The Difference Having a Black Boss Makes
It might be hard to remember given the Covid-19 pandemic, but we are still having an election this year, and Joe Biden, a 77-year-old white man, has emerged from an initially diverse field as the front-runner.
The overwhelming support of Southern black voters for Joe Biden’s presidential bid seems to have stumped many white liberals who prefer his last remaining competition, the 78-year-old Bernie Sanders. In interviews and on Twitter, pundits, politicians, and others have centered their own ideas of what is best for African American people, while shaking their heads over how they voted “against their own best interests.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, for one, suggested that black voters simply can’t separate Biden from Barack Obama, and support him because they only “have a certain amount of information.”
This line of thinking is blatantly patronizing. And anyhow, as Michael Harriot, a political columnist for The Root, has pointed out, “black people are not here to channel the political yearnings of white progressives.” In his February ranking of candidates’ “black agenda,” Harriot offered one possible explanation for Biden’s appeal among black voters: “Biden worked for a black boss and, as veep, he was surrounded by black people who were smarter than him (Susan Rice, Michelle Obama, Eric Holder, Jeh Johnson),” Harriot wrote. “This might not seem like much, but eight years listening to black people is something few white people have ever done.”
Statistically speaking, Harriott is right: As white men overwhelmingly comprise upper-level leadership and governance across sectors, most Americans do not have a black boss, and many never have. Black and white Americans are also unlikely to have friends outside their race due to various factors, from segregated neighborhoods and workplaces to systemic racism and economic disparities.
That’s unfortunate primarily because it’s a symptom of profound inequality. But it’s also deeply unfortunate for workers of all races. It’s no small thing, for Biden or any white person, to have learned from a more senior, more powerful boss or mentor who isn’t white. Here’s why.
What black leaders know
Whether in the White House or the corporate setting, people tend to learn management styles from their bosses, and in today’s workplace it’s becoming more common for managers to act as coaches or teachers. Evidence suggests that bosses from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be “servant leaders,” “coalition builders,” and “boundary spanners,” who prioritize people’s needs and organizational health over the bottom line — a sharp contrast to task-oriented and transactional leadership styles. They are also more likely to emphasize justice, avoid “oppressive measures” for ensuring compliance, and exemplify above-par interpersonal communication skills, wrote researchers in a 2009 American Psychological Association report.
Black managers are often able to bring emotional intelligence and intersectional thinking to leadership roles in ways white people can’t, says the behavioral scientist Clarissa Silva. W.E.B. Du Bois called this way of thinking “double consciousness” — essentially, the ability of black people to see the world through our own lens, but also through the lens of white people. What began as a survival strategy to keep marginalized people safe in the face of white supremacy also engenders deep empathy and emotional intelligence — both skills that can give someone an edge in leadership situations.
“Our ability to function in these distinct identities in different environments makes us much more comprehensive thinkers, highly innovative, and strategic,” says Silva, who is Brazilian American and has African, indigenous, and white ancestry. “We tackle problems from multiple angles, making our solutions much more comprehensive than our white counterparts’.”
And, Silva adds, there’s a sense of social responsibility. “For many people of color, we also feel like… we have to uplift our community,” she says. “This can be happening subconsciously or consciously as we operate in leadership positions.”
Assuming that managers’ most effective skills and points of view can trickle down, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Biden may have absorbed some of his former boss’s acumen and perspective — or that any of us might do the same.
Knowing what you don’t know
A key difference having a black boss makes is helping white folks become more aware of their own knowledge gaps when it comes to race. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that “black and white adults have widely different perceptions about what life is like for blacks in the U.S…. For example, by large margins, blacks are more likely than whites to say black people are treated less fairly in the workplace (a difference of 42 percentage points).” Managers of color have the power to impart wisdom based on their lived experience with race.
Could Biden’s eight years of working for a black boss make him a more effective leader himself? Silva, for one, believes that the insights gleaned from Biden’s time as Obama’s right-hand man “should uniquely prepare him to create policy and opportunity in ways that truly serve Black and Latino America.”
Many black voters seem to agree with her. But only time can tell for sure.