Zach has the honor of speaking with Dr. Caitlin Rosenthal, an Assistant Professor at University of California, Berkeley and author of 2018’s “Accounting for Slavery,” in an episode themed around organizational models and white supremacy. She and Zach touch on everything from violence and technology to reparations to the problems with the “business case for diversity.” Check the show notes to connect with Dr. Rosenthal and order her book!
Learn more about (and buy!) Dr. Rosenthal’s book “Accounting for Slavery” on Amazon.
Click here to find out more about The 1619 Project.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and, you know, I have to say I’m thankful that this platform has been going on for a couple of years before it was hyper trendy to center black voices in and outside of the workplace. I am. I’m thankful for that. With that in mind, today we have Dr. Rosenthal, who will be talking about how chattel slavery has helped inform a lot of formal and informal practices in the workplace today. You’ll notice at one point of our conversation that we talk about overseers or, in layman’s terms, slaves that were picked by the planters, or plantation owners, to watch over the rest of the slaves. Like all things regarding American slavery, this was a method of control through delegation, and one thing I want to caution in this moment, both leaders and non-leaders alike, is not modeling this, especially in your diversity, equity and inclusion efforst, right? So what do I mean by that? So white comfort is not only the default. It’s not just the default in diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s not just the default at work. It’s the default in America, but it’s the gravitational force by which all things center on or center back to. So there’s going to be a constant pressure to frame things, say things, do things, that do not make the majority uncomfortable. And, you know, so to leaders I will say it’s easy, unintentionally or otherwise, to pick and position voices that you’re comfortable with as representatives of your diversity councils or panelists for your events or employee resource groups, and so my challenge to you in this moment is to push past your comfort and listen to, better yet, truly cede power to voices that challenge you, okay? And so then, with that same spirit, I want to say to my chosen few who end up being selected in these positions, interrogate your own intentions, right? This is not an opportunity for a come-up. This is an opportunity to drive real equity for the people that look like you, and so ask yourself how you can take the privilege and access and platform you’ve been temporarily granted–again, notice, temporarily granted–and how you can use that to help other people, right? So this is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna play a clip from a speech by Malcolm X, and then we’re going to pivot into the conversation that we had with Dr. Rosenthal earlier this year. Catch y’all next time. Peace.
Malcolm X: “Back during slavery there was two kinds of slaves. There was the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negro, they lived in the house with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good. Because they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still didn’t live near their master. And they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to serve their master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “We,” he said, “We.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, “What’s the matter, boss? We sick. We sick.” He identified himself with his master more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s run away, let’s escape, let’s separate,” that house Negro would look at you and say, “Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?” That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a “house nigga.” And that’s what we call him today, because we’ve still got some house niggas running around here. On that same plantation, there was the field Negro. The field Negro, those were the masses. There was always more Negros in the field than there was Negros in the house. The Negro in the field caught hell. He ate leftovers. In the house they ate high up on the hog. The Negro in the field didn’t get nothing but what was left of the insides of the hog. They call them chitlins nowadays. In those days they called them what they were: guts. That’s what you were, a gut-eater. And some of you all still gut-eaters. The field Negro was beaten from morning till night. He lived in a shack, in a hut. He wore cast-off clothes, and he hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master. But that field Negro, remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try and put it out. That field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he’d die. If someone come to the field Negro and said, “Let’s separate, let’s run,” he didn’t say “Where we going?” He said, “Any place is better than here.” You’ve got field Negros in America today. I’m a field Negro. The masters are the field Negros. When they see this man’s house on fire you don’t hear these little Negros talking about, “Our government is in trouble.” They say, “The government is in trouble.” Imagine a Negro, “Our government.” I even heard one say “Our astronauts.” They won’t even let him near the plant, but our astronauts, our Navy. That’s a Negro that’s out of his mind. Just as the slave master in that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negros in check, the same ol’ slave master today has Negros who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th-century Uncle Toms to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and non-violent. That’s Tom making you non-violent. It’s like when you go the dentist and the man’s gonna take your tooth. You’re gonna fight him when he starts pulling, so they squirt some stuff in your jaw called novacaine to make you think they’re not doing anything to you. So you sit there, and ’cause you got all that novacaine in your jaw you suffer peacefully. Blood running all down your jaw and you don’t know what’s happening ’cause someone has taught you to suffer peacefully. The white man do the same thing to you in the street. When he wants to put knots on your head and take advantage of you and don’t have to be afraid of you fighting back, to keep you from fighting back he’d get these old, religious Uncle Toms to teach you and me. They’re just like novacaine. Suffer peacefully. Don’t stop suffering, just suffer peacefully.”
