About the Author

Dr. Robert W. Livingston is a Lecturer of Public Policy at Harvard Universitys John F. Kennedy School of Government. Prior to joining Harvard, he held full-time faculty positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and the University of Sussex in England, where he was also Director of the Centre for Leadership, Ethics, and Diversity (LEAD). In addition, he has held visiting faculty positions at Princeton University and Carnegie Mellon University.

Broadly speaking, Dr. Livingston’s research focuses on diversity, leadership, and social justice. His work has been published in multiple top-tier academic journals such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Psychological Science, and the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and has been featured in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, BBC, Newsweek, Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Financial Times, ABC News, The Guardian, CNN, Yahoo, and MSNBC. He has also authored several book chapters and co-edited an award-winning book on social identity and intergroup relations (with Roderick Kramer at Stanford University).

More specifically, Dr. Livingston’s research ranges from micro-level experimental investigations of the psychological and physiological processes that underlie implicit bias (e.g., stereotyping, prejudice)—to more macro-level examinations of discrimination in society and the workplace, particularly in upper-level leadership positions. For example, his research on the “Teddy Bear Effect”, finding that Black CEO’s (but not White CEOs) uniquely benefit from “disarming mechanisms” (e.g., babyfaceness) that make them appear warmer and less threatening, has been widely cited. He is also known for his research on “intersectionality” which explores variability in perception and treatment of individuals within the same gender (e.g., Black women--White women) or racial (e.g., Black men--Black women) categories.

Dr. Livingston has delivered diversity training and has served as a management consultant for numerous Fortune 500 companies, as well as public-sector agencies/municipalities and non-profit organizations. He also teaches in executive education programs and has received multiple awards and recognition for excellence in teaching. In his spare time, he enjoys jazz, wine and whiskey tasting, philosophy, art and interior design, real estate investing, outdoor activities, and wildlife documentaries. He has resided in five countries and is fluent in four languages. 

Book Description

How can I become part of the solution? In the wake of the social unrest of 2020 and growing calls for racial justice, many business leaders and ordinary citizens are asking that very question. This book provides a compass for all those seeking to begin the work of anti-racism. In The Conversation, Robert Livingston addresses three simple but profound questions: What is racism? Why should everyone be more concerned about it? What can we do to eradicate it?

For some, the existence of systemic racism against Black people is hard to accept because it violates the notion that the world is fair and just. But the rigid racial hierarchy created by slavery did not collapse after it was abolished, nor did it end with the civil rights era. Whether it’s the composition of a company’s leadership team or the composition of one’s neighborhood, these racial divides and disparities continue to show up in every facet of society. For Livingston, the difference between a solvable problem and a solved problem is knowledge, investment, and determination. And the goal of making organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is within our capability.

Livingston’s lifework is showing people how to turn difficult conversations about race into productive instances of real change. For decades he has translated science into practice for numerous organizations, including Airbnb, Deloitte, Microsoft, Under Armour, L’Oreal, and JPMorgan Chase. In The Conversation, Livingston distills this knowledge and experience into an eye-opening immersion in the science of racism and bias. Drawing on examples from pop culture and his own life experience, Livingston, with clarity and wit, explores the root causes of racism, the factors that explain why some people care about it and others do not, and the most promising paths toward profound and sustainable progress, all while inviting readers to challenge their assumptions.

Social change requires social exchange. Founded on principles of psychology, sociology, management, and behavioral economics, The Conversation is a road map for uprooting entrenched biases and sharing candid, fact-based perspectives on race that will lead to increased awareness, empathy, and action.

Behind the Book is brought to you by HKS Library & Research Services, in collaboration with the Office of Communications & Public Affairs. If you have any requests, comments or suggestions, please contact us.

Alessandra Seiter: The effects of systemic racism permeate nearly every facet of American life, from housing and health care, to criminal justice and education. In 2019, the median household wealth for white families was $188,200. For Black families, it was $24,100 according to the Brookings Institution. Black people made up about 13% of the US population and 32% of the incarcerated population in state and federal prisons. Only four companies in the Fortune 500 have a Black CEO according to Fortune Magazine.

