Zach has the honor of speaking with Howard Bryant, an award-winning author and senior writer at ESPN, about what prompted him to write his latest book, Full Dissidence, and how he landed on the title, and Howard also talks a bit about some of the differences between power and money. Howard also touches on his coverage of Colin Kaepernick’s workout, and he graciously shares his concerns about the direction of this country, particularly in the area of journalism.
Learn more about Howard’s latest book, Full Dissidence, by clicking here.
Interested in finding out more about Howard’s other books? Click here to be redirected to his Amazon page.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and you know what we do. Every single week we’re having real talk in a corporate world. We do that by what? Having authentic conversations with black and brown thought leaders, activists, educators, executives, recruiters, entrepreneurs, anybody really who’s willing to center underrepresented experiences in the workplace. And man, I’m just really excited, because this week we have Howard Bryant on the podcast. Howard Bryant is the author of nine books, the most recent being Full Dissidence: Notes From an Uneven Playing Field, and he’s contributed essays to 14 others. He is a two-time Casey Award winner for best baseball book of the year, and a 2003 finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research Seymour Medal. The Heritage was the recipient of the 2019 Nonfiction Award from the American Library Association’s Black Caucus and the Harry Shaw and Katrina Hazard Donald Award for Outstanding Work in African American Studies awarded by the Popular Culture Association. He has been a senior writer for ESPN since 2007 and has served as the sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006. In 2017, he served as the guest editor for the Best American Sports Writing anthology. He has won numerous awards, as y’all should’ve heard by now, [laughs] and he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in 2016 and 2018, both for commentary, and earned the 2016 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. In addition, Mr. Bryant has appeared in several documentaries, including Baseball: The Tenth Inning and Jackie Robinson, both directed by Ken Burns, and Major League Legends: Hank Aaron, produced by the Smithsonian and Major League Baseball. Mr. Bryant, welcome to the show, man. How are you doing?
Howard: I’m good. Thank you for having me.
Zach: Man, thank you for being here. Let me start off by saying I was familiar with your work because, you know, I’m an ESPN consumer, but it was over the past few months in your–and really, like, frankly the past over a year or so of your coverage of Kaepernick, but particularly the workout that had me really investigate your work and pre-order Full Dissidence. Can we talk a little bit about what prompted you to write this book and how you got to the title for the book?
Howard: Well, I think that the first question is… I think time, you know, got me–when you work on projects and when you write, it’s an organic process in so many different ways. You don’t really even know what you’re gonna be working on, but the environment around you begins to dictate an urgency, and things start telling you that, “Okay, these are subjects–” As I always say, if an idea comes and goes, it’s really not that important. If it keeps staying with you and keeps staying with you, then you have to pay attention to it. And what was happening I think in this country, if you start to look at the accumulation of the election of Barack Obama followed by Trayvon Martin followed by Jordan Davis and Ferguson and Eric Garner and all of these different things that were happening, also then followed by Kaepernick and then followed by the election of Donald Trump. You’ve got so many issues here that you have to pay attention to, and especially as African-Americans, you feel certainly that–the racial component of all of these ideas hit you close to home. They’re not just topics. It’s not just a subject for you. And I think for me what was really becoming more and more clear was that they were all connected and that the connectedness of it told you that there was something else happening that you need to explore, especially–to be more specific, I would think certainly the 2016 election made me think–it made me re-examine the relationship that I had with my white friends and my white colleagues and the people that I grew up with and all of these folks that you associate with who, in so many different ways, would want you to believe and that you would want to believe were your friends for life or that you had great relationships with and that you had great professional relationships with, and then you get to a place like this, you know, election-wise, and you start to see the gap, or when you start talking to your white colleagues about policing and you start hearing how wide the gap is between you, and then you start looking at the gap as well between what was being said about–you know, about America and its post-racial potential during the Obama administration, and then you go from that to this presidency. It just made me look at all of these different components as a black man, and you had to start reassessing the relationships and what they meant and what it meant for me personally.
Zach: Man, that’s just a really–well, thank you for that and the context. You’re absolutely right. I recall–it’s interesting because I’ve had long-standing relationships with white folks, and I recall during the election, leading up to it and then of course after the results, having certain conversations that I just made a presumption that we agreed about or that I would just think that–
Howard: “We’re on the same side.”
Zach: [laughs] Right? And then you have a conversation or you say something and you say–you know, you have a point of view on something that’s pretty pointed or matter-of-fact, and then not to get that same level of acknowledgement back almost like–you know, you might say something like, “You know, this is clearly wrong,” and then, you know, you get back a “Well, is it? I don’t know.”
Howard: They’re like, “Oh, is it really clearly wrong?” Yeah. I mean, for me the first moment of it was October 1st, 2008, and I remember this specifically because I was driving to Logan Airport in Boston. I was going down to Atlanta to go to Hank Aaron’s house. I was interviewing him for my Hank Aaron biography, so I remember the date clearly. And I was on the phone with a friend of mine who I had known since we were in middle school, and she was–you know, she’s a white woman, and I’m driving to the airport, and we were talking, and at some point she sort of said out loud that Sarah Palin was far more qualified to be president than Barack Obama, and that stopped me–I almost drove off the road.