Zach: Today we have a whole Ph.D on the podcast, y’all, a whole–not a half, a whole Ph.D, Dr. Caitlin Rosenthal. Dr. Caitlin Rosenthal is an assistant professor of history at UC Berkeley. She was previously a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, and she’s brought history into fresh focus with her new book Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, which examines how white owners of enslaved black people were early innovators of many business practices and terms we use today. Dr. Rosenthal’s work has been featured in The Boston Review and The Harvard Business Review just to name a couple. So let me just say this to start, okay? And this is a longer monologue than we typically do, right, but, I mean, this matters to me. Black folks are often looked at as annoying or conspiracists or dramatic or whatever you want to call it when we “go all the way back to slavery” to contextualize the world that we live in today, yet here we have you, Dr. Rosenthal, a whole professor who’s done work in examining the complex managerial systems of the 18th and 19th century plantation owners. It’s an honor to have you here, welcome to the show, and how are you doing?
Dr. Rosenthal: I’m doing well, and I’m delighted to be here for what seems to be a really, really important conversation. And like you say, you know, it’s been a learning experience for me to see how much pushback people get when they say something goes all the way back to slavery, because it of course does go all the way back to slavery through Jim Crowe, through redlining, through everything, but I think it’s really powerful to take the conversation all the way back.
Zach: Well, you know, it’s interesting. A lot of times, you know, folks will be like, “Slavery was 3,000 years ago!” It’s like, “Dog, no, it wasn’t.”
Dr. Rosenthal: No. We’re, like, only a couple of generations away.
Zach: Right. I mean, there was this comedian, and one time he said, like, “If you took two old, black grandmas and put ’em together, that’s–slavery was that long ago.” Like, it’s not that long ago. And, you know, I don’t want to bury the lede, right, so let me ask you a question perhaps out of sequence. I would imagine some folks that are listening to this podcast, folks who have read your work even, even if only at a summary level, the question has to be “So what?” So what should executive leaders, what should leaders, what should white folks, what should people in any type of position of authority at work, what should they take from the work that you’ve done?
Dr. Rosenthal: So my book, Accounting for Slavery, is really an effort to write slavery back into the history of management practices and to the history of business more broadly. From productivity analysis to cost accounting, slave holders were, in many ways, at the forefront of using innovative management practices. And what should we take away from that? I think it’s really two things. One is how compatible violence and coercion can be with business practices and with American capitalism, and so this is a story about how those two really difficult things can go together, which means we’ve gotta be really, really careful if we want to have a more humane version of capitalism and more humane work environments. I think it’s also a picture of–you know, for me it’s about the need for labor regulation. The abolition of slavery is a landmark in labor regulation, and this is–in a way, these records that I use are portraits of what management practices could look like if planters and business people were allowed to do basically anything they wanted and if anything, including lives, was up for sale.
Zach: You know, as I read your book I think about Nikole Hannah Jones–you just talked about it a little bit at the top, but Nikole Hannah Jones, who shared the amount of vitriol that she has received and continues to receive regarding the 1619 Project, not only from the public but from, like, academics. You know, what was your journey, like, compiling this research, and how would you characterize its reception in academic arenas?
