The Better Letter: Shake Things Up

Your most dangerous bias is the one you don’t know about

Little Richard, a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll, died Saturday. John Lennon called him “one of the greatest.” The Beatles *opened* for him and covered a bunch of his songs, as did just about everybody else. Fleetwood Mac. Deep Purple. The Kinks. The Band. The Animals. Clapton. Elton. Creedence. Queen. Bruce. Stevie Van Zandt, of Springsteen’s E Street Band, described his influence on the genre like this: “Elvis popularized it. Chuck Berry was the storyteller. Richard was the archetype.”

Ultimately, though, the archetype of rock ‘n’ roll should be allowed to speak for himself.

That’s more than enough.

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Shake Things Up

The following creation is an amazing homage to rock ‘n’ roll, a vital expression of our living culture. It takes nearly 15 minutes to tell the history of rock, but it’s worth it. Please have a look (and a listen). I’ll wait.

The mash-up includes 348 rockstars, 84 guitarists, 64 songs, and 44 drummers in a burst of creative awesomeness, included as part of a mock Facebook newsfeed, with plenty of purported likes and comments from great artists. It begins with Elvis and Jailhouse Rock, mashes him up with the Yardbirds’ For Your Love, and takes off (mostly) chronologically from there. The Stones join in. Then Cream. Then Zeppelin. 

Oh, my. 

It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle of sound that is wildly entertaining.

The video went viral when it was made, aided by links from sites like Mashable, (“rock ‘n’ roll’s entire timeline”), Fast Company, and BroBible (which claims it includes “every notable act”). The music site Exclaim! exclaimed, “This Video Will Make You a Rock Music History Expert in 15 Minutes.”

But wait.

Little Richard, who was one of the ten original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, makes no appearance. No Little Richard in a video that calls itself “History of Rock” is a striking omission.

It’s not the only one, and there’s a pattern.

“I know why I don’t get the protection that I’m supposed to get,” Little Richard’s character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills says. “Because I’m black!”

The “History of Rock” ignores Chuck Berry, too (but for a “post” that Jimi “likes” him).

In fact, the whole video includes only two bands with black artists in them: the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Rage Against the Machine. 

No Slash (although he’s allowed to “comment”). No Sly & the Family Stone. No Billy Preston. No Lenny Kravitz. No Isley Brothers. No Temptations. No Four Tops. No Spinners. No James Brown. No Michael Jackson. No Sam Cooke. No Marvin Gaye. No B.B. King. No Smokey Robinson. No Muddy Waters (he does get a comment). No Jackie Wilson. No Otis Redding. No Al Green. No Curtis Mayfield. No Earth, Wind & Fire. No Ray Charles. No Prince. No Stevie Wonder.

This “History of Rock” is even more male than white.

Out of the 64 songs included, all of them feature men. Alice Cooper performs, and Queen gets four songs, but real live women are quiet throughout. There are a couple of entries by the mixed-gender groups Fleetwood Mac and The White Stripes, but the songs chosen are both sung by male band members. Stevie Nicks is allowed to “like.” 

There’s no Tina Turner. No Aretha. No Carole King. No Chaka Khan. No Chrissie Hynde. No Grace Slick. No Pat Benatar. No Go-Gos. No Linda Ronstadt.

C’mon, man. 

No Patti Smith. No Joan Jett. No Carly Simon. No Heart (although Ann Wilson gets to “post”). No Diana Ross. No Judy Collins. No Bonnie Raitt. No Donna Summer. No Janis Joplin. No Joni Mitchell.

Now, before you start in with excuses – like trying to force a clear distinction between rock ‘n’ roll and R&B – note that the video pretends that rock ‘n’ roll started with Elvis and was pioneered exclusively by white men. No Ike Turner. No Sister Rosetta Tharpe. No Fats Domino. No Ruth Brown. No Big Joe Turner. No LaVern Baker. No Bo Diddley. No Chuck Berry. And no Little Richard.  

The Stones’ Honky Talk Women is loud and clear, as is Duran Duran’s Girls on Film, but the actual women of rock remain silent.

I am virtually certain that the (delightful) video’s creators do not see themselves as anything less than fair-minded and committed to diversity. I highly doubt that it would have occurred to them while making the mash-up that they were missing anything whatsoever, much less that they might be racist and misogynist. Especially because it was a puff marketing piece designed to showcase the (amazing) skills of their firm, by far the most likely scenario is that the producers were simply blind to their inherent biases.

All of this is consistent with in-group favoritism, whereby members of a group favor their own. It applies to friends, teams, clubs, schools, towns, political parties, religious organizations, ethnic groups, and nations. It also applies to police investigations and judicial decisions. Bias persists even for matching gender and ethnicity.

