The Table Podcast

Business Leadership Under Stress

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Shundrawn Thomas discuss leadership in the workplace, focusing on navigating pressures like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Timecodes
00:15
Thomas’ background in Faith and Work
07:18
Personal impact of International business
11:01
How to manage a large workforce
13:54
Developing corporate culture
19:17
Being self-critical and transparent
22:39
Vision and leadership
25:29
Impact COVID-19 has had on business
30:08
How race affects the business world
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to the table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And our topic today is the workplace, the pressures on executives in this unique period that we find ourselves in. And my guest is just a good friend. We have worked together on the Wheaton board. Shundrawn Thomas, who is President of … and I’ve got to get this right … Northern Trust Asset Management. A short title. And he’s very involved in his church. He’s a writer. We’ve had him come speak. He is very involved with his family, and we are co-conspirators on the Wheaton board. We work together on the Wheaton board, and have worked together for several years. And so, Shundrawn, it’s just great to have you with us.
Shundrawn Thomas
It’s good to be with you, Darrell. I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with a good friend.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, exactly. And so, let’s dive in. I told you my first question was gonna be, what’s a nice guy like you doing in a gig like you’ve got? So, tell us, how in the world did you end up being President of Northern Trust Asset Management? What are the steps along the way that got you there?
Shundrawn Thomas
Yeah. Like any progression on the career that takes you to a senior most leadership role in an organization, whether people admit it or not, Darrell, there’s a fair amount of timing and grace. But I would say, my interest in business started early. I recall, when I was in elementary school, my mom asked me what I wanted to do, and I would say … I would see these folks on television, wearing suits, carrying brief cases, and it seemed like they were doing something interesting.

That got refined when I went to high school. It was the first time I was introduced to any kind of curriculum in business. So I actually got to take an accounting course and applied economics course when I was in high school. My high school had a program where you could do a co-op. And so I worked for, what was then, Arthur Andersen, in particular Andersen Consulting. Andersen doesn’t exist anymore. But those were the exposures. And so I eventually went on to pursue my undergraduate degree in Accounting and Business, and in that process, learning more about finance investments, got turned on to the world of finance. And for a variety of reasons, the dynamic nature of it, the problem solving … there were a lot of things that resonated with me. And so just career went that way.

But as far as ultimately getting to the helm of running a global business, as you know, a lot of it is not about the x’s and o’s. And so I was fortunate from I think early on with my experience just to have different leadership experiences, because ultimately that becomes the determinant, the ability to motivate, lead, help develop, inspire and serve others from a leadership position.

Darrell Bock
So, I take it, then, you probably had some mentors along the way who helped you and affirmed you and pushed you a little bit, all those kinds of things.
Shundrawn Thomas
Yeah. And it’s interesting, because you have different types of mentors. So first of all, the foundation starts for me, like many other people, my parents, the foundation that they gave me in a couple of areas. Number one, the foundation of faith, because that’s a balance for me in terms of working in the kind of environments that I work in, dealing with the demands and the issues. I think it’s important for anyone to have that thing that centers them. And so to have that deep, abiding faith to carry myself or live my life in a way that I have something that motivates me that’s transcendent, it really helps me in that regard. But also in terms of my orientation towards work ethic. A lot of people who are quote-unquote successful, however you define that, it’s no magic to it. It means that usually they were willing to put in the extra time of effort. And they definitely instilled that in me.

But also, the importance of education, expanding yourself. I was the first person in my family to go away to school, and get my undergraduate degree. But interestingly enough, both of my parents went back to school and got their college degrees when I was in my teenage years. And so it was interesting to see that experience, to see my parents make that commitment, despite being later on in life. And so those kind of things were formative. Of course, when I got into my career, I first had people who had the early experience or the technical expertise I needed to understand. But, Darrell, I would say over time the people who have been most impactful for me from a mentorship standpoint have been those people who share common values and beliefs. ‘Cause I really feel like in your career, the most important decisions you make as you matriculate are more value based.