Dr. Rosenthal: So first since you mentioned [?] and the 1619 Project, which I think is such a powerful piece of public history, you know, I have been amazed by the amount of pushback Nikole Hannah Jones has gotten for her work, and I think it’s–you know, partly it’s been a learning experience for me watching, I think, black scholars and black journalists get a lot more pushback than white scholars do working on some of these same issues. So it’s been a learning process for me about kind of how much we haven’t yet reckoned with slavery, and her work is doing some of that difficult work, but she’s getting just huge amounts of pushback for it, amounts of pushback that are totally out of line with what I think are the empirical critiques of the project. I think the project gets the big picture exactly right, and it’s–like, it’s totally amazing. Now, for my own work I have gotten some pushback, and I will tell you the most enlightening thing about kind of taking this project out into the world–and I mostly work with historians and economists–is that you have two almost opposite reactions. One is people are like, “Of course planters were using advanced management techniques. From what we know about the business of slavery it was a big business, and we have plantational [?] that have lots of resources at their disposal. We know the most millionaires in the country at the time were in the richest districts of the cotton South. So of course they were using advanced management practices. What’s new here?” And then the other, opposite perspective is people are totally shocked. Like, they’re absolutely surprised because they think that slavery was holding everyone back. But it’s not holding everybody back. It was holding enslaved people back. It was sometimes holding poor whites back, but it certainly wasn’t holding planters back, and people are really shocked that they were advanced and even innovative in their practices. So it, like, really illustrates the kind of way we have to go in America, in a way, to kind of move the conversation forward, because a lot of people know this–and sure, there’s new things for them in my work pointing to the specific management practices that planters were using–but they don’t find it that surprising, and then there’s a whole ‘nother audience that’s totally shocked.
Zach: So you talk about being shocked. So, like, when you say they’re shocked, is it disbelief or denial? Or is it like, “Wow.” Is it, like, genuine surprise like, “Oh, I just never thought about that before?”
Dr. Rosenthal: So actually I think you get both. Some of it is surprise. Like, I once had a conversation presenting to an audience at a business school where I said I was studying the relationship between slavery and capitalism, and they were like, “Oh, are you saying something good about slavery?” And I was like, “No, no, I’m saying something critical about capitalism,” but it was like the idea had never even occurred to them to think about those two things in conversation. But on the other hand, when does just what you might call “innocent surprise” turn into denial? There’s a fabulous essay by a British scholar named Bill Cook called The Denial of Slavery and Management Studies, and he basically says, “I didn’t even have to go to the archives. If I just read a number of books about the history of American slavery, it’s abundantly clear that planters were management innovators, and the fact that that’s been left out of our histories of business practices,” you know? It was so easy to find this information that it’s not just about surprise, it’s about denying the existence, because it’s just so much easier to write a management history that’s all about railroads to really reckon with one that involves slavery.
Zach: You know, we have dozens and dozens of historians that have explored this era, right? We have plenty of folks who have written about slavery, and I’m curious as to why do you think that you’re able to identify, like, the business and, like, organizational culture and elements within the history itself?
Dr. Rosenthal: That’s a great question, because a lot of the records I use I’m not the first person who’s looked at them, but very few business historians have looked at the records of slavery. There’s the assumption that these records are not gonna yield interesting stories or people just–you know, they go to look at textile mills, but it never occurs to them to look at the plantations that are growing the cotton for those textile mills to look at. So while lots of people had looked at these records, almost nobody who was interested in business history had looked at records of slavery. And I also–you know, I worked as a management consultant for a few years, so I think when I picked up the records I was kind of looking at them through the eyes of a business person and seeing the ways that planters were using data to extract wealth from people, you know, in a kind of unique way. I’m probably the only person who accidentally wrote a book about slavery. I came into this planning to write a book about data and scale. I was interested in what happens when businesses get big and they start to see their workers more as entries in a spreadsheet than as individuals, and I started that where I thought the story would be, which was in textile mills and iron forges, and then someone handed me a copy of a plantation account book from the same time period and it was just as sophisticated and in some ways more sophisticated than the stuff I’d been looking at where I thought the story must have been starting.