Yet, despite these and countless other statistics illustrating the issue, a large segment of the white population still doubts or rejects the notion that racial discrimination against Black people is widespread. According to a study by Michael Norton at Harvard University and Professor Samuel Sommers of Tufts University, white people perceived a reduction in discrimination against Black people going back to the 1950s and an increase in discrimination against white people.

What explains this disconnect? And how do activists, policymakers, leaders, and concerned citizens move the needle on this intractable problem? These questions are at the center of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, a new book by Robert Livingston, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. On this episode of Behind the Book, we'll look at how Dr. Livingston uses the latest research in psychology and behavioral science to explain the origins of systemic racism, how it effects us all, and what we can do to confront it.

As indicated by the book's title, The Conversation is intended to spur discussion about the problem of systemic racism and possible solutions. The discussion itself is an important part of this process. As Dr. Livingston notes in the introduction, "Conversation is one of the most powerful ways to build knowledge, awareness, and empathy, and ultimately to affect change. Conversation is also a primal way for people to form bonds, build trust, and create community."

Dr. Livingston cites a study published in 1952 by German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin. In the 1940s and '50s, the United States experienced shortages of standard cuts of meat, but Americans weren't in the habit of eating the lungs, throat glands, and other kinds of organ meats, despite the wider availability and nutrition that such cuts offered. Lewin's experiment involved two groups of Red Cross volunteers.

One group was given information about the nutritional benefits of eating organ meat. A second group was given the same information, but was also given the opportunity to discuss what they had learned with other participants. The end results were striking-- only 3% of subjects in the first group began serving organ meat, while 32% of the second group did so. In other words, the very act of conversation inspired people to change their habits in a way that simply knowing the information did not.

Robert Livingston: I wish we were computers, where you can just enter data and say, here's the information, process this, but we're not. There are all these social complications that we have as social animals that can increase the likelihood that we'll listen. And so, I think that the formula that's most effective, I've found, has been education, conversation, and action, in that order.

Seiter: Dr. Livingston intends for The Conversation to be a tool for those seeking solution to these problems. The book even includes sections called forums, where he suggests discussion topics and questions that readers can use to spark their own conversations.

Livingston: I noticed there weren't many tools out there among the books on race that have been written. But what's missing from everything that's out there is that they don't actually tell you what to do to make profound and sustainable change toward greater racial equity.

Seiter: In addition to his teaching and research at the Kennedy School, Dr. Livingston advises businesses and organizations on how they can address racial inequity and promote diversity. He brings that wealth of knowledge to readers in The Conversation using a framework called PRESS, which stands for Problem awareness, Root cause analysis, Empathy, Strategies for addressing the problem, and Sacrifice. The first section of the book is titled "Condition," and it's in these pages that Dr. Livingston explores the first two stages.

Livingston: The very first section of the book, on condition, starts off with this whole question of problem awareness, and I actually present data that shows that not everyone knows there's a problem. And in fact, a big chunk of the white population would say that anti-Black racism or anti-people of color racism is not a real thing. Part of the question then is, if that's the case, then how can we begin to address the problem if there are people who don't even know that there is a problem, or to the extent that there is, the problem is the opposite?

Seiter: Dr. Livingston dives into the psychology and behavioral science research canon to explain the phenomenon of racism, its origins in the human psyche and history, and why so many people deny the very existence of the problem. He illustrates the myriad ways in which people of color are subject to inequity and oppression, and he discusses how humans seek to construct and maintain social hierarchies.

The second section of the book, "Concern," discusses how readers can inspire empathy in others, so that they are compelled to do something about it. He divides people into three groups, each requiring a different mechanism for feeling empathy, and in his talks, Dr. Livingston uses analogies from the animal kingdom to illustrate these groups. The first are individualists, who aren't concerned about anyone else, and simply want to stick their heads in the sand, like ostriches.