Zach: That would’ve stopped me dead. [laughs]
Howard: Right? So that was the first moment where it was like, “You know what? You can’t assume anything,” and it really started to begin this reassessment. And it wasn’t simply that we had differences of opinion. You can vote for whoever you want to vote for and I can vote for whoever I want to vote for, but the issue was more about values, and it was more about what’s being said and how white people are able to balance these viewpoints and the values of these people that they’re supporting and still be able to consider themselves great, great, close friends with black people, and it struck me that the reason why they’re able to do this is because for them race and politics and these things, they’re just topics. It’s just a subject, and–
Zach: They’re like thought exercises, right?
Howard: Well, exactly. And it may be more to them on some level, that it’s not just a topic because you care about the dolphins or you care about the environment or you care about whatever, but what it is is that they’re able to co-exist. They’re not line-in-the-sand “I can’t hang out with you” issues. It’s like, “Okay.” The thing that had struck me was the number of times that you’ve had people talk about, during the impeachment, the end of democracy, and they would use these apocalyptic terms. You know, January 21st, 2020, the day democracy died, and then in the very next sentence talk about, you know, “I can’t believe how my Trump-loving friends are–” You know? I’m like, “Well, wait a minute. If you’re able to break bread with these folks, and you’re able to just flip the switch that it’s a difference of opinion, then it’s not apocalyptic.” Apocalyptic means I need to make life and death choices here. I need to make survival or non-survival choices. That’s what apocalyptic means to me. It means the apocalypse is coming, right? And so for me I was realizing that as a black man and as a writer and somebody who thinks about these issues as more than just topics, I wanted to re-assess the people in my life, and I wanted to re-assess these issues, and I wanted–and I think one of the things in the book that was so important to me was in that re-assessment I couldn’t help but keep coming back to the importance of where Colin Kaepernick fit in this in the first chapter. I remember right when the election hit I said to a bunch of friends, “A lot of relationships are gonna change after this day,” and I was really in some ways talking about myself. But what I meant about Kaepernick is here was a guy who hadn’t played football since 2016 and yet he still finds himself completely at the center of the culture. He still creates or elicits such an enormous physical response from people, and my question in that first essay, what Colin Kaepernick taught us, was really to ask one major question. I mean, there’s a bunch of different ideas in that essay, but one of the overarching questions for me was why is it so important for this culture to destroy this man? It’s bad enough that he’s not playing football, the fact that when Nike rehabilitated him with just a commercial, one 90-second commercial, you had people trying to boycott Nike.
Zach: Burning it. Burning clothes.
Howard: Exactly. You had people–and they weren’t just people, they were law enforcement, retailers, people in the mainstream. People in positions of authority.
Zach: Institutions, yeah.
Howard: Exactly, going out of their way to make sure that this man didn’t have anything. So you didn’t want him–so it’s bad enough that he’s not gonna play, right? Okay, so he lost his livelihood there. You don’t even want him to have a source of income.
Zach: “We gotta destroy his character.”
Howard: Yeah. Well, I wanted to ask this question – “Why is this so important?” I mean, supposedly this is America where everybody is able to have their opinions and that’s what makes us different from these other countries, you know? They don’t lock you up and kill your family and do all of these different things for disagreeing with government or disagreeing with institutions, and yet you’re trying to destroy him. You’re not trying to take his life, but you’re trying to take his livelihood, and that struck me as important.
Zach: Howard, it’s interesting, you know–the line you just said, “Why is it so important that we destroy this man?” That was something that you actually said–you said it on air, [laughs] and so–
Howard: Yeah, on Stephen A.’s show.
Zach: Yeah. [laughs] It seemed like you were, like, the–it was, like, you and I’ma say Bomani Jones were, like, for me, the only black men I saw in media initially, right? So people came back. Like, other folks–Shannon Sharpe came back and he said, “I was wrong,” but initially you and Bomani Jones were the only black male voices that I heard in the sports space, like, either defend or objectively discuss Kaepernick when the whole workout situation came up. Was there tension there because of that? It just seemed–and maybe because of me, I’m on the outside looking in as a consumer, ’cause I really–I was watching, and it was your tweet thread that I was sharing with all of my friends and my colleagues and my network and everything about “Hey, this is what’s going on. Look at what Howard Bryant is saying. He was there at the workout,” but it seemed as if you were, like, one of, again, two voices really not kind of following the same cadence of questioning Kaepernick’s content, questioning his motivations, questioning his ability. Am I off-base by saying that?