Zach: So speaking to that, right–we didn’t really get into your background. We talked a little bit about where you came from academically, but you were a consultant.
Dr. Rosenthal: Yeah, I spent three years right out of college as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company, so I was, like, the person in the conference room running the spreadsheet and doing the numbers, and that was the kind of lens I brought to these record books. When I saw planters collecting huge amounts of data on enslaved people, I was imagining what they were trying to get out of that data, because nobody collects data just for fun. People collect data ’cause they think they’re gonna be able to put it to use, and in the planter’s case it’s because they think they’re gonna get people to do more work and they’re gonna be able to make more money. And so, like, I brought that lens to a totally different setting.
Zach: What’s curious also though is–of course at Living Corporate we try to do a little bit of research on the folks we bring on the pod, and I looked it up, and I didn’t see you marching with Black Lives Matter or, you know, talking with DeRay Mckesson or, you know, sitting down or doing any type of, like, grassroots movement, and yet here you are. Like you said, you’ve written a whole book about slavery. I’m curious as to at point, or did you ever have, like, a conscious decision like, “Wow, wait a second, I’ve come onto something really profound here.” What propelled you to push forward and, like, engage this uncomfortable subject? Because, like, the reality is–I know we talked about it at the top of the interview, right, like, a lot of white folks aren’t comfortable talking about slavery or constantly are seeking to moralize it or dismiss it or diminish the immorality of it, but you didn’t do that, right? And I’m not trying to, like, give you a whole bunch of cookies here. I’m just saying you still–you wrote the book, right, and fairly critically, and so I’m curious as to at any point in time, like, did you feel discomfort in the subject matter you were engaging? What did that look like?
Dr. Rosenthal: First of all, it’s been a learning process, and I’m still learning. I feel like slavery keeps on unfolding itself to me as even bigger and worse than I had previously understood. I feel like I’ve learned something in the past 10 years and I learned something before then, but I would also say that even when I was a consultant I was sometimes disturbed by the idea that I, this 22-year-old with a spreadsheet, was gonna have an impact on the lives of a worker or a customer who I knew nothing about. I didn’t really even understand their business. I mean, I understood some fundamental things that let me make good recommendations for making more money, but were those recommendations in line with having, say, good jobs or a good product? And there’s just real limitations on what you can learn when you’re the person sitting in front of a spreadsheet, and so I felt like there was a kind of danger there, and that was something that I started to see in the plantation records. I would also say when I was in graduate school during Black Lives Matter, you know–like I said, I don’t know if I’m becoming radicalized because I actually don’t think this is a radical move at all, I think it’s just about, like, recognizing what the history is, and I keep learning. I’m sometimes comfortable talking about race, and sometimes I’m a typical uncomfortable white lady, but I would–you know, it’s been a learning process. You know, the book is about rich white people in a way and the harm that they’re doing, and I think we need to, like, disentangle that harm, and you can [?] and save people through the book, but not as well as you can see the planters.
Zach: It’s interesting. When you talk about, like, having various levels of comfort with race, it’s just interesting to me because when I think about this work and I think about, like–when you feel like you’re being radicalized but not really ’cause it’s not really radical. The reality is, like, so much of this history is not told. Like, you’ve written a book, a factual book about management philosophies and management practices within chattel slavery, and it’s groundbreaking because we have yet to, as a country, really reckon and have an honest, objective conversation about race. Like, we’ve had these books, and there’s conversations of course, and they’ve been coming more to the forefront over the past decade or so, right, and I get that, like, we’re not on a path, it’s not a straight path, things kind of are–they’re cyclical in certain ways, but my point is, like, I do think there is a certain of level of radical thought that has to happen to just be not anti-black, right? Like, it’s pretty common, like, to just dismiss experiences, to downplay history, to ignore history. I’m curious about, like, do you believe that your whiteness has afforded you any opportunity to be heard as you talk about these things? And I recognize you’re also at the same time a woman. Like, how do you feel as if your own identity has come to play a role in your work being received and heard?
