Some Thoughts on the Recent Symposium on Racial Justice, History, and Business Ethics

29 03 2021

On Friday, 26 March, I was honoured to be part of an online panel on Racial Justice, History, and Business Ethics organized by the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management. The panel, which is connected to a special issue of the Journal of Business Ethics (an FT50 journal) on racial injustice and business ethics, included me as well as  Jennifer Johns (Bristol), Leon Prieto (Clayton State), and Simone Phipps (Middle Georgia State). My hosts included Paul T. Harper of University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business and David Wasieleski, who is the Albert P. Viragh Professor of Business Ethics in the Palumbo-Donahue School of Business at Duquesne University. Anyway, here is a description on the session written by the organizers

Panel will provide examples of the ways ahistorical methods and temporal frames expose and occlude the role of race in knowledge creation processes. The Atlantic Slave Trade as a context for understanding current management practices will be discussed as well as the unrecognized history of Black entrepreneurship in the U.S.

You can watch a video of the session here.

I found that the session on Friday was extremely stimulating and useful. I learnt a great deal from listening to the presentation of my co-panelists. I also got valuable feedback on my paper that will allow us to do a better job of preparing it for submission to the journal. A major theme of the conversation on Friday was slavery, both its historical legacies and the existence of slavery and slavery-like forms of exploitation in the present. In my presentation, I suggested that corporate involvement in crimes against humanity usually, although not necessarily in all cases, involves a company profiting from the mistreat of individuals who have been Otherized. By Otherized, I mean depicted by a regime or a culture as inferior, sub-human, and less deserving of the rights enjoyed by individuals who are members of the locally dominant ethno-racial group.

 I prefaced my discussion of the involvement of companies in the historic crime of Black slavery by observing that while historic crimes by firms are, in theory, a separate from discrimination against Otherization populations the most prominent examples of firms having profited by participating in crimes against humanity involved crimes that were directed against Otherized populations (e.g. Jews in Nazi Germany and people of African descent in the British Empire and its offshoots). I would theorize that the worst types of criminal behaviour involve actions at the expense of marginalized groups because managers who are embedded in cultures that have already Otherized the group in question find it easier to justify their decisions to exploit.

It seems to me that this historical pattern is consistent with what we see in the present, particularly with respect to some patterns we currently see in debates about global supply chains for such commodities as cotton.

Overall, the session was superb. I was pleased by the fact it was diverse in so many dimensions– by presenter demographic background, but also by academic discipline, meta-theoretical orientation, and geography.


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