Howard: No, you’re not, and I was concerned–and let’s be honest, you know? I’m concerned about the direction of this country, and if you are concerned about the direction of the country, you have to be triply concerned about the position of black people. Because if things are going bad, you know we’re gonna get it worse. And so to me, one of the areas where I had the most concern is in our journalism. It’s very basic stuff, and I was concerned, and disappointed in so many ways, during, you know, my time down there in Atlanta and the coverage that followed, because I didn’t do anything remarkable. I did what we’re trained to do. It’s simply journalism. But it shows you where we are in the culture. It shows you where we are as a country. If people treated that like there was some–like I went above and beyond the call of my job. I just did my job. That was it. The job was to go down there and find out what was happening and talk to people and find out what the deal was. That’s it. It wasn’t like it took any great deal of courage to go do that. You went down there, you talked to both sides, you found out what both sides’ positions were, and you recognize–because we’re not, you know, stenographers, you don’t [write?] them both equally. You also put your brain in the middle of it, and you filter out what is accurate, what is inaccurate, and sort of how this deal and how this workout fell apart. The problem was, and the problem is of course, that Colin Kaepernick is a lightning rod in so many ways, but you also have a media that is so tilted towards the powerful. You’ve got rights holders. You’ve got relationships. You’ve got business relationships that, you know, are going to overwhelm, in some ways, the journalism. I had an interview the other day and somebody said to me, “Well, I think on balance, when you look at everything, Colin Kaepernick has really been lauded and appreciated and celebrated by media,” and I was like, “Are you out of your mind?”
Zach: That’s not true at all.
Howard: I said, “I find Colin Kaepernick’s position to have been distorted from Day One.”
Zach: Absolutely. Yes.
Howard: Because every person that goes out there and talks about the military when Colin is talking about policing is inherently distorting his message. If you’re talking about, you know, being American or un-American, you’re distorting his message. I never felt like he was being treated fairly in any of this because the message kept getting distorted, and we’re supposedly very, very smart people, so it’s not that complicated a message.
Zach: You know, and it’s interesting because–so to your point around distorting the message, even from the jump when he said, “Look, I’m protesting police brutality and white supremacy in this country,” I don’t recall anyone ever zooming in on the white supremacy part, like, in the punditry or the media talking heads, right? Like, we would zoom on–
Howard: Well, why would they? They’re the bulls-eye. He’s indicting them. He wasn’t indicting police only, he was indicting them as well, and I think that one of the big issues that struck me in this entire sort of story, and also one of the reasons for writing the book, was the fact that the idea–over the course of my lifetime, all 51 years of it, the American flag was always a symbol of aspiration, just like the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of aspiration. “Come here and you can do better. Come here and you can improve. Come here and you can go as far as your ability and talent takes you,” and it was always aspirational when it came to race. Even, you know, your white friends would look at you and go, “Yeah, I know it’s not fair, but we’re better than we were,” and “I know it’s not–you know, this isn’t right, and we’ve got a long way to go, but we’re better than we were,” right? That was always the message that was sent to me. Today the flag is no longer aspirational. The flag is a symbol to be obeyed, and if you don’t obey it, you’re un-American, you’re a traitor, you don’t deserve anything, and that is a fundamental shift. And that is a fundamental shift that I would point back to 9/11. And so when you start looking at what this country is, if the attitude is “If you do not obey, then you are a traitor,” then what does that mean for black people, where the rules and the laws have needed to be changed just to give you a shot at what we call the American Dream? It puts us in an incredibly difficult position and, in a lot of ways, a position where–you hear what the president has done along the Kaepernick story, which is to essentially say “Well, maybe he doesn’t belong here.” It’s to say that you aren’t American. It’s a very dangerous place.
Zach: Well, you’re absolutely right, and going back a second, I know one thing–one thing that trips me out is when folks say, you know, “We’re not what we were. We’ve come a long way.” It’s like, “Look, if where you started was y’all can’t sit at a lunch table with us, y’all can’t use the bathroom with us, and now we can… that’s not a long way,” and, you know, it’s almost like if your team was–I feel like Bomani Jones said this example, like, years ago. Like, if your team was, like, 0-16 last year and now y’all are, like, 2-14, it’s like… there’s been progress, but is that really something that we want to celebrate? Like, we still have–we have so much further to go that why are we even talking about this? Let’s just continue–
Howard: And also do I consider it progress because you’re willing to treat me like a human being? What did I actually earn?
Zach: That part.
Howard: What have I done? I mean, what has been earned here? What has been gained? So this conversation isn’t between you and me. This conversation is between you and you, you know? This conversation is between you not giving me rights and you creating a culture that denied my rights and you relenting a tiny bit so now I get a little bit of rights, but my situation hasn’t really changed. This is between you and the mirror.
Zach: So in your book you talk about the role that fear played in NFL players not supporting Kaepernick in his protest, right? And this was interesting to me in real-time, because I am–I’m a younger professional. I can’t say I’m young, Howard, ’cause I’m 30. So I’m not, like, young, but you know what I mean. Like, I’m younger.
Howard: Yeah, you’re pretty young.