Dr. Rosenthal: Well, I have gotten a lot less of the just nasty, racist pushback. I mentioned watching Nikole Hannah Jones. I also have a colleague here at Berkeley, Stephanie Jones Rogers, who’s written a fabulous book on white women in the South and their investment in slavery, and she’s gotten both lots of great attention, ’cause the book is awesome, but also she’s gotten all kinds of nasty pushback, and I feel like I’ve dodged a lot of that, and the only explanation I can give for that is kind of I’m a white person delivering a message in a way that people are slightly more comfortable with, and it has to be about race, because talking about how slavery kind of was a management advantage for planters, as you say, is in a way a radical idea.
Zach: So let’s do this. So, you know, in previous interviews you talk about innovations that have come from this era, from chattel slavery. Can you name, like, three big points of innovation that you believe–or rather that history shows–originated or that we can trace back to this era?
Dr. Rosenthal: This is a typical historian thing to do, where I’ll be a little dodgy on if they actually originate here, but the three areas where I think planters and slave holders were in a sense at the cutting edge for their time period–the first is the development and use of standardized forms for long-distance reporting. So if you look at massive plantations in the Caribbean–and some in the American South, but especially in the Caribbean because these are the big businesses of the 18th and 19th century and they might have had thousands of enslaved people working on them–they’re often run by absentee planters who have left the plantation and returned to England, and they developed standardized reporting forms that are kind of fill-in-the-blank forms where they can keep track of labor, keep track of their costs, and therefore manage the plantation from a distance. So they’re developing information systems at a high level that we don’t see in other areas, and I think that that makes it easier for them to manage slavery, which, you know, abolition is on the rise, but from a distance you don’t have to confront some of the worst aspects of plantation slavery. You can just pay attention to your profits and the allocation of labor. So that’s the first one, standardized forms. The second one is the development and the use of depreciation. Business historians talk about depreciation and cost accounting as absolutely essential in the development of the railroads and of big factories in the 19th century. What they don’t talk about is the fact that plantation owners are appreciating and depreciating enslaved people, and not only that, but they are writing instructions on how to do that from the late 1840s forward, and if you look at accounting textbooks from the 19th century you don’t find accounting textbooks for free labor that are talking about depreciation until, you know, almost the end of the 19th century, like, the 1880s, 1890s, and even then they’re scarce, and you can find planters giving advice in the 1840s. So almost a half-century earlier. And then the third one, which I think is the most important really–I guess I buried the lede–is productivity analysis. A lot of cotton planters kept track of how much labor every enslaved person did every day on the plantation. In particular they tracked how much cotton each person picked and they traced it day-to-day and compared it over time and compared it between people, and they used it to set incentives and also punishment and violence to create reasons to accelerate people’s pace of labor.
Zach: Can we talk about the incentives?
Dr. Rosenthal: So when I say incentives I mean, I guess, carrot and stick. In some cases there were small payments tied to people picking over the total amount that they are expected to pick in a day. So they would get paid for picking more. Planters sometimes even run contests where they get people to pick as fast as they can and they make payments to the people who pick the most, but of course these things are dangerous for enslaved people because they reveal to planters how much cotton they can pick, so they often have their targets increased after they receive these payments. On the other side is if you don’t pick cotton well you might get whipped, and there are several slave narratives that talk about this, not just as the general threat of violence, but they talk about people being whipped one lash for each pound that they fall short of, you know, their picking total. So it’s almost like they’re being incentivized to pick each additional pound of cotton. Now, that system, we don’t have evidence of how widespread it was, but at least a number of slave narratives recount that one lash per pound incentive.
Zach: You know, when we talk about these plantations, I’m thinking about the reality of scale, right? In my mind, there’s just no way a handful of white folks could directly oversee all of those slaves. So in any of your research did you come across, like, delegation strategies employed by plantation owners?