Darrell Bock
Um-hmm. That’s very true. So, I haven’t mentioned where you’re located. You’re in the Chicago area, right?
Shundrawn Thomas
I am.
Darrell Bock
And did you grow up in the Chicago area as well?
Shundrawn Thomas
I did indeed. So I grew up on the south side of the city. So where I lived, give or take, was about 12 miles from downtown Chicago. And Chicago, it’s interesting, because I’ve worked and lived other places, but spent most of my career and my life here in Chicago.
Darrell Bock
So the most important question I’m gonna ask you is, White Sox or Cubs?
Shundrawn Thomas
This is an easy one, and maybe a confounding one for most people, but I have always been a Cubs fan. I think it goes back to your earliest impressions. So I can remember. My grandfather lived until his 90s, but he was always a huge baseball fan. And I remember being over at a small home that my grandparents lived in … it was actually a row house … sitting there with him on the bed, and we just would watch WGN, the Cubs …
Darrell Bock
There you go.
Shundrawn Thomas
And so people would say, “How did you grow up on the south side? That’s how.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Yeah. Harry Caray. Wow. So, I grew up listening on the radio to the St. Louis Cardinals before the Houston Colt 45s and the Houston Astros came to Houston. I grew up in Houston. And I would listen to a radio, the 500 watt station that came out of St. Louis … I can’t even remember what it’s called now … and listening to Jack Buck call baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. So, we’re kindred spirits in so many different ways.

So, let’s talk about the business career that you have. You do a lot of international work, don’t you? Even though you’re located in Chicago, I think we’ve talked about the travel that you’ve engaged in and that kind of stuff. Talk about what the international dimension of your work has done for you.

Shundrawn Thomas
Yea. It’s a variety of things. So one, the nature of the roles. So we have partners, but in our asset management business specifically, got 900 partners in 15 different locations around the globe. And you can think of us being in a lot of the places where they’re chief financial centers. So we’ve got people on the ground in London. We’re in Stockholm. We are in Amsterdam. We have presence in Australia, in Melbourne. Hong Kong. Tokyo. So you can think about the various places that we are.

And so the interesting thing about the experience that I’ve had is, while finance in some ways is a universal language. To do business, you have to become conversant, not just in the financial aspects, or the investment discipline that we are in, but you have to grow to understand and learn and appreciate things about different cultures. So one, I love to travel personally. I grew up … I like to tell people, up until about the age when I was 17 and went away to college, my view of the world was a relatively small radius, except when I … catch the bus to my school that was in the west, west of the Loop in Chicago. And so your world gets expanded. And you just have such a different view and appreciation for people of different perspectives, backgrounds. You learn a lot about the world and people in a way that you just can’t reading about in books.

And so that’s been one of the interesting things about the opportunity that I have to work with partners … that’s what we call our employees … around the globe. But I deal with clients. And the last thing I would say about my role, Darrell and it’s a privilege … The nature of what we do, we’re managing money from some of the largest institutions, governments, wealthy families around the globe. So it’s not just cultural, and you can think about it in terms of nationality and ethnicity, or think about socioeconomically, all of these different elements of it are mixed into the experiences I have in any given year.

Darrell Bock
So how large is the company? I think I heard you say … did you say 900 partners? That means you work with 900 people in your business? Or is it bigger than that?
Shundrawn Thomas
Yes. So it’s interesting. I have, in a sense, a dual set of responsibilities. So I serve as President of our asset management business, as you said, Northern Trust Asset Management. In asset management, we have 900 employees throughout the world, roughly. But I also serve on the management group, or the executive management team for the corporation, Northern Trust Corporation. And Northern Trust Corporation is in three primary businesses, not just asset management, but we’re in wealth management. We’re also in the asset servicing business, a variety of things, including capital markets activities we deliver to institutions.

So the corporation, so with the 11 person management team that we have, including our CEO, that corporation, we have over 20,000 people. So, depending on what day of the week we’re counting the headcount, approaching 21,000 professionals or employees that work for Northern Trust Corporation.

Darrell Bock
Okay. So here’s my question, and I’m saying it with a smile. How in the world do you manage 900 people? That sounds like managing a mini mega church or something.
Shundrawn Thomas
It’s interesting, because first of all, what you realize is A … and you’ll appreciate when I say this, I’m gonna be exacting about words on purpose … you manage processes, and you lead people. So if I thought my job was to manage people in the way that people describe it, there’s no very effective way to quote-unquote manage 900 people. If you understand your role as leading people, than that’s something … leadership … I always tell people leadership skills. And so what do you have to do to lead an organization with 900 people, and help contribute to the leadership of an organization, say, with 21,000 people? ‘Cause those are my respective roles.

