Black economic successes need more study as part of racial reckoning

Friday, January 22, 2021

Students, staff and faculty of the W. P. Carey School of Business met Jan. 21 to discuss how the school’s motto of “Business is Personal” can reflect the urgent calls for better diversity, equity and inclusion.

Like many units of Arizona State University, and the university as a whole, W. P. Carey started discussions on racial reckoning last year, after the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and the Inclusive Teaching and Learning Committee were formed.

Jeffrey Wilson, a professor of economics, is the faculty chair of the universitywide Advisory Council on African American Affairs.

“I have been at ASU for 35 years and somehow, this time, this past summer, was really different,” he said, noting that there are now many diversity committees across the university.

“I’m sad to tell you that in my 35 years, we picked up some things and there was smoke and no fire. This time, I expect the fire to come forward soon.”

The workshop was a chance to update the W. P. Carey community on the work done so far and to allow several people to highlight important issues to consider.

One key message from the workshop speakers was to accept difficult truths, both in history and in what’s happening now.

Lois Brown, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at ASU, has been working with W. P. Carey, and was the keynote speaker of the workshop.

She described the history of using violence to destroy the economic livelihoods of Black people. Her primary example was the 1921 massacre of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, when a thriving Black neighborhood of 35 city blocks with more than 100 businesses was firebombed by white residents. More than 300 people were killed and 1,000 homes were destroyed by a white mob fueled by jealousy, she said.

Brown said that Black economic enterprises such as the Greenwood District are understudied.

“There have been traditions and histories of African American enterprise and financial success that have been stunning,” said Brown, an ASU Foundation Professor of English.

“They are not often taught and they are not often woven into our larger understanding of American industry,” she said.

Americans often forget that the full title of the 1963 event where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Brown said.

“Economic justice is intertwined with every conversation we have about democracy, diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said.

Brown said that inclusion must be a deliberate practice informed by history, culture and awareness.

“What does it mean to champion diversity? It means to access histories that have enormous amounts of trauma that reveal the schisms, that reveal the tensions, that reveal the undoing of prosperity,” she said.

Several speakers shared their thoughts on how W. P. Carey can improve inclusion.

Aniyah Braveboy, a senior majoring in public service and public policy in the W. P. Carey School of Business, said that the school must “prepare Black students for life as a Black person outside of college.”

That means having more Black mentors and faculty members, as well as incorporating more content about Black people and culture into the classroom, she said.

“I took African American Affairs, and other than that class, none of my other classes spoke of Black culture or Black history in other realms, such as accounting or psychology or business,” said Braveboy, who is president of the Black African Coalition student group.

“Other than talking about slavery or Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month, it’s never mentioned in coursework.”

The Black African Coalition has surveyed students and found that they want more Black academic advisers and peer advisers at ASU, she said. She suggested the school have more Black mentors in the freshman-level W. P. Carey 101 class.

“I know that ASU loves the idea of treating every person the same, but when a Black person applies for a job, they are not looked at the same as a Latin person or a white person,” said Braveboy, who recounted a recent job interview in which she faced discrimination.

“Minority students need more assistance and more attention in this area because of how America is,” she said.

Dan Gruber, associate dean for teaching and learning, said that the school will soon announce a new grant to encourage innovative and inclusive practices in curriculum. The speaker series will continue over the next few months, with an April session focused on syllabi and coursework.

The workshop participants were encouraged to reflect on what each speaker said, and a discussion session followed the talks.

Kim Jones started working in the business school when she was an undergraduate in the late 1970s.

Back then, she rarely saw anyone in the business school who looked like her.

“There were not many people of color,” said Jones, who is now an academic success adviser.

“Things have changed very gradually. I don’t want to say we’ve become complacent, but we need a flow, we need a movement.”

She said it’s important to clear a path to staff and faculty positions for people from underrepresented groups.

“It’s propping the door for others to walk through,” she said.

Top image by Charlie Leight/ASU Now