Dr. Rosenthal: So scale is a huge problem for planters, but it’s also one of their huge advantages. I mean, they’re the biggest kind of big agriculture of the time, and that is a way for them to make more money. And they have basically two options when they’re trying to manage scale. One option is delegation of labor, and for example, on West Indian plantations, this was, like, an immense hierarchy. You had white bookkeepers managing black drivers who were managing field hands, and then you also had head coopers, head sawyers, skilled laborers, managing entire teams of workers under them, but even more important than that I think was the kind of role of enslaved watchmen. So planters would require enslaved people to keep surveillance over different parts of the plantation, and often they would use elderly enslaved people, people who didn’t have a lot of power to push back, disabled enslaved people, and these people were intended to make reports based on what’s happening on the plantation back to the overseer so that they can be aware of any kind of possible resistance or rebellion. And for example, there’s a plantation in Jamaica with about 450 people, and they employ 20 of those 450 people as watchmen on the plantation. So they have not only enslaved managers who are often doing very skilled work, but they also have watchmen who are kind of providing another layer of information. And of course that is also really dangerous for planters because this labor is not freely given, and so this surveillance, you know, they’re trying to create systems with multiple layers of surveillance to create safety, but it’s also watchmen and other people like them are potentially in a position to push back and to help each other and to prevent the planter from having that much power. So that’s the first strategy for dealing with scale, surveillance and dedicating labor of surveillance. The other strategy that planters use is really about data. I mentioned that they’d keep track of how much cotton every enslaved person picks every single day, and we have slave narratives where they talk about weighing the cotton three times a day, so an enslaved person is out picking in the field and they come in and have the cotton weighed, and they have it written down on a slate, and then it happens again and again, and then all that data is totaled up and planted into a book, and that means that the data can substitute for someone watching the labor all the time, and planters are able to kind of push up the pace of labor using data on picking rather than using kind of immediate surveillance.
Zach: I find that incredible, that–I was unaware of the idea that the planters or the plantation owners, that they would employ the weaker slaves to be the overseers. And again, you know, this is a podcast. We don’t have, like, a visual, but you’re saying that the overseers would be looking over the managers? So there were, like, people who were skilled laborers, and even those skilled laborers had an overseer.
Dr. Rosenthal: So basically you had two sets of managers, and this varied–I’m talking about one particular plantation that I have in mind, but they would have a head driver or an overseer, and that person would usually be, like, able-bodied. They wouldn’t be a 22-year-old who’s incredibly fast and strong. It would be someone who’s maybe in their 40s and is, like, a seasoned expert worker and also not the weakest, but then they also had in addition to people who were in this managerial position they had enslaved watchmen, and enslaved watchmen tend to not be able-bodied, they tend to be elderly, and they’re assigned to different places on the plantation to keep watch and to make reports. So in a way they are creating two layers of surveillance, one that’s about managing productivity–and that’s gonna be an able-bodied person usually–but then they also have elderly, they have a whole community of people, and they’re figuring out how to make use of people who can no longer do physical labor to provide this kind of information labor.
Zach: Wow. You know, let’s talk a little bit more about the makeup of plantations admittedly in real time. While you’re talking about folks, like, being disabled, I’m now realizing also that there was a disabled population of individuals on these plantations. I just–again, just part of my able-bodied privilege, I don’t think about that. I don’t think about the fact that there are differently-abled people in these spaces as well, and let’s continue to talk about that, right? Like, you have children, you have teens, you have adults, you have older adults, you have various able-bodied and disabled people, you have members of the African diaspora that come from different languages and cultures, you have white men, you have white women, you have biracial men and women due to the raping of black women, and you even have varied levels of authority, like we just talked about, across the plantation and skill from those in the field, in various parts of the field and land, to those closer to the house or inside of the house. We have these conversations today about diversity and inclusion and diversity being–what’s the cute phrase people say? Diversity is going to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance or something like that. So you really do have a wide array of generational racial gender able-bodied disabled representation, and then from an inclusion perspective you have people who are at various levels of authority and engagement with the business of the plantation, but what you don’t have is equity, right? Like, is that fair do you think? Is that a fair characterization to say that these spaces had a wide array of people doing a wide array of things, but they just weren’t being treated equally?