Zach: I’m pretty young, right? So I’m moving around, and this was a few years ago, so I’m in my mid-20s, and I’m looking at all this in real-time and I’m like, “Dog, these guys got–these are millionaires, right? Why are they not–you know, they have acc–” In my mind, ’cause I’m–again, I’m in my mid-20s. I’m making, like, I don’t know, like, 60, $70,000, so I’m a quote-unquote “average guy,” and I’m confused because I’m trying to figure out why it is that they’re not speaking up, but in your essay you highlight some of the differences between, like, power and money. Can we talk about that a little bit more? Because I think it’s easy for folks to presume that if you have money you naturally have some amount of power.
Howard: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that what we’ve got here–there’s a couple of things that take place, right? And you can think about this as aspirational and think about it as progress, or you can assess it in any way that you’d like, but the question that I’ve been asking myself is–sports is the only industry that I can think of, and that includes music and entertainment, where there is famous men and famous women who are labor but still make millions of dollars. Tom Hanks makes $20 million per picture. Samuel L. Jackson, you know, $20 million per picture, and so–you know, Scarlett Johansson it’s $15 million per picture, however much she makes per movie. So these are enormous, ball player-level sums of wealth, but sports is the only occupation that I can think of where we have this assumption or this instinct that management and the front office is supposed to resemble the workforce. It really is curious in that way, because if you look at farming, and you go fly out to California, there’s a whole bunch of brown, Mexican strawberry pickers out there, and nobody is looking at them and saying, “Well, damn, the workforce is 70% or 80% Latino. How come the management isn’t 70 or 80% Latino?” If you go to a strip club, there’s a whole bunch of women out there making a whole bunch of money for the building, but nobody is saying, “Well, how come the women don’t run the business?” But we do in sports. You know, 80% black men in the NBA, 70% black men in the NFL, and we say, “Well, why aren’t they running the show too?” And the reason to me is the enormous over-estimation of money. It’s because they make so much money we think they have power, but they’re still just labor. They’re incredibly well-compensated labor, but they’re still labor, and sports is the one place, you know, where we over-estimate money, and we recognize, when we get to situations like Kaepernick’s or you get to situations like hiring and you recognize, “Oh, there’s a limitation to the money,” that they’re still paying you to provide a service to them. You’re still a worker. You’re still labor. There isn’t, in their mind, the expectation that that’s gonna translate into a pathway to management or ownership. It doesn’t work that way, and I think people are finding out the hard way. Like, for example, you had asked me earlier the reason for the title “Full Dissidence,” and the title, you know, simply comes from this feeling of recognizing that, you know what, it’s not gonna necessarily happen for me the way they’ve told me if I do all these right things, and I think the NFL coaches are sort of having that full dissidence moment in their occupation. They’re realizing that no matter, you know, how many Rooney Rules you have or how many assistant coaching jobs and how much experience I have that “that pathway may not exist for me,” and I think from a working labor, occupational standpoint, it’s a cold bucket of water in the face.
Zach: I agree, of course. I think it’s interesting because we have been–I know that I was, by my teachers, by black, brown, and white folks alike, that, you know, if you’re good enough you can out-perform racism. You can out-perform–
Howard: Yeah, exactly. Bomani brought up that point as well, that nobody has ever out-performed racism.
Zach: And that, you know, if you get enough dollars, that financial capital will eventually translate into some form of white capital that you can, you know, leverage to get–
Howard: To get a seat at the table. I remember when I was working on The Heritage I had a fantastically honest and frank conversation with Al Sharpton about this. So we’re in his office in New York, and we’re talking about this, and, you know, it’s a despairing conversation in some ways because you’re realizing, “Okay, well, where is the pathway?” And I finally said to him–I said, “Well, you know, Rev, maybe Michael Jordan had it right. Maybe, you know, for all the criticism that Michael Jordan gets, maybe Michael Jordan realized, even though he is an owner, you know, he recognizes that there’s not an open pathway to ownership and you’re not necessarily gonna get a seat at the table, so maybe the goal is to simply get as much money as you possibly can, that money is the one thing that they’re willing to give you. They’re not gonna share the power, but they will give you the cash. So maybe you should work on getting as much of that as you can, and that’s gonna buy you at least the individual and the family freedom to live a better life.” And Sharpton said, “Well, you’re right, you’re right… but you’re still a coward. Even though you may be right, that still makes you a coward.” [Zach laughs]
Zach: I’ma keep it a bean with you, ’cause I was talking to my people, right? And I just said–I said, “Dog, Howard Bryant is a real one, dog. Like, he’s out–” And you’re right, you’re right. You were saying that you were just doing your job. You were just doing your job by going out there and reporting the facts, but doggone it, man, you was looking like Fred Hampton in these streets, man. Like, you were the only–
Howard: Well, and that shows you where we’re at though. It says less about me and more about us.
Zach: Yeah, the system. No, you’re absolutely right. I do feel like we’re able to see the capitalistic jig really clear in sports, but do you believe that it’s exclusive to sports, or do you think that, like, the patterns that we see in terms of how these systems are all–how they work together in certain ways transcends just, like, the sporting arena?
