01 Mar 2008
An American OdysseyRe: Dick America (MBA 1963)by Garry EmmonsTopics:
He’s got a superhero’s name, and he’s shining a light on enduring wrongs here at home while confronting challenges in the Third World as well. Meet Richard America, who sees policy analysis and quality management as keys to development and economic justice.
Just back from a second trip to Africa within the space of a couple of weeks, Richard America (MBA ’63) appears upbeat and none the worse for jet lag. Dressed in a crisp suit and tie, the tall and affable Georgetown University Business School professor chats easily during a photo session at the school’s Washington, D.C., campus. “I’d like to see a number of our major corporations pick one African school of business, fully endow it, and help make it really good,” America says. “Upgrading management quality in the Third World will increase efficiency, creativity, and innovation. It will create jobs, reduce corruption, and spark progress. That’s where my focus is these days.”
Richard America was already a focused individual when he arrived on the HBS campus in 1961. He was one of four African-American students at the School, but that wasn’t the only thing that distinguished him from most of his peers. “I was interested in social change and very conscious that I was going to use my HBS training in different ways than most of my classmates,” America explains. “In class, I appreciated the pro-labor side in cases that had a union-management component. I was active in the civil rights movement and saw our major corporations and Wall Street as part of the cause of social injustice. But I also understood that they would need to be a big part of the solution, as indeed they have been.”
America, who teaches courses on investing in Africa and on inner-city enterprise development, acknowledges that his world-view back then — as well as that of his classmates — has evolved over time. “At recent reunions,” he notes, “I find we’ve all mellowed and converged, and experienced lots of political, social, and personal changes. So I’m a big believer in HBS, even though when I was there I was probably a bit out of step with prevailing beliefs.”
America and his family forebears have experienced an odyssey that, one might say, is uniquely American. As best he can determine, America is descended from an enslaved African named America who escaped to freedom prior to the American Revolution. His maternal grandfather, who attended and taught at Tuskegee Institute and knew Booker T. Washington, brought his family to Philadelphia during the great black northward migration before World War I. America’s father served in the Army in World War I in France, and his son recalls, “Like a lot of black vets, he came back radicalized. A postal worker, he was a union activist and organizer and an active supporter of the NAACP. So there were a lot of conversations about social problems and the politics of race.”
Young Richard grew up and went to high school in North Philadelphia, enjoying a “normal, unremarkable” childhood. He enrolled at Penn State where he majored in economics and took a couple of courses from Lawrence Fouraker, who was an economics professor there. “Fouraker wrote me a letter of recommendation to HBS while unbeknownst to me, he was about to join the HBS faculty and would later become Dean,” America recalls.
After consulting at the Stanford Research Institute and teaching at Stanford Business School and UC Berkeley’s business school, America worked in the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Small Business Administration, focusing on economic- and community-development policy work.
He helped develop new strategies to ease the impact of plant shutdowns, layoffs, military-base closings, and other dislocations by discerning areas of opportunity amid adversity and trying to stimulate entrepreneurial activity around them using public-private partnerships.
America contends that major corporations could do more for communities when they close a plant or conduct a large layoff. “Many sectors, such as transportation, mining, chemicals, and heavy manufacturing, would do well to engage in community development,” he declares. “I believe if more companies shifted advertising dollars to social investment of the right kind, in the right way, it would produce outstanding results, favorable publicity, and competitive advantage.”
America is involved in several projects, including studying the progress of African-American managers and executives since the 1970s, a subject about which he has coauthored two books. But his longest sustained commitment has been to help public and private decision-makers more fully understand the causes of black poverty in the United States and underdevelopment in Africa and the Afro-Latin world. “I’ve been working for many years on what is popularly and carelessly known as ‘reparations,’ ” he explains. “But I approach this with realistic expectations as policy analysis, not a cause. I’m attempting to correctly understand chronic racial inequality by putting it in a historical context and quantifying what I term ‘unjust enrichment.’ The point is to measure coerced income and wealth transfer and diversion produced first by slavery; then by official segregation; and then by various forms of discrimination in employment, education, and other markets, especially in residential housing, access to business capital, and the like. Of course, it comes down to a moral issue in the end. But to solve the problem, we first have to define it properly. Then it’s for the American people and their leaders to decide what they want to do with the findings.”
America has written and spoken widely about his views, even as the idea of recognizing and acknowledging explicit connections between historic wrongs and current social problems has gained credence over the last couple of decades. But he distances his work from the more limited notion of reparations as commonly understood in the public arena and presented in the media. “My work goes far beyond what is usually expressed as reparations for slavery,” he says. “That’s because it also includes an accounting for the transfer of income and wealth from African Americans to whites, as a class, that took place during Jim Crow segregation, from 1865 to 1965, and during all forms of racial discrimination from 1609 to 2008.”
America explains that his focus is on these centuries of unjust enrichment, which he defines as “the illicit transfer or systematic taking of other peoples’ land, resources, or labor by force, fraud, and manipulation.” Racial inequality and chronic poverty, he adds, “are not the problems so much as the symptoms of 400 years of the wrongful diversion of income and wealth.” This unjust enrichment, he asserts, can be recaptured, recovered, and reclaimed.
“Redistributive justice is something we do all the time simply by tweaking the tax code,” America says. “The difference here is that it is explicitly about race, and the magnitude of the social debt is very large in dollar terms.” In the latest of his several books, Lift the Hood, due out this year, America addresses the problems of unjust enrichment and of internal behavioral dysfunction in the black community, as he did in Developing the Afro-American Economy (1977) and Paying the Social Debt (1993). In Lift the Hood, he proposes that a surtax on the top 30 percent income bracket for thirty years would be the way to make restitution. That, he believes, would produce enough extra revenue to get to black-white family median income and wealth parity, the proper public policy goal. “Those revenues would be used for grants for down payments on primary residences; for high-quality, targeted public education; and for capital grants into commercial enterprises owned by African Americans,” America explains. “These are areas where income lost to unjust enrichment would have been saved or invested by black people. It’s not a big proportion of GDP, but it will require a huge emotional and psychological shift in the public’s thinking. I believe it can and will happen.”
In another forthcoming book, Nation Building, America analyzes U.S. foreign aid and poverty in Africa. With an interest in development issues in the Third World generally, America works with African business schools in particular. He has helped create the Southern Africa Business School Network, which he plans to replicate in other regions of Africa and in the Caribbean Basin. “There are up to 100 institutions in Africa that define themselves as a school of business, commerce, or management,” he says. “So far, I’ve visited thirty such institutions in twenty countries; I believe that if they were to get significant support, they could make a difference for Africa.” America’s Africa involvement also includes the African News Network, a Washington, D.C., start-up he cofounded that will broadcast quality news, documentary, and public-affairs programming about Africa to American audiences.
“Dick has been a pathbreaking researcher on issues at the intersection of race and business,” states HBS professor David Thomas. “He was the first to look at the experience of African-American professionals and managers in the post–civil rights era, and he continues to blaze trails with his work on African business schools and African business leadership.”
Be it in Washington’s poorer neighborhoods or Africa’s sprawling urban settlements — indeed, in struggling societies around the globe — America sees similarities and at least one constant: a crippling and unaddressed economic legacy. “Wherever there’s chronic conflict,” America says, “be it India/Pakistan, the Balkans, or the Middle East, there are ancestral grievances about economic injustice underneath that have not been recognized or analyzed properly. A lot of our conflicts globally stem from these kinds of historical relations. Digging down to that foundation, getting a handle on it, and quantifying the consequences is an essential step toward true progress, economically and socially, around the world.”