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School of Business and Management

CRED blog series: Black History and Business and Management: race discrimination in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter

Published:

Prof Nelarine Cornelius & Prof Mike Noon
Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, School of Business and Management
Queen Mary, University of London

This has been a challenging year for Black people, globally. In many countries where Black people are a visible minority, Covid19 has impacted on them disproportionately. Then, on May 25 2020, a Black man was killed, slowly and publicly, in Minneapolis, USA. The people who recorded the atrocity on their mobile phones and then uploaded onto social media soon found their posts had gone viral. Protests, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, were organised worldwide, voicing anger about police brutality, police racism and lack of accountability for police violence against Black people.

And something happened, not on the streets, but in social, news and advertising media.

Lots of organisations started to apologise; to assert their support for racial justice; to revisit their connections with the unsavoury aspects of public art. Statues were defaced or toppled; universities started to change their names and mottos; city institutions such as Lloyds committed to making their chattel slavery and colonial links visible; lots of organisations pronounced that Black Lives Matter. Of course, there was plenty of criticisms about these proclamations. Many of those who declared their commitment to race equality were not diverse. Others had for decades been, and remained to be, devoid of people of colour. Within many communities, others were simply confused. Why pull down the Colston statue in Bristol after all the good he had done for the City? Why consider moving the Rhodes statue at Oxford given all the scholars from developing countries who are supported financially? Why drag up the past?

In the UK, Black History Month (BHM) has provided a named space for the exploration, discovery and articulation of Black British history, scholarship and culture. Acknowledging the achievements of Black people in the past and their importance for our current understanding of Black contribution to UK life is clearly vitally important. BHM is widely recognised as an opportunity to celebrate Black achievement and acknowledge Black presence in UK history. For Black people it is important to have a place in the calendar where voice and visibility is given to those who life histories and achievements are too frequently invisible. This year is different because Covid-19 has clearly had an impact on the capacity of the university sector to create copy, events and debates. In this sense, the scramble to create a month’s worth of activities is understood and forgiven.

However, even before the pandemic, for too many organisations before the onset of Covid-19, BHM is a scramble for content to populate a BHM schedule, in a ‘me-too’ approach.

BHM makes visible many historical people and events that have been quietly forgotten, airbrushed out, and glossed over. Indeed, moves to decolonise the curriculum as an all-year pursuit, resonates with the words of Black American actor, Morgan Freeman, in a TV interview:

‘I don’t want a Black history month. Black history is American history’.

Equally, Black history is UK history and European history. How is it possible to make sense of the financial and political power of the City of London, Wall Street, or the Amsterdam Stock Exchange without referencing to the significance of Black people in creating the power and wealth of these institutions?

The Business History journal has revamped its mission: its ‘emerging agenda’ includes ‘In the post-Chandler world (our italics), the agenda for business history to extend its scale and scope, widening its international scope to business activities in underrepresented regions, for example Latin America, Africa and Asia; (to) go back beyond the 19th and 20th centuries to include ancient, medieval and early modern eras.

It’s not just the Business History journal that needs to widen its scope. History informs how we make sense of business and management scholarship. And that history is overwhelmingly white. All UK business schools are engaged in activities that ought to be informed by Black history and, more generally, the histories of people of colour.

The Black African diaspora in the UK is here because of historical economic ties: slavery, colonialism, contributions to two 20th century world wars, labour shortages in the mid 20thcentury and the metropoles that arise from these connections. This is true for the Americas and Europe also. Our teaching and research are largely silent on these matters. We need to go beyond Chandler, Ford, and the technological breakthroughs of the 19th industrial revolution even though these remain rightly important. Many in Europe were impoverished during these periods of economic, political, and industrial might. But the Whiteness of these accounts is a disservice to Black people globally, who were integral to these historic moments. For the academy to neglect this, is increasingly less about patriotism, embarrassment, or shame, but is a matter of neglect. Black history is an important form of reparations. The silenced and invisible needs to be made available to all business school scholars so they are able to make the decision to stop this neglect in their teaching and research in the academy, and especially in business schools. It is crucial to understanding, root and branch, the ‘shape’ of the world, economically, politically, and socially. The need for change remains impossible for many to comprehend in the absence of a historical perspective. Progressing race equality and anti-racism will remain challenging in the absence of context, and Black history, and its position in UK history, is a central plank of that context.