Howard: No. I think that–one of the reasons why I did Full Dissidence was because there’s so much overlap that you needed to pull outside of sports, that what was happening in sports is the exact same thing that’s happening in the culture, and the difference is–the reason why it was important to pull some of these ideas out of sports is because people treat sports like it’s the toy department. They don’t treat it seriously, but yet if you took some of these exact same ideas and brought them into the workplace, into the corporate, into the white collar, then people might look at them differently, and people might view it as, “Oh, now this is serious.” You know, the reason why you don’t look at it very seriously in sports is because 1. sports is entertainment for a bunch of people, and 2. we dismiss sports because the players make so much money. So it’s almost as if “Well, because they make money, they can’t have any grievance, any gripes, any concerns, any thoughts, any contributions.” So absolutely I think that things are overlapping each other, and one of the most important ways that they’re overlapping is the way that the corporate side and the military side know how important sports is because you’ve got so many bazillion channels on TV now. You’ve got so many different ways that the culture is separated. Sports is the one place where everybody’s watching the same thing. You watch the Super Bowl, you still got 100 million eyeballs on one event, and you don’t–it’s not The Tonight Show anymore, you know? Or it’s not the old days where everybody’s watching MASH or Happy Days or All in the Family, but when it comes to sports people are still watching, so they know that’s where the eyeballs are. So sports becomes actually more important. There’s a reason why, when you’re watching the NFL, you see all of the flags and the fly-overs and the military and all that, because the military is actively using sports as a recruiting tool because there are so many people looking at it.
Zach: So you talked about 2008. That was certainly a pivotal year. I think about 2008, and I also think about 2016, right? You had the end of an era with Obama, of this [sarcastically] post-racial utopia, and this–
Howard: Which it wasn’t.
Zach: [laughs] Thank you for–I appreciate that, because there will be folks, Howard, who won’t pick up on the sarcasm, so thank you.
Zach: And then we had the formal election of Trump, right? And Kaepernick was in the forefront in the concept of his protest, the ongoing discussions about policing–a lot of those discussions came more in the center. Ta-Nehisi Coates and his writing also became more, like, actual talking points. Like, it was an interesting year for black folks, and as someone who is in professional services as a consultant, I can say that you could really see the tone of the workplace shifting too because, again, we don’t live compartmentalized lives, right? Like, you know, you just talked about sports permeating and everyone looking at it, and even if you’re not a sports fan, those topics are becoming more and more mainstream, and I believe that all of these things came together, and even just the tone–just the way that black and brown folks were working and showing up and even, like, topics around diversity and inclusion, they changed, right? Like, those conversations became more on the forefront. You talked about a conversation you had with Reverend Al Sharpton. Can we talk about any other shifts that you’ve been seeing–you know, again, we talked about even your appearance on different shows and things of that nature. Do you feel as if you’ve felt shifts as a black journalist dealing with either white journalists or other black journalists as it comes to concepts around dissidence?
Howard: Oh, absolutely, absolutely, and I think that the problem that you have in sports is that sports has been telling you one of the biggest lies for pretty much all of our lives, that sports is the place of the meritocracy, sports is the antidote to racism, that it doesn’t make a difference if you’re black or white, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re Latino or Asian. If my score beats your score, I win, and that’s the American Dream right there, right? That’s why sports was at the center of integration, you know? If black people can fight in a war, how come they can’t hit a baseball? Right? And whoever’s got the fastest 40 time or the fastest 100 time, they win. There’s your meritocracy, and yet you find out in sports, when you look at what’s been taking place in this business, that it’s really no different from anywhere else, and I think that the hard part that people of color, you know, especially black people find in the workforce is they’re finding that that shift is hitting them directly, and it’s hitting them in places where they may not have anticipated. I’m very nervous for your generation. I’m very concerned about young, black professionals in the business today, for some of them whose first election was Obama, you know? That was the first year they were eligible to vote, and the expectations that they have, and even the elites, you know? The black students who are going to the Ivy League schools and to the Harvards and also to the Dukes and the Stanfords and the rest of these–you know, Vanderbilt and these other elite schools, and then they get into the workforce, and then they find out that things haven’t changed, that they thought they were different. They thought that these old ideas didn’t apply to them because we had treated the Obama election as such a demarcating line, and in retrospect it turns out to have not been such a demarc–in fact, what it did was it was a retrenchment. It was a reminder historically that whenever black people receive some form of victory, the backlash is harsh and swift and very severe and very clear, and in discovering that, I wonder what your generation and what that generation of black professionals, how they’re gonna deal with it, this expectation of equality, this expectation that they are going to be that first black generation where merit actually does count. And then you find out in the corporate world, you walk in, and whether we’re talking about sports with the Selig Rule or the Rooney Rule or the lack of black college coaches, or then you walk into the white collar world and you realize who’s getting promoted and who’s not and the diversity and inclusion initiatives and all of that, and you do have to ask yourself the same question over and over again, and that is if you need a policy to tell your bosses to even–not even hire, but just to interview people, you’ve got major, major, major problems, and you’re not anywhere near as ahead as you think you are.
