The Race Trap
Drs. Robert L. Johnson and Steven Simring (with Gene Busnar) Harper Business ISBN: 0-06-662001-5 239 pages $28.00 http://www.harpercollins.com/ 1-212-207-7000
Because the United States was founded as a slave-owning country, race has historically been a problem that is intimately interwoven into the fabric of our society. Since race is generally visible (though not always: People are generally surprised to discover that this editor’s father was a Hopi and that his great-great-grand-uncle was a Zulu), it is hard to not be aware of racial diversity. Plus, most of us live relatively segregated lives, spending most of our time with people very similar to ourselves in terms of race, religion, and worldview. In addition, problems whose causes have social or economic roots are often incorrectly attributed to race.
The Race Trap addresses approaches to dealing with racial issues. Before reading the book, we were initially concerned that the authors (one a well known psychiatrist whom we know personally, the other a pediatrician who heads the New Jersey Medical School) might have taken a politically correct approach to dealing with race. In fact, they have taken a practical approach, rather than a moral or ethical approach. Since they know that they can’t change the way you think or believe, they opt to influence, through enlightened self interest, the way you behave. They refer to this as developing an appropriate racial IQ. We believe that this is a sound approach.
The authors take the position that interpersonal relationships dealing with race should be result-oriented. They present a host of difficult business and non-business scenarios in which a number of choices of behavior can be made, and show that some behaviors cause problems, some minimize problems, and some produce positive benefits.
What you do in a given situation depends – or should depend – on the end result you wish to create. In many cases you have to deal with factors that, in the best of all possible worlds would be race independent. Thus, a white parent hopes that if his teenager is pulled over by the police the child will behave appropriately and not get a ticket or arrested. A black parent may well hope that if his teenager is pulled over by the police the child will behave appropriately and not get arrested or killed. And we can assure you that the police officer has a vested interest in the incident, too.
The authors deal with a wide variety of social and business situations, and the book is thought-provoking. It induces you to consider how your personal biases effect your own behavior and speech, as well as the way you deal (or choose not to deal) with the inappropriate behavior of others.
More important, the lessons of the book are extensible. That is to say that the approach taken to dealing with racial issues also works when dealing with differences in sex, religion, general interests, differing cultures, and a host of other areas in which bigotry in one form or another frequently obtrudes.
Employee or employer, parent or child, civilian or police officer, this book is worth reading. It is particularly worth reading by those whose clueless behavior inadvertently causes discomfort to others. Although, alas, they are the least likely to read it.