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How Can Firms Address Structural Racism? New Course Applies Frameworks to Find Answers

Sep 13, 2021
New Vanderbilt Business course examines the application of strategy frameworks to combat structural racism through a business lens

By Lacie Blankenship

Professor Mark Cohen

Mark Cohen

As its name suggests, the course “Strategic Business Solutions to Address Structural Racism” dives into structural racism by examining strategic frameworks and the business implications for minority communities. 

Taught by Mark Cohen, Justin Potter Professor of American Competitive Enterprise, Professor of Law, and Resources for the Future University Fellow, this course was first available in Fall 2020 and is offered again this year in Mod 2

Cohen reflected on the first term of the class with great satisfaction and is looking forward to teaching the course again. “From my perspective, [the class] was wildly successful. I couldn’t have been more pleased with how it went,” he says. 

Cohen was motivated to develop the course to help students recognize that structural racism is an important challenge that firms are facing that may be unintentionally overlooked; he also wanted to take the opportunity to have this discussion with future leaders in the business world.

“As an economist and a strategy professor, I’ve seen what companies can do, sometimes without their knowledge or planning, that’s harmful to minorities, and what firms conversely may do to help the situation,” he says. 

Cohen saw a need for the course because “there is a lack of information about what a business can do to solve some of these issues beyond diversity training,” he says.

He developed the course from scratch with a collaborative group of second-year MBA students who helped him design the course and met with him regularly for feedback and guidance.

“A lot of the success for the course is from the students, who helped me design the course around what they thought would work for their classmates,” says Cohen. 

According to the class syllabus, students “examine how strategy frameworks might be applied to [a] current situation with the goal to better understand whether or not firm decisions can profitably contribute to resolving structural racism.” 

Throughout the term, the class incorporates guest lectures, case studies, and group work as students explore the extent to which standard management practices are “both part of the problem and the potential solution to structural racism,” says Cohen. He notes that his course was intentionally designed to fall under the category of business strategy, as opposed to morals or ethics. 

To educate students on how explicit or implicit discrimination oftentimes transforms into structural racism, the course begins with a short overview of racial discrimination in America before moving into framework discussions on organizational structures and business practices.  

The course approaches various topics at the intersection of racial inequality and business, such as brand reputation, corporate cultures, implicit bias, supply chains, consumer demand, housing and environmental justice, gig economy discrimination, and food deserts.

“The class provides an opportunity for great discussion throughout; some of it is very difficult to have, but important,” says Cohen. 

Cohen hopes that his students walk away from the course with an understanding that strategic corporate decisions may ultimately play a positive role in alleviating structural racism while oftentimes enhancing profitability.

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