Zach: Howard, and that’s why–and, you know, I’m not a sports journalist, right? So I would say I am a casual consumer of sports, but that’s–the Rooney Rule, just from, like, a human capital, change management–’cause that’s my space, right? So just from, like, a business perspective, I found the Rooney Rule to be disingenuous at its heart, because it’s like, “Okay, you’re just saying that we have to interview people.” I don’t believe that correlates to you actually hiring more people, and we have tons of evidence–and, like, it’s like the Rooney Rule continues to come up every handful of years about, you know, how effective is it really, and yet we haven’t changed it. But it’s like, “You creating some formal rules to interview typically black men for these coaching roles doesn’t actually address the heart of the matter, which is that you don’t inherently see these individuals as leaders of people.”
Howard: The question is, for the corporate world, and I’ve asked this question numerous times when I do these types of stories, are you grooming me to replace you? Because if you’re not grooming me to replace you, then all of this is performative. Do you look at me and are you willing to have me be the face of your institution? You know, that is not a hard question to answer, but it’s a very hard question to acknowledge, because the answer is generally no. I have made this argument to people, and people don’t like it because, you know, they think it’s too political because they don’t want to confront their own history, but you can just look it up. It’s not hard. I’ve always told people that if you are anti-big government you are anti-black, and people say, “No, no. I’m just a libertarian.” And I’d say, “No,” which is also my way of being direct, because anti-big government is a clear Republican platform. Whether you’re black or white, if you are a Republican who supports the shrinking of government, chances are you’re a racist. And why would I say that? I say that because historically, if you look at hiring patterns since the end of World War II, the federal government built the middle class, the black middle class. The federal government, you know, in terms of hiring, in terms of civil service jobs, the federal government built the black middle class, and as you start to shrink those positions, you shrink the black middle class. Whether you’re doing it by design or whether indirectly, the end result is the same, and what I’m getting at here, for your space, is that the private, corporate sector still does not routinely and prominently hire and promote black people. It still doesn’t, and so if you’re going to cut the number of government jobs, whether it’s state, whether it’s federal, post office, whatever you want to call it, you are actively crushing the black middle class. This is the reason why these diversity and inclusion initiatives are so important, because this corporate world is not making those hires, and because they’re not making those hires and because they can’t be compelled to make those hires, you are at the mercy of what you may what you want to call progress or what we know to be lack of progress. So at some point–like, for example, you know, I went–and I think there’s an anecdote… yes, there’s an anecdote in the book about this, that I was at a diversity and inclusion event in Boston, and all of these CEOs sat down, and it was amazing. The first panel had a group of really well-prepared women making their pitches about, you know, some of their initiatives they’re working on, and they were all so prepared, and it was crazy because they were incredibly polite. So they were incredibly well-dressed. They knew this was a shot to be on a major stage talking to major players in their industry at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. And they didn’t interrupt each other, and they all did their presentations, and it was–you know, I understood it. It made sense. And then the next panel were the CEOs, and it looked like a country club. They were all wearing their suits, but they weren’t necessarily–I don’t even know if they were ironed. I mean, they just showed up because they’re the bosses. They were in charge. Some of them wore ties and some of them didn’t. They did not look at this like they were showing to this audience of black and brown women, you know? They weren’t. It was very chummy. And they sat down, and they yucked it up with each other, and they cracked jokes and interrupted each other, because they were the bosses. They were in charge. And one of the most remarkable things that came across this entire event was when one of them talked about diversity and inclusion and promotions and talked about how it was easier for them to promote white men, because if white men in their offices didn’t get jobs they were gonna make the biggest noise. They were gonna complain the most. They were gonna be the most disruptive. And the black women and the white women in the business were less likely to complain, which made it easier to pass them over for jobs. And it was a stunning, absolutely stunning, admission at a diversity and inclusion seminar.
Zach: At an actual–targeted for this particular space.
Howard: Exactly. Here was the beauty of this, which was obviously heartbreaking and painful, but it was the beauty of it. It was said so matter of factly that they didn’t even know what they were admitting. They were essentially admitting that “No, we’re not–” You know, “We’d like to hire you, but we know–” Because they were taking the path of least resistance. If I promote this guy or this woman, then this guy’s gonna complain and be disruptive, so I might as well give him the promotion so at least I can have harmony. I can have the appearance at least of order. It’s essentially almost like the corporate indictment of Martin Luther King, Jr. [?] white moderate, “order over justice.” As long as nobody’s mad and nobody says anything, everything’s cool. And it’s like, “No, wait a minute. You’re contributing to this by having no courage. And by the way, if you’re the boss and you’ve got a disruptive employee, he’s insubordinate. You’ve got the power to do something about that.” And that’s the reason why that chapter in the book is called The Mediocre White Boy, because these guys are protecting each other at the expense of your advancement.