We are social creatures, made for community, who instinctively group like-to-like in relatively small numbers. The vast majority of us think opposites attract, but that’s not what the research shows. We readily recognize and congregate into affinity groups, echo chambers, and mutual admiration societies with our “alsos,” as in also went to Duke, also played lacrosse, also loves/hates Trump, also knows Dick.

When we don’t think we’re biased and are sure that we’re committed to avoiding it, we’re almost certainly wrong. Consider, for example, a study on racial discrimination and NBA referees, which found that white referees called substantially fewer fouls on white players and black referees called substantially fewer fouls on black players. We must act aggressively to counter bias even when we’re sure we don’t have any.

Among Fortune 100 companies, 96 percent actively promote their efforts at diversity and inclusion. However, “[o]nly 25 percent of total C-suite positions are held by women. Only 7 companies have a female CEO,” while “[r]acially diverse executives hold only 16 percent of total C-suite positions.” 

Neuroscientist Vivienne Ming and her team analyzed huge amounts of data about more than one hundred million people and calculated the average cost – she calls it a “tax” – that women, people of color, and other minorities pay for the extra education, training, and experience they need to get the same jobs and promotions as straight white men. She calls it the cost of being different

“The tax on being different is largely implicit. People need not act maliciously for it to be levied.” For example, women in the U.S. tech industry pay a tax of between $100,000 and $300,000. If you are different, Ming says, “you have to go to better schools for longer and you have to work for better companies to get the same promotions, to get the same quality of work.”

It’s a tax, Ming continues, that doesn’t pay for anything, like roads or schools. In scientific terms, “it’s heat loss in our economy,” she says. Worse still, the tax is superlinear, which means that a black woman pays more than a white woman and a black man combined. In a truly sad summary, Ming adds that “[w]e are bad at valuing other people and we are worse the more different they are than us.” Accordingly, “[d]iscrimination is not done by villains,” she says. “It’s done by us.” 

Ming estimates the economic cost of this unrealized human potential to be nearly $1.5 trillion per year. Indeed, “reams of research” establishes that there is tremendous “bottom line value” to real creative diversity.

The tax on being different weighs particularly heavily on my turf, the financial services industry. Even though women are generally much better investors than men and control more than half of America’s private wealth, fewer than one-third of financial advisors are women. Not surprisingly, when Blair duQuesnay wrote a powerful op-ed for The New York Times on this subject, male brokers were eager to mansplain that they were merely hiring the best person for the job. According to Mercer research, women account for 67 percent of support staff in financial services, but only 15 percent of executives, and are leaving the industry at more than twice the rate of men.

Blacks and Hispanics are also highly underrepresented in finance. The tax for being black on Wall Street can exceed… 

…one million dollars.

If we aren’t prepared aggressively to try to make our lives and our businesses more diverse because it’s the right thing to do, we should consider doing so to become more profitable. I’m not talking about social justice. I’m talking about cold hard cash.

Study after study after study after study shows that firms with diverse leadership perform better. Diversity improves decision-making at the firm level while companies with more diverse workforces are more profitable (more detail herehere, and here). Indeed, racial diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, greater market share, and greater relative profits while gender diversity is associated with increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater relative profits. 

From an investment perspective, we all understand the value of diversification. Bear that in mind and take a look around. 

If your reading lists, your colleagues, your department, your friends, your follows, your buddies, your boards, your party lists, or your firm aren’t at least as diverse as you want your portfolio to be, you’re missing a major opportunity and making a major mistake. Note, for example, that using blind auditions for symphony orchestras increased the selection of women as much as 30 percent, to the shock of conductors and administrators who were no doubt certain they were already picking the best person for the job.

Your most dangerous bias is the one you don’t know about. Getting the most out of ourselves, our networks, and our businesses require actively shaking up the status quo – including our personal status quos.  

There should be a whole lotta shakin’ going on.


Totally Worth It

Ira Byock is a nationally known hospice M.D. who wrote the book, The Four Things That Matter Most. As a hospice physician, Dr. Byock has spent lots of time holding the hands of people breathing their last. My good friend Mark, who was a long-time hospice chaplain, says that there is nothing like being close to those reflecting on their lives in their last moments to teach you to examine your own. Dr. Byock’s book outlines four things we should learn to say often so can we live well and approach the end of life with integrity, faith, and love. Those four things are (1) “Thank you;” (2) “Forgive me;” (3) “I forgive you;” and (4) “I love you.”

Try each of them out over the next week.


Benediction

Little Richard’s uncles were preachers, and gospel always infused his music. He was later ordained himself. This week’s benediction is a gospel classic, sung by Richard as a duet with Jerry Lee Lewis: “I’ll Fly Away.”

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share. Thanks for reading.

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Issue 13 (May 15, 2020)