And so there are a couple of things that you realize. First of all, one of your most important tools is your voice. So that positional leadership creates, in a sense, a platform and a megaphone. And what you communicate has significant impact on shaping the culture. And so one of the things that you have to be adept at is how do you, in a sense, use your voice? What are you communicating every day about the vision, the mission of the organization, about the values of culture? And here’s the thing. They don’t happen at good organizations by accident. They happen on purpose. So you actually have to be very intentional about those things. What do you model, in terms of how you spend your time and what you focus on?

The next thing is what I like to call the Jesus principle. And what I mean by that is if you’re gonna have a big movement, you need to be very adept at focusing on who’s that core, or that inner circle? That’s usually gonna be people that are your direct reports, that you are trying to work with very closely. And what you’re trying to do is help them expand and maximize their own leadership potential. Because that’s what’s gonna help lead the organization.

Now the last thing I would say is, you can’t just focus on just the people that are most proximate to you, because you really want to understand the organization. So the other thing you have to figure out is, while I can’t necessarily touch all 900 people, how do I thoughtfully engage with as many people in the right ways around the organization, where I’m not only hearing what I need to understand the various levels of the organization, whereas I can be empathetic to and informed about how to lead?

So those are the kind of things that you have to do from the leadership standpoint.

Darrell Bock
So let’s talk about what I think is a core question for a lot of organizations. And this would be true whether it’s a for profit or a nonprofit or a church or whatever. And that is, how, in your mind, do you build culture? I think the culture of an organization is probably one of the most important things that leaders do. And sometimes they’re conscious and aware of it. And the ones that are are probably your better leaders. And the ones that aren’t, struggle. And so, how do you think about building culture in your organization?
Shundrawn Thomas
So first of all, what happens is, so whether you’re actively, in a sense, working to shape the culture or not, it is a very real thing. It exists. The other thing is, the culture is in the … it’s alive. It’s animated. It’s evolving. And so the culture is not only a real thing, but it’s evolving in some way. And so the question is, do you understand that the way that it’s evolving, and are you trying to, in a constructive and positive way, influence that evolution?
Darrell Bock
‘Cause if you don’t work on influencing that culture, the culture’s gonna shape you, and usually not in necessarily good ways.
Shundrawn Thomas
Right. So the first thing I think you have to do is you have to be, in a sense, a student of the culture. So a lot of times, people belong to organizations. You know the passage that says, “We look in a mirror or a glass, dimly.” I think it’s true of people, it’s true of organizations. So there’s always some dissonance between the intent that we have, or the view that we have of ourselves, and where we are at any given point in time. Organizations are like that. So the first thing you have to do is you have to have a real transparent view of what the existing culture of the organization is. Who are we really? What are our existing norms? And the culture is not the same as your vision. The vision might be something that you are looking at, or you aspire to achieve in terms of the business. But the culture has to be a very real thing of where you are at that point in time.

Now when you assess the culture, it’s just like assessing yourself as a person. There are strengths that you have. There are weaknesses that you have. Some of the weaknesses … I tell people some weaknesses I have, I’ll have them all my life. They’re not things that are going to get much better. In some respects they don’t necessarily need to.

There are some things I have to get better at every day. I have to get better at the way I communicate every day. I have to get better at the way that I engage with people and I empathize. So that’s different. So identifying those things about the culture, and you do that with the people in the culture. So it’s identifying, talking about where the culture is, what you want to be. I think the tools that you use to do that, I’m big on establishing what I call shared values. Everybody has beliefs or values, and they are unique to you. And so it’s not that everybody’s gonna have the same. But in a culture, because we’re gonna have accepted norms of behavior, identifying those which we share that we think are important, and communicating those and articulating what it means to demonstrate those is one of the ways that you actually shape a culture. ‘Cause you’re clearly signaling what’s important, and what kind of values that we want to put forth, and how do those things get exemplified by our behavior? So that’s one of the ways that you enhance it.

Another way you enhance the culture is, say, for instance, we identify that there’s some things that we’d like to see in our culture. Some people say we have to have a greater sense of urgency. Well, you can’t just speak it into existence by …