Zach: Man. You know, your book collects a series of pieces, all of them powerful. The bylines of many of them I read was this concept of, like, self-erasure, right? So there were multiple instances where athletes would say, you know, “I’m not black, I’m this,” or “I’m not anything, I’m just me,” and, you know, I see a similar pattern for well-to-do black professionals, like, executives. I’ve literally met folks who will say, “Well, I’m not just black. I’m also a tennis player.” [laughs] Or “I’m just me,” you know? “That’s part of who I am, but I’m a complex person,” or–
Howard: One of the biggest problems that we have in business and when we talk about ourselves is the idea of what blackness is, and we do this to ourselves, and when we do it to ourselves, then that gives white people license to do it ten times worse to us. And when you watch, you know, film, and you watch Hollywood and you watch everything, they essentially assume there’s one black experience, because we attack each other so often on authenticity. And, you know, one of the reasons why I did this book was because I felt like there was an opportunity to talk about certain elements of the black experience that never get discussed. I mean, one of the beauties of Ta-Nahesi Coates’ writing is that he writes very specifically about a very specific black experience, his experience, you know, in Baltimore and as a professional, and he writes about being black in black communities. The same is true for a bunch of other writers, but one of the areas that we never really talk about is that post-1960s, post-1950s aspirational, you know, black families who made that decision–the same decision that white people made, whether it was white flight or black flight–that “I’m going to take my kids out of the black community and move them into the white spaces.” And what happened to those black kids who grew up immediately and always as the only black kid in class? You’re the only black kid in the first grade. You’re the only black kid in the twelfth grade. You essentially live in a world of whiteness, and why are we asking you to live in this world of whiteness? For education. Your parents are doing this for you. They’re doing this because–like, in my case, when we left Boston, we were trading the physical violence of a tough, tough neighborhood for the emotional violence of being the only black kid in a room full of white people. So eventually as that toll begins to mount on you, you enter these white corporate spaces, and you recognize very quickly the price of being black and the anti-blackness that you’re surrounded by. And sometimes you hear, or a lot of times this becomes the price for you to advance – not to be black, not to talk about being black, not to be proud of being black. You hear black people say this all of the time. “Well, I don’t want to be a black writer. I just want to be a writer who happens to be black.” What on earth does that mean? “I’m not a black doctor. I’m a doctor that happens to be black.” And what you’re really saying is that “I can’t carry this anymore. I don’t want to carry this, because if I carry this with me I may not advance and I gotta answer questions I don’t feel like answering.” And you see it in sports especially where sort of this deal is they’re going to trade your blackness for money, okay? “We’re gonna pay you millions of dollars, but we don’t want you talking about issues that are important to black people.” So I began to think about this in two of the chapters. One is called “The Worst Thing in the World” and the other one is called “The Lost Tribe of Integration,” which is that when I started thinking about the arc of my own life, that the arc is that your life will improve the faster and quicker you get away from black people. If you get away from the black community, your schools get better. If you get away from talking about black issues, then you’re not a troublemaker at work anymore, you know? If you don’t advocate for black people, then people will look at you and tell you that you’ve transcended race, as if looking in the mirror is something that you should not want.
Zach: You know, what’s really interesting about that is even in the diversity and inclusion, like, corporatized space–and I’ve noticed this as me as a black man, like, the more that I’m able to say things like, “It’s not just about race and ethnicity, it’s also about diversity of thought–” If even in the space that was supposedly built so that we can have equity for black and brown people and historically marginalized and oppressed groups–even in this space, if I, in my rhetoric, in my general language, if I eschew ethnicity, that is also [?]–
Howard: If you advocate directly for black people, you are putting your entire career in danger. And I say this now, and people look at me, and they don’t like to hear it, but I’ll say it now, I’ll say tomorrow, and I said it yesterday – diversity is anti-blackness, because what we’re really talking about here when you look at the statistics and when you look at the reasons for the Rooney Rule–you’re not looking at the Rooney Rule because Asians are underrepresented, but when you’re having your diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially if you’re talking about technology–if we’re going to Silicon Valley, you’re not looking at the Middle-Eastern or the Indian or the Asian and say, “Gee, they’re not advancing.” What you’re looking at is a white space that has no black people, and so many of these D&I initiatives began with black people. It was about black people. It was for black people. But when you do something directly for black people, people get offended. They get mad. They don’t want to hear it. They feel like, “Well, what are you giving them special treatment for?” Because you gave us the special treatment of not letting us play. You’ve been giving us special treatment since we got here. It’s just not the special treatment that is a positive special treatment. It’s negative, but it’s still special. So what has happened in these spaces now is to minimize the idea that you’re giving black people special treatment, now you just talk about non-white male treatment. But non-white male treatment does not necessarily address the inequities for black people specifically. So D&I suddenly becomes hiring white women, and so white women–who are often part of the patriarchy, who are always second on the food chain, who can marry into wealth faster than everybody, and if you look at your statistics, marrying into wealth is still the fastest way to become wealthy. The most reliable way to become wealthy isn’t going to college, it’s to marry into it. So now when you start to look and your demographics change, now all of a sudden–we had 89% white men in a given position, now it’s 69% white men in a given position, but it’s 29% white women. What does that actually do for black people? So you’ve got your diversity, but you haven’t helped black people. You haven’t helped the people on the bottom who were supposedly the target of this initiative. But you’ve got your diversity, you know? You’ve got seven white men, two white women, and one–you know, one Asian man, but what does that do for the person on the bottom? It didn’t help them at all, yet your numbers are different and you can say, “We’ve improved diversity by 30%,” but what happens to me? You haven’t helped me at all.
