Racial inequalities in the accounting profession

7th July 2020

"There are no easy fixes, and the journey will be long and hard, but it is a necessity if we wish to exist equally together"

Author: Dr Anton Lewis, Associate Professor of Accounting, Valparaiso University, USA

The events surrounding the death of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis should concern us all and has rightly led to global protests. All areas of life are now up for scrutiny to see where racism persists. It has been my concern for some time that a review of racial practice also be undertaken in the Accounting profession that I reside. I beg the question are Black accountants also struggling to survive, to professionally breathe in this space? Ironically, at this moment it is still a seldom asked question in industry or accounting academe even as the world burns, quite literally outside the ivory tower or skyscrapers in which professionals reside. Yet, even so, a tale of accounting and race can be told if one digs deep enough. First, the question should be asked – has it always been this way?

It often comes as a surprise to many when I assert that accounting at is inception, and arguably before, has always been intimately linked with oppression. How? Quite simply in the age of Empire slave assets had to be valued. Especially in the case of absentee plantation owners based in Britain who had huge wealth invested in plantations based in the British West Indies among other places and in the US Antebellum South where the master was present. Accounting was the information tool of its day measuring the bales of cotton to be reached, the difference being the whiplash if not met. Branding, as one does a bull was, in fact, a pre-modern form of GPS, monitoring and tracking errant slave assets who would deign to flee their bondage, but their asset value was already stamped, ensuring a speedy return to servitude where at all possible.

Profit maximisation was paramount for the master and accounting technologies of the time helped meet this outcome. Yet even at the foundation of formal professions in the mid – 18th century those considered Other in Accounting, be they Indian citizens of Empire or darker Others from elsewhere found that they were often illegally denied accounting articles in Britain. This made official entry into professional bodies of the time all but impossible. A practice that would surface time and again as Empire receded and Black and Brown accounting professions tried to establish professional autonomy for themselves. I make this point because without a proper reporting of racial misbehavior of the past we cannot guide ourselves to a stable fairer future, not without running the risk of repeating those same missteps.

This means, whether acted upon or working within the accounting premise, it has always been a struggle for the darker Other in relation to white domination in either the Imperial or more modern professional accounting setting. Blacks have always had to work twice as hard to get ahead, a common diaspora saying to Black children, warning them of the reality of existing under racism’s thrall, and an unfortunate reality of being Black in dominant majority white society. But why must it be this way? It will come as no surprise to many people of color reading this blog that it is simply the way of things. Or rather I should rephrase it as the Whiteness of things.

It is the pervasiveness of white normativity that those who are not white, and frankly not male, must perpetually adjust to. Making racial comfort i.e. white comfort with the Black self all important, found in adjusting oneself to the proper way of being in the white accounting setting. It is to make sure one speaks correctly (white speech), one dresses correctly (white dress codes), that one’s hair is correct (no braids or dreadlocks). This exists at the intersection of gender where particulars of behavior combine to be even more intricate. This is unbecoming, unprofessional, and far too Black, an anathema to this white ratified world. To enact this takes effort and this is a major reason to be better always, continually in everything when existing as Black and professional.

As I have briefly outlined above, this is hundreds of years in the making, and short-termism as an approach to racial affairs will not fix the root causes. Instead, we must take a longer-term view, looking initially to challenge the hegemony of whiteness in accounting. This to my mind can only be achieved when we, Black Brown and white engage in deep honest conversations about what this means. Perhaps next a truth and reconciliation process might be a good place to begin, where to inhale and exhale does not bring forth pain. One where reconciliation is the true path to tread beside darker accounting Others, instead of, as has been all too common in the past, over them. In truth, no easy fixes exist and the journey will be long and hard, but it is a necessity if we wish to exist equally together.

Counting Black and White Beans’: Critical Race Theory in Accounting, by Anton Lewis, is due to be published by Emerald in October 2020. Pre-order using the link above.

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