Livingston: They just want what's best for them. They don't want someone to be oppressed, and they don't really want someone to not be oppressed. They're indifferent to what happens to other people, their focus is what happens to me, and they will do what's in their own best interest.

Seiter: The second group are competitors, who aspire to stay at the top of a stratified system, like sharks.

Livingston: So, unlike the individualist, who's indifferent to other people, the competitor's actually focused on other people and keeping them down, because to them, you can't be Mount Everest unless there's a valley.

Seiter: The third group are prosocials, and, like dolphins, they thrive only when they are a part of a pod of equal individuals.

Livingston: Who are people who want sort of an equitable distribution and everyone to have enough. So, that's the first thing to realize, is that there are stable individual differences in this. I talk about it, and I talk about the different ways to approach those three different types.

Seiter: For each of these groups, the strategy for getting them invested in the fight for racial justice differs. For individualists, one might need to make a practical case for dealing with racism. In public policy terms, they'll need carrots, such as the numerous studies that show diversity improves performance and outcomes for teams. Competitors may require strong disincentives, or sticks, to change their behavior. And to reach prosocials, one would need to appeal to their sense of moral obligation.

After establishing concern, Dr. Livingston moves on to the final stages of the PRESS framework-- Strategies for addressing the problem, and Sacrifice. This final section of the book, titled "Correction," focuses on what readers can do once they have understood the problem and become invested in solving it. Although racial injustice is a vast problem to solve, Dr. Livingston distills corrective action into two camps-- what individuals can do, and what organizations and leaders can do. For individuals, a key point is that while people cannot control their thoughts, they can control their actions and behavior.

Livingston: Let's imagine a taxi driver in New York City who has strong bias against Muslims, and sees a Muslim person hailing a cab. Well, they have a choice. They can either pull over and say, good afternoon, ma'am or sir, where can I take you? Or they can keep driving, because they say, I don't like Muslims. That's the difference between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is more about their feelings, discrimination is more about their behaviors.

So, if they say, because of my values, I should treat everyone the same, and they pull over, then that's no discrimination in the presence of prejudice. So, despite the fact that they have these negative feelings, they didn't have negative behaviors. Well, here's the beauty of that. If they do that enough, and they have enough contact with Muslims, and they talk about the weather, or their kids going to school, or brother-in-laws' weddings, or whatever people talk about in a taxi, that will gradually recondition their attitudes.

Seiter: Dr. Livingston cites research showing that establishing and vocalizing clear goals is important in trying to hold oneself accountable for changing behavior. He also points to a number of actions that individuals can take, such as engaging in civic activism, supporting businesses that embrace diversity, and mentoring younger colleagues of color who could benefit from professional insights and connections. When it comes to institutions, Dr. Livingston provides several cases of major organizations and companies embarking on diversity and inclusion initiatives with positive results.

These include Massachusetts Port Authority, which reformed its process for awarding contracts so that developers were required to incorporate diversity initiatives into the bidding process for projects. Subsequent Massport projects became more inclusive, with Black and women owned companies having a greater stake in new development in Boston's seaport. He also cites the example of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, which embarked on several initiatives to boost the diversity of its computer science program and succeeded.

Livingston: And I would say those are the most optimistic chapters, because as I was doing the research, I would get more and more energized, because there's so much that has been done, and so much that we can do, and so many examples of best practices and things that I had to narrow it down.

Seiter: The Conversation lays out, in often stark terms, what is at stake in the struggle for racial progress in America. But Dr. Livingston stresses that it's important to maintain a sense of cautious optimism.

Livingston: I do want to make an important distinction between optimism and naiveté. What I say in my book is that racism is a solvable problem, and in many ways, that's not just my opinion, that's a fact. Part of what I'm trying to do in my book is lay out a roadmap for moving us from solvability, in theory, to actual solved, in terms of practice or outcomes. I think it's just a matter of having the right information, the right investment, and the right commitment to move us in that direction.

Seiter: The book is The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, written by Dr. Robert Livingston, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. It's published by Currency. This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter at @hkslibrary, and visiting our website.