Zach: So we typically have sound effects, Howard, but you’ve been so fire that I’m not even trying to, like, dilute what you’ve been saying. So do you ever imagine a world where marginalized communities collectively go full dissidence in their places of work? And, like, if so, what in your mind would that look like?
Howard: Well, the answer’s no because you’ve got to eat. I mean, the answer’s no because eventually, you know, when you start looking at the actual numbers, the numbers tell you that–they’re so overwhelming, that there’s only a few of us that are gonna be able to succeed, and so very few people are going to be willing to risk that. I mean, I look at myself and I look at the numbers and I say to myself, “There’s nothing special about me,” and then you look at the actual number of black people who have my job and you go, “Oh. On second thought, there is something special,” because you’re one of the few people who actually has a platform, who actually has a chance to say something.
Zach: Howard, man. I’m serious. I’m telling you, man. I’m not joking. When you got up on there and you started talking like that, me and all of my friends were like, “Yo… this is gonna be the last time we see this dude up here.” [laughs]
Howard: Exactly, right? But see, I look at it this way. ESPN hired me to do this. They didn’t hire me to act like Bill Simmons or to act like Rick Reilly or to act like Stephen A. They said, “You go out and do what you do best.” Now, obviously when you’re gonna do this, when you’re going to say these different things, it goes back to what you were saying earlier about “Do you want diversity of color or diversity of thought?” Normally, what a lot of corporations want is they want diversity of color, but they don’t want diversity of thought because diversity of thought challenges them way too much. So what they would really like is they would like a gigantic, pretty rainbow of different colors who are all represented who all think the same way so the company’s not challenged. I understand that part. I don’t always subscribe to that part, because as a journalist, you’re asking me to represent people who don’t have the opportunity to speak, and so I try to do that. That’s part of the job, or at least it was part of the job and it should always be part of the job. So the issue is, to answer your question, what needs to happen and how do I envision that? What does that look like? Well, how it looks to me is I think it’s more of a mental liberation than a physical one. I think to me, when I think about full dissidence as an idea–and I think I end the book with it–is it’s the recognition that you can find your own living space and not let people lie to you or not feel like you have to buy in. You’ve got to be willing to see through what’s happening right now. Look at what’s happening to your situation, and then you need to discover your own strategies to find your own peace within it. But the problem that I see is the number of black people in the business who were so [?] and so happy that they get in that they buy into it and they think they’re different and they’re like, “Okay, everything’s changed,” and then they get punched in the face. And then they get punched in the face and they had their hands down, and what I’m trying to say is if you’re gonna navigate this environment, navigate the environment, but make sure your hands are up and know that punch is coming, because that punch always comes. Ask your parents. Ask your grandparents. That punch always comes. So what you’re really asking me in some ways, whether you’re doing it directly or not or intentionally or not, is do I see white people changing so there’s no need for this, and the answer is no, I don’t see that. What I see–and that’s one of the reasons why in the book I say it’s not a survival guide, it’s simply what I see–what I see is the necessity for black people to hold on to their blackness, to keep it and to not trade it and not sacrifice it under this idea that “If I do the right things and if I say the right things I’m gonna get accepted as an American,” because it hasn’t happened yet, you know? That’s the big thing for me, that you look at the–you know, you go watch a movie like Gloria or go read the history of, you know, black participation in warfare, that if you fight for your country or if you win the medals or if you build the charter school or if you, you know, give the money to whatever foundation, that you are finally gonna get accepted, and it goes back to what you were saying. It’s that whole idea of outperforming racism. I guess the best way to say it is–what is full dissidence? Full dissidence is the recognition that you cannot outperform racism. That’s what it feels like to me.
Zach: Man, thank you so much for being on the podcast. This has been incredible. Y’all, make sure y’all check out his–everything’s in the show notes. The author, his name is Howard Bryant. The book is called Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field. Make sure y’all check it out. This has been Zach with the Living Corporate podcast. Make sure you check us out on Instagram @LivingCorporate, Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod, and we’re on Google, man. Look, we’re all on Al Gore’s Internet, man. Livingcorporate.co, .us, .net. Howard, listen, man, we understand how theses SEOs work. We’ve got all the domains, Howard, except for LivingCorporate.com. Australia has that domain somehow. I don’t know what’s going on. We’re gonna try to get it, but look, [Howard and Zach laugh] y’all make sure y’all hit us up. I can’t thank you enough, Howard. Until next time, we’ll catch y’all, man. Peace.