Darrell Bock
Go be urgent. [Laughs]
Shundrawn Thomas
You know what you can do, Darrell? You actually can bring people into the culture that bring those qualities that help move the culture. So actually that’s part of my job. When I’m thinking about starting with the leadership team, I’m not just looking at the technical skills. I’m saying, “What do we need to do and be as a leadership team to maximize our potential?” And some of the skills, including myself and talents worth developing. And some of those, to accelerate that, we can add people to the team that bring a greater proportion of those kind of qualities. These are the kind of things that you do to actually shape and drive culture.
Darrell Bock
And so that’s a mix and match exercise, really, in terms of who your team is, what the strengths your current team has, where you want to go, where you’re trying to go, and looking for who might supply something that might be lacking. When I build my team, I’m, in many cases. Looking for things that I know I can’t do well. Because someone else has gotta be able to do it if I can’t do it. And so … Which means that inevitably, the personality differences that that generates and becomes part of your team dynamic that you have to deal with, cope with, depending on the day, that kind of thing. But you have to welcome that. Because if everyone’s just a rubber stamp of who you are, you’re gonna have strengths and weaknesses multiplied in ways that aren’t helpful to you as an organization.
Shundrawn Thomas
That’s exactly right.
Darrell Bock
Let me ask you one other thing at a technical level, and that is, how important is it to be self-critical in your leadership? In other words, the tendency is to want to cheer lead the organization, and to have it press ahead, and have a sense of advance on the one hand. But oftentimes, to advance you’ve gotta recognize what you aren’t doing well.
Shundrawn Thomas
Right. So it’s interesting, because I think there are a couple of principles that I espouse in terms of you lead and how you communicate, especially around what you’re saying there. So the first one is, I think it’s incumbent upon the leader to do a couple things. One is you have to reflect reality. And so if reality is right we have goals that we set for ourselves but we’ve fallen short or we’re falling short of. That’s just a reality. And so you can’t pretend that that’s not the reality. That actually is not a positive indicator. That would actually be a failing from an evolution standpoint.

But at the same token, there is this tension you walk. So while you have to be able to reflect reality, the other thing that you have to be able to do at the same way is, you have to be able to translate, how do you get from, in a sense, the bitter place to the better place. I heard somebody say that before, and I think it’s a good way to capture it. So you have to reflect reality, but reflecting that reality also has to come with a clear sense of how, if it’s a place you need to improve, what actions need to be taken or what you need to do to get there.

I also think that when you’re dealing with people broadly, I do think that leaders, the best leaders, have a certain level of optimism. Not optimism from the standpoint that they don’t see or reflect or even talk about the realities. But optimism from the standpoint of a belief in people, in the capacity and the ability of people. I think that you can actually have actually direct and candid conversations with people, even when you’re coaching them, if what’s established is trust.

Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Shundrawn Thomas
And if they know that you actually believe in them, and so the whole purpose of this is just for them to actually be better, and maximize their potential.

Now here’s the way the rubber really meets the road, though, Darrell. You can’t do any of that if you, yourself, are unwilling to be transparent and vulnerable. And so, if you’re speaking from some mythical place that people perceive that you think you’ve arrived and no one else can get to. All of your credibility on everything that I just said before that statement is gone.

Darrell Bock
No Zeuses is from Mt. Olympus, huh?
Shundrawn Thomas
Right. But if in having those conversations you can also articulate transparently at times where you are, say in your leadership journey, or where you are relative to your own performance expectations, I think it gives you the intellectual and the moral authority to truly lead the coacher in a candid and in a transparent, and in a real way.
Darrell Bock
So this leads to another element of leadership, which of course is vision. And vision involves having, obviously, some sense of where you’re going and where your organization needs to go. But the ability to actually communicate that to other people so that they can see it, or at least get glimpses of it, and have some sense of what the direction move towards it is, is also, it seems to me, pretty important.
Shundrawn Thomas
Right. So it’s interesting, because one of the things, it’s what I like to tell people about vision, vision is one of these very important things. But there’s a pragmatic reality to it. If I were driving towards something, and say I’m a mile away, the reality is the closer I get to it, the clearer my perspective becomes. And so, while vision is something that’s powerful, it’s important, the perspective that you have, the clarity that you have, as it regards that vision, is actually getting stronger as you’re making progress to it.

So I think that one of the things that the quote-unquote visionary has to be able to do, the way I think of it is, yes, you have to be able to articulate and set that compelling vision and say it’s that thing ten years out. When we do all this, in ten years it’ll look like that. But if that’s all you have, many people may quit long before you get there. So what I like to say, you have to have the vision of the destination, but you also have to have the vision of the mile markers. And so I think people oftentimes miss that pragmatic part of vision.

