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Dr. Robert Livingston’s Talk

Disclaimer: This article is written based on Dr. Livingston’s speech given at Siena College on Oct. 25, 2022. These ideas are entirely his, and this article is written as a summary of that. 

Our nation today is in a critically vulnerable position. We are not necessarily in a state of equity, despite the progress that has been made and etched over the past 60 years. On Tuesday, Oct. 25, I had the honor of attending the Robert Livingston Talk entitled “A Conversation About Racism,” presented by the Spirit of ‘68 Committee. Robert Livingston is an esteemed individual who presses forward for change, equity, and fairness. Leading up to the event, I knew of Livingston but did not entirely know who he was or what he did. Attending his talk not only enlightened me regarding Livingston, his life, and his mission, but what our mission as stewards of equality, young people, and academic scholars must be. 

Livingston emphasized the simple fact that not everyone may care about racism. The idea that Livingston forwarded repeatedly was that racism comes in a systemic form in our nation and that social change requires social exchange. Most of the learning that occurs during our lifetime happens through the people that are closest to us. If we aim to be better and do better, we can change the perspectives of those around us who perhaps have differing opinions on this issue. Something that I admired about Livingston’s talk is that he backed up everything he said with evidence. He demonstrated the systemic racism in our nation by discussing the CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies. The first female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company was Katharine Graham in 1972. Today in 2022, there are only 43 female CEOs in this category. The first black CEO of a Fortune 500 Company was Clifton Wharton in 1987. Today in 2022, there are only four black CEOs in this category. Livingston took a pause to allow the number 4 to sink into the minds of the audience. This prime example of systemic racism demonstrates Livingston’s point; yet how do we accomplish social change through social exchange when not everyone cares about racism?

Livingston explained that a study done by Norton and Sommers in 2011 demonstrated that white people now believe that there is more racism against white people than there is against black people. The first problem is that due to this belief, we cannot agree that there is a problem, this problem being racism. To many white people, racism means extreme acts of hatred. The idea of unconscious bias, otherwise known as implicit bias, is how we know that this is true. Stories are warped in a way that favors white people over people of color. Livingston proved this to his audience by putting two different images on a screen. In the first image, a young black girl was standing behind a swing, and a young white girl sat on the ground in front of the swing crying. In the second one, a young white girl stood behind the swing, and the young black girl sat on the ground in front of the swing crying. Livingston explained that because of implicit bias, we likely believed that the young white girl had gotten pushed by the young black girl, but in the second image, we were led to believe that the young black girl had likely just fallen on the ground. Implicit bias demonstrates the clear issue present in our society; so how do we proceed to attempt to solve this problem?

In the next section of the talk, Livingston explained how we all fall into society and how these roles have a place in the conversation regarding racism. Dolphins are the first stereotype that we may fall into. These people are good, concerned citizens who care about the community. The next type of person is the ostrich. Ostriches are people who don’t care, tend to bury their heads in the sand, and are generally apathetic. The final type of person is a shark. Sharks in our society want social inequality and a food chain when they are the apex predator, and they go out of their way to create this social inequality. Each of these categories possesses different social values. Prosocialists seek to increase outcomes for themselves and for others in a relatively equitable manner. The prosocialists are the dolphins of society, and they make up 46% of it. Individualists seek to increase outcomes that will benefit themselves. They are largely indifferent to any of the outcome choices. The individualists are the ostriches of society, and they make up 38% of it. Competitors seek to increase outcomes for themselves as well, but at the expense of others. As much as they seek to benefit themselves, they want to see others fall. It is not always about maximizing personal gain but about dominance. The competitors are the sharks of society, and they make up 12% of it. Livingston’s model made a great deal of sense to me, but it left me with one question; what do we do with this information to move forward and create social change?

Teaching people that the world is not as fair as we think it is only works for the dolphins of society. Their minds are intrinsic to seeking to help people. If you show the ostrich that there is a reward involved for them, they will be more likely to engage in social change. Essentially, you must show them a carrot, and that entices them enough to act. For sharks, the only thing that works is putting them in a straight jacket and giving them no other choice. Livingston’s explanation for this struck me. He stated, “For them, inequality is the carrot.” Livingston then explained the best things that we can do as stewards of society. The first of these was the focus on behaviors, not beliefs. What we do is what makes a difference, not what we claim to believe. The second is to understand and act on the difference between equity and equality. You must give people what they need as opposed to giving everyone the same thing. Lastly, there should be a staggered start for everyone to have an equal opportunity for success. This final concept falls in line with the idea of equity and giving everyone what they need in order to have an equal shot at achievement. 

Dr. Livingston is an esteemed individual whose work will be impactful far into the future. I learned a great deal from his talk, and I will take this knowledge with me throughout the rest of my educational journey. I believe that I can speak on behalf of Siena College to say that we are beyond grateful for Dr. Livingston’s wisdom and time. This is an event that I will truly never forget.