Dr. Rosenthal: I think that that’s an insightful way to put it. So if you look at this through the lens of a planter’s account book, planters literally took inventory of enslaved people, they wrote down everybody’s name and their age and their occupation and they put a number or value on the person, and you see that they are valuing and have in their workplace, you know, the whole spectrum of a community in a way that we rarely do today, but then what are they doing with that? They’re not valuing everyone in that community equally. They’re valuing them radically differently and they’re figuring out ways to exploit who they can in different ways to make profits. So you have them valuing a small child, increasing their value year after year after year, you have them depreciating an elderly person and then eventually, you know, someone becomes worth to the planter less than zero and they have to continue feeding and housing that person, but they don’t have to continue caring for them or treating them with any kind of equity or respect. You know, it’s interesting. I’m working on a new project right now about the history of HR, and one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is kind of the quote-unquote “business case for diversity,” when people are like, “We all gotta get diverse because it makes us more profitable,” and I feel like there’s two issues with that. #1 is that really our bottom line? Diversity is profit? Are we not gonna say that we have, like, concerns about bigger things like justice? [both laugh] That’s #1, but then there’s also, like, this really–like, what if we think about the plantation as part of the business case for diversity? Planters were figuring out how to manage a diverse population to make a whole pile of money out of it. You mentioned that there were people of different African descents. Planters in Jamaica sometimes would have a diverse population of people from different places because they’re able to play people off against each other or exploit the fact that not everybody speaks the language and therefore they can’t kind of work together against the planter as effectively. So these people are in a way making a business case for diversity, it’s just a really dark business case for diversity, and I think we can’t assume that the business case for diversity is gonna be a good one. So in one way I’m inspired by people who are seeking to, like, figure out how diverse workplaces can make us more efficient, but I also worry so much about making a sort of financial bottom line the goal of diversity.
Zach: Well, to your point, America historically has always seen a business case for diversity. Like you said, it’s just been a darker one than maybe we’re comfortable–not maybe, that we’re comfortable in discussing, but you know, without the various types of folks that were enslaved and worked and abused, we wouldn’t have had the production and the labor that we had that was then able to drive and create this country, right? So I think you’re right, you know? It really leads me to my next question, because when I look and I think about–reading your book, we talked a little bit about how connected this enterprise was for multiple generations of Americans, right? When you think about The 1619 Project and other points of research, even for those who didn’t own slaves, slavery was seen as a social status, right? Like, owning a slave, owning someone, was seen as similar to how we would view owning a house, right? It was something that you would aspire to have, and for those who were too poor to outright own slaves, there were folks who rented slaves for social events or different occasions or a weekend or something like that. This was not, like, this insular thing just for planters. It was connected to a larger economy by which the nation at the time was sustained, and it would seem like for something like this to persist for over 200 years, folks would have to believe these bodies were less than human by varying degrees. You’ve used the term “reckon,” and that stuck out to me, Dr. Rosenthal, “reckon,” when it comes to grappling with this history. What does reckoning mean to you?
Dr. Rosenthal: I like the word reckon because it has a narrow math meaning that means, you know? Historically reckoning was calculating, but it also has come to mean “to grapple with historically,” and a big lesson of these records for me is how easy… so there’s, like, two parts to the record. Like, you look at this inventory of people and it’s totally horrifying, but as I’m flipping through the pages I can also just start reckoning and start calculating, and I can overlook what the record is about. I can just deal with the data, and data can make it really easy to forget what’s actually going on there. So I think the data has, and these records have, kind of the potential to make things about our history visible to us, but they also have the potential to help us overlook other kinds of things. So when I talk about reckoning I’m thinking about kind of using this historical data for new purposes, like, kind of turning it around so instead of erasing people it can help to make people visible and to make the history more visible than it had been before, and in particular to make it visible for a group of Americans who I think don’t think that what they do has very much at all to do with the history of slavery. You know, the people who think about themselves as business innovators, even the ones who are interested in history read books about good business practices. They read about, you know, the rise of computing and steam engines and railroads and very rarely read about bad business. So what can we learn if we really pay more attention to these and to the people who are made visible in these records?