Darrell Bock
Yeah. That’s good. I like that a lot. And, of course, the challenge of vision I think is … and I’m gonna transition now real briefly to the fact that we’re recording this during COVID … the ability to have vision, but also to be able to adjust to the realities that are thrown your way in the midst of pursuit of the vision is actually, I think, one of the most important skills in leading. That you don’t get … I’m gonna coin a term … you don’t get vision fossilized. It becomes so fixed in your mind you can’t flex to what’s going on around you. We’re in the situation in the Center, we’re in the midst of COVID, we’re very events based, as you know. You met with us awhile ago. You saw a plated breakfast, et cetera. We’re not gonna be able to do that for awhile … we know that … in the way that we did it. So we’ve got to reinvent ourselves. And we’re forced to do that.

So my question’s kind of two fold. One, in the area that you work in, have there been a need for adjustments, beyond the obvious, which is that a lot of people are having to work at home as opposed to being gathered together at the office? That’s the first thing. And then secondly, how does vision reshaping work? I sometimes talk to my team about sometimes you just gotta ride the wave. You’ve gone a direction, and you’re setting it, and you’re off and running, and you aren’t readjusting, but you’ve gotta deal with the wave that your surfboard’s on at that particular point … not that I’m a surfer.

Shundrawn Thomas
Yeah. So two parts to your question. I’ll come back to the wave and the vision, ’cause I get the analogy you’re using there. But start with how, in what ways beyond just being remote. We have, across our firm, over 90 percent of our folks are fully working remotely. In my business unit, I believe it’s 96 percent. I rotate in. As you know, I’m in the office, and I do week on, week off. But when I come in, frankly virtually nobody … there’s very few people except people in essential roles in the building.

But the real … here are the more substantive, I think, changes, particularly inspiring. First of all, every crisis is different, and this is incredibly unique. I’ve been, in this particular … in some form or fashion of financial services the last 26 years. And I’ve been through various financial crises or upheavals. This pandemic is first and foremost a health and humanitarian crisis. And so, when you think about the health component, the issue is this. This affects people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So if I go back to what people call the great recession, I think of what was going on in the 2008 time frame, or things like that, at the end of the day, people could go home from work, and then have some sort of normalcy. And so this is different. And so what I believe it calls for is something that really needs to be there all along. And I’ve talked to people about the importance of … and I wrote an open letter about this … compassionate leadership. And so the way that, as a leader, at least good leaders, you have to serve or care for your, again, we say partners, employees, I think is different than what people are accustomed to. It requires an intimacy that is challenged by the fact that we’re doing a lot of it virtually. So you have to figure out how to lead in there.

You have to just think about how to help people navigate this environment where there, for most of us, was a separation between what we were doing in the professional or the working part of our day and what we did, and quote-unquote our home life, or those things. And that’s just totally collided. How do you separate them? How do you find time? How do you think about people’s emotional wellbeing? And again, those are things that are always important, but I don’t know that we’ve focused on them in the way that we should, and this is bringing that to a fore.

Darrell Bock
You don’t have a choice.
Shundrawn Thomas
Yeah. So that’s one of the changes. The other thing is, you have to really learn in real time. So, certain things that we always say, we’re innovating, we’re changing, but most of we’re not changing that much. And this environment forces you to be much more adept at changing your work processes, your business resiliency approach, all these different things.

The other thing that’s interesting is it forces questions that we often easily would have put off. So think about in higher education, or in the medical profession, like telemedicine, and things like that. It’s not like MOOCs and telemedicine and all these things didn’t exist, they take on a very different consideration in this environment. And I think that, particularly for people in senior leadership roles, whether it’s me and the kind of role that I’m in, or you in the kind of role that you’re in in that particular vertical, cause now you gotta really make big, important strategic decisions. It’s not like just execute this, that, there, or the other. It’s like we’re talking about potentially making a meaningful shift to our business model.

Darrell Bock
It’s a redesign, yeah, for us. It’s a total redesign. So … okay. Well, let me shift gears here. And I want to ask this question, and that is, what, in particular, have been the challenges of being an African-American or a Black executive in the world? And again, we’re in a time in which these questions have become really, really important. So, just curious to hear your take on this.
Shundrawn Thomas
So it’s interesting, because, you know how this goes. In virtually every vertical, in higher learning or in the education sphere in the corporate world, you name it, it’s the same apprehension in mixed company. What are the things that you don’t talk about? And we know at the top of the list, religion is one. But race is definitely one. And so, the interesting thing about the experience is a number of things. Number one, for people who are … I identify as African-American. I always recognize my African ancestry. And again, broadly speaking, Blacks, if you think about that experience, there are a couple of things.

