take collective action to eliminate it. By highlighting the importance of conversation, Livingston guides readers to understand racial bias and ways to intervene and to mitigate racism. Drawing on psychology, history, political science, biology, economics, and sociology, Livingston shares research findings, observations, anecdotes, and stories from his own background in framing this systemic issue. The narratives throughout each chapter are clearly written, and at times it feels as if Livingston is having a conversation with the reader. This book is uniquely structured through Livingston’s PRESS model for addressing racism: Problem awareness, Root cause analysis, Empathy, Strategy, Sacrifice. His teaching requires intentional focus and practice; this is not a casual read, but can be consulted as a reference as needed. Readers interested in workplace and organizational cultures and social psychology will find Livingston’s work inspiring, and helpful in understanding the impact of racism on people, organizations, and communities at large.
“Racial Equality Remains Unfinished for Workplaces” by John Baldoni, excerpted:
On the heels of this research comes an article from diversity scholar Robert Livingston, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations.”
In the September-October Harvard Business Review, Livingston writes in the “a 2011 study by Michael Norton and Sam Sommers found that on the whole, Whites in the United States believe that systemic anti-Black racism has steadily decreased over the past 50 years. … The result: As a group, Whites believe that there is more racism against them than against Blacks.”
“In thinking about fairness in the context of American society,” Livingston argues, “leaders must consider the unlevel playing fields and other barriers that exist — provided they are aware of systemic racism. They must also have the courage to make difficult or controversial calls.”
He continues: “Fair outcomes may require a process of treating people differently. To be clear, different treatment is not the same as ‘special’ treatment — the latter is tied to favoritism, not equity.”
In some cases, managers believe “sacrifices” must be made to ensure equality. Livingston disagrees:
“Managers should abandon the notion that a ‘best candidate’ must be found,” he writes. “That kind of search amounts to chasing unicorns. Instead, they should focus on hiring well-qualified people who show good promise, and then should invest time, effort, and resources into helping them reach their potential.”
In the aftermath of what we have witnessed this year, Livingston argues that “the question we now must confront is whether, as a nation, we are willing to do the hard work necessary to change widespread attitudes, assumptions, policies, and practices.”
And then Livingston makes a critical point. The workplace is different from “society at large.” Why? Because “the workplace very often requires contact and cooperation among people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, leaders should host open and candid conversations about how their organizations are” progressing or not.