Zach: Do you think that there are points of connection and things that people can learn and how they change their business practices today by studying the business practices of this era?
Dr. Rosenthal: So I think there’s a really powerful cautionary tale about how easy it is to treat people as less than human when you have your eye on the bottom line and you’re only dealing with a narrow set of data. Now, the solution to that isn’t to, like, kick data and business and profit out the window. It is to be aware, on a much deeper level, of what the data’s not showing us and the limitations of what you’re gonna see through that process. So that’s, like, the generic lesson, but there’s also, like, here we are sitting in America, a country built in part on slavery. Like, what do we need to specifically do? For example, historians of the Holocaust have done amazing work, amazing business histories, of companies that profited from the Holocaust and have really dug deep into that history to encounter it more closely, and I feel like American business could do the same with the history of slavery. It’s not that long ago, and lots of American businesses, you know–for example there’s been recent work on life insurance, New York Life I think, several other really big, modern companies issued slave policies. So what do we–you know, how can modern companies kind of literally go back and find out about the specific history? Because the specific history is just as important as this kind of general “Well, be careful with your data.”
Zach: Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, you can just Google it too, to your point. You know, Rothschild & Sons [?], Norfolk Southern, AETNA Insurance, New York Life, JP Morgan Chase, you know, Johnson & Johnson, Barclays, Brooks Brothers… it’s a long list, and I think you’re absolutely right. I think my challenge when we talk about conversations like this on Living Corporate and more broadly just with diversity, equity and inclusion, when it comes to, like, the push for us to, like, center and amplify black and brown, marginalized experiences, there’s also an unspoken understanding that there’s equity and justice that comes with that, because if you can take a step away from–and not dismissing it, but looking at the people behind the data, right, and actually examining their experience and the pain that was wrought in some of these practices. The next part of that conversation is “Okay, so now what does accountability look like for the pain and the loss?” Even if we’re just speaking from, like, a business perspective, right? There are records and there are things that are owed, and there’s a lack of–and there are parties that need to made whole based on these practices, but anyway, Dr. Rosenthal, this has been a super dope conversation. I’m really excited. Like, y’all, when Dr. Rosenthal hit me back and said she was down to be on the podcast, I was like “Oh!” I hit up a lot of people and told them about this episode, so I’m really excited for folks to hear this one. Before we let you go, any parting words or shout-outs?
Dr. Rosenthal: In kind of ending with the conversation we’re ending with, I feel like we’re gonna be waiting a long time for national reparations, but there’s so many opportunities–you know, universities are really doing it and hopefully more businesses are going to start doing it, to kind of investigate and take some kind of repairative action for not just the history of slavery but the history of slavery as it’s descended to us today through Jim Crowe, through segregation, et cetera. So I feel like we’re gonna be waiting on reparations, but there’s just so many possibilities for where we can make small differences that are really big differences.
Zach: I 100% agree with you. Y’all, this has been another episode of Living Corporate. Make sure you check us out on Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod, on Instagram @LivingCorporate. Make sure you check us out on all the Googles, all the Al Gore internets, okay? You type in Living Corporate and we’re gonna pop up, but it’s livingcorporate.com, .us, .co, .tv, .org. Not livingcorporate.com. Australia has livingcorporate.com. What’s up, Australia? We’re gonna get that domain from y’all, but also you can type in living-corporate.com, please say the dash, and we’ll pop up. Yeah, look, until next time–oh, hold on, make sure y’all check out the show notes, right? We’re gonna have all the information about Dr. Rosenthal, we’re definitely gonna put the 1619 Project, but of course we’re gonna put Accounting for Slavery in the show notes. Make sure y’all click that, get the copy of the book. It’s phenomenal. Until next time, y’all. Peace.