One, racism is a real thing. But I would say one of the most challenging aspects of it, when you navigate your career, is there are inequities that come because of it. And one of the biggest outgrowths is the perception that those inequities create. And so there are lots of people, whether they come to this consciously or not, will look at people of color, particularly Black people, and really deep down, they don’t view them as being equally qualified. And so, understanding that in many instances, that’s something that plays in the background of your experience that you have to contend with.

Another thing that’s interesting in the experience is, because of the taboo of talking about race, think about it. It affects us all. But who does it affect the most? It affects the most the person that’s most disadvantaged, or most discriminated against based on race. And so, when you have to navigate issues that impact you from a race standpoint, there’s the unwritten rule in most corporate spheres is, you can’t talk about it. As a matter of fact, even if you experience some discrimination or disadvantage, it’s a double whammy, because if you are to raise it or talk about it, it actually makes your white counterparts uncomfortable.

And so, if you think about how you have to navigate this space, the other thing that’s interesting is … and it’s something that people don’t talk about … think about when we assess people. We believe ourselves to be objective and our measurements to be objective. But the vast majority of how we evaluate people is subjective. And so, and I think about, over the course of my career, all the performance reviews I’ve got, and things like that, well what people don’t necessarily think about is if you’re working in the corporate sphere, where the vast majority of senior leaders, historically and presently, are white men, don’t even take that as inherently bad or good, just take it as is. But that means the standard, although not always consciously thought about, is a white male normative standard.

So oftentimes, under the perspective that you’re being judged based on performance that is absolute, what you’re actually being judged on is performance that is relative to a normative standard.

Darrell Bock
So there’s a culture element alongside just the professional element, if I can say it that way.
Shundrawn Thomas
Right. So there are terms like … you’ve seen people do this research, they talk about African-Americans have to do things like code switching. There might be a way that I communicate with people who share a similar ethnicity that I have to switch, in a sense. People do it subconsciously. Because that mode of communication would be perceived as not appropriate for that environment. There are certain studies that say, for instance, African-Americans relative to white counterparts, are more expressive. I don’t know in what dictionary more expressive would be bad. It’s just different. But understand that when you communicate in a certain setting, because it’s not the norm, more expressive would translate to being not good. And so, I can assure you, if you talk to people in your profession or my profession who have climbed the ranks, ask them how many times they’ve gotten feedback about what they have to change about, say for instance, the way they communicate, regardless if it’s natural to them or not.

So those are some of the things that are part of that experience. I think what’s happening in this moment is we’re freeing up the dialog. And so people can talk about those things, and on all sides, we become more understanding. Because the other thing that you deal with is there’s certainly many real prejudices that you deal with. But as you know, all we see is not all there is. And so there are also perceived ones. So there’s also the baggage that you carry, so to speak, from the very real challenges that you deal with as a result of race, and the ones that you may additionally perceive.

Darrell Bock
That’s helpful, Shundrawn. And, of course, we’ve been back and forth on this in a variety of ways, because in sitting on a board of a school in which obviously race is an important part of the conversation, we’ve been slogging our way through, trying to figure it out and make it work in some ways, and seek the Lord’s direction about how to do a better job of listening and engaging and understanding one another, et cetera. And when you try and operate, if I can say it, flying through a fog without instruments by not talking about it, you don’t help yourself very much.

And yet, getting to the point where you can talk about it, and talk about it openly, sympathetically, with a good set of a pair of listening ears in the conversation, on each side, it really does help, hopefully, to advance the understanding, even though there’s no way I can replicate the experience that you’ve gone through. I just … I can’t do that. And actually, partially understanding that is an important part of the conversation, I think.

Shundrawn Thomas
Right. You know what … if I can offer this … you know what’s another important part? What happens is … So here’s the reality. This concept of race, though, is an interesting one. Think about. By and large, it’s a relatively current construct of humanity over time. By and large, mostly over the last 400 years, maybe you can go back as far as 600, but most of the last 400 years. The very institution of the concept of race, if you just go back and look at the history, was prejudicial in its inception. There were hierarchies given to … So most people, even though we accept this, it has no biological underpinning. For the last 200 years, most anthropologists and biologists agree on only one thing. There is no scientific basis for what we call race. But it’s such dominant way in which we are now taught to understand and interact with each other.

And so, because it’s a social construct, it’s not an objective reality, like the chair you’re sitting in. I used this example with someone else. It’s like we were talking about culture. It’s an intersubjective reality. It only exists because we agree that it exists. If we decided tomorrow that it no longer exists, it literally would go away. I can’t decide that about the chair. It’ll still be here. And so what that means is, I actually think we need to take that into account, and we don’t talk about the history, or that aspect of it. ‘Cause it means that either we can challenge the assumption or the construct … it means minimally, because it’s an intersubjective reality, we can change the definition of it, how we interact with it, all those different things. They’re all within our power. It’s not something that just accrues in eternity.

Darrell Bock
That’s right. And I think most people are completely unaware of the history of how this became a topic, and what was done as a result of the topic in its early history, et cetera. That’s part of the, if I can say it, the underbrush of the conversation that has gone on that most people are not very aware of. And as such, it is a problem. And yet, I think it’s very, very important in the conversations that I have with people who might take what you said and say, “See. We just need to level everything out,” to turn around and say, “No.” That the experience that has taken place is so deep, so long, so wide, and so hard, and so painful that to ignore it is actually to miss why we are in the moment that we’re in.
Shundrawn Thomas
Right.
Darrell Bock
And I just think that that … whenever I get to … The discussion that I have today that’s common is, “Well, we aren’t doing what was happening 50 or 100 or 150 years ago.” That’s the common discussion that I go. To which my reply is, “But we’re dealing with the effects of that even now.” That has not gone away. And in some ways it’s become more subtle, which makes it easier, in one sense, to deny, even though the effects are still very real and with us.
Shundrawn Thomas
Yeah. And one of the things that I think if people actually had an objective view at facts, they would change their view on part of what you said. I think part if it is, yes, we’re dealing with the effects of it. But think about something like this. So people say … I got this question recently. They say, “Why do Black people complain so much about the criminal justice system?” I said, “Because it’s inequitable.” And they say, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “Let me give you a fact based assessment.”

African-Americans, Blacks, make up roughly about 14 percent of the population. 13, 14 percent. Depends on who’s counting. You know what percentage of the population of drug users blacks make up? 13 percent. It’s just in line with the representation of the population. Do you know what percentage of people convicted of drug related crimes Black people make up? 36 percent. And of the 36 percent that are arrested, rather, for those crimes, 46 percent are actually convicted.

So this is the point. So when people are trying to figure it out, that’s a structural inequity, and that’s a function of racism. You can’t tell me that if I only make up this percentage of users, but four times as many, almost … So those are the kind of things you want people to understand. People aren’t coming up with figments of their imagination. There are some things that are actually systemically biased, systemically wrong, systemically racist or prejudicial. And so there’s an affirmative approach that we need to take to say, whenever and however we see inequity, we’re a human community. We have, I believe, a moral responsibility to address it. And that’s not, “I gotta a bad deal 400 years ago, and I’m upset about it today.”

Darrell Bock
Right. Yeah. ‘Course, the biblical picture of justice, one of the metaphors that’s used is a just balance. And so, what you see is, is that when the balance isn’t just, when it isn’t weighted fairly, then that produces a problem, and all kinds of things grow out of it. Well, we could … This is a conversation, obviously, that you and I have had before, but that we could continue on, but we’re actually out of time. So, some might say mercifully, maybe not, but it’s … Shundrawn, I just want to appreciate your taking the time with us to talk about this. As I’ve said, you and I have interacted on this stuff for a long time. You’ve taught me a lot in this area, for which I’m very, very appreciative. And just really, really appreciate your taking the time to be with us today.
Shundrawn Thomas
Again, it’s always a pleasure, and equally, in our dialogs, both in terms of obviously your wisdom, but it’s also the deeds. You learn a lot from people from the way they engage, the way that they represent themselves, and the way that you’ve come to this topic in so many ways, I learn from and I appreciate.
Darrell Bock
Well thank you again, Shundrawn. And we thank you for being a part of the table. We hope you’ll join us again soon. If you have any topic suggestions for us at the table, please feel free to write us at thetable@dts.edu and we will look seriously at what it is you would suggest that you would like for us to cover. Thank you again for being a part. We hope we’ll see you again soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Shundrawn Thomas
Shundrawn A. Thomas serves as President of Northern Trust Asset Management where his responsibilities include developing long-term strategy, executing operating plans, cultivating client relationships, managing vendor relationships and developing talented professionals. He also serves as a member of the Management Group for Northern Trust Corporation.
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