UC Berkeley prof explores modern accounting, business practices’ historic ties to slavery


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Caitlin Rosenthal spoke to an audience of about 60 people in the White Auditorium at the Kellogg Global Hub on Wednesday.

Lexi Goldstein, Reporter

University of California, Berkeley history Prof. Caitlin Rosenthal spoke Wednesday about her 2018 book, “Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management,” at the Kellogg School of Management.

Rosenthal focuses her research on management, labor and data practices. She discussed how data can provide a glimpse into the full human experience as part of the One Book One Northwestern event series. 

Along with influencing decision-making in real time, Rosenthal said data can impact the understanding of history, as researchers choose data points to track or exclude information. 

That manipulation of history through numbers is evident in discussions of slavery and plantations, Rosenthal said.

“(Data practice is) always a reflection of the choices we make to make some things visible and to erase other ones,” Rosenthal said. “And the ways that planters used them enabled them to overlook some of the brutal realities of slavery … and to focus in narrowly on the pursuit of profit.”

Rosenthal mentioned several types of historical records based on data, like records of cotton picking, price inventories of the lives of enslaved people and an auctioneer’s price list.

Each data set revealed a narrative of dehumanization, she said, highlighting fear tactics that plantation overseers used against enslaved people. 

“It’s not uncommon when you look at these kinds of records to see records of livestock next to records of people being marked down with exactly the same process, kind of translating people into property,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal emphasized the importance of looking at narratives beyond the data collected by the privileged, which she also related to business operations today. 

Slavery and modern business practices overlap in their prioritization of financial returns, Rosenthal said, so data is crucial to understanding means of profit. Companies, like planters and plantation owners, analyze data in an attempt to achieve maximum profitability. Spreadsheets and bookkeeping can obscure the human stories behind businesses, allowing people to neglect exploitation, Rosenthal said. 

“We need to weave the history of slavery much more deeply into the history of American business practices,” Rosenthal said. 

Among the audience of about 60 attendees was Monica Lewers (Weinberg ’89), who currently studies at Kellogg.

Lewers said she is grateful to have a strong understanding of her own family’s historical experiences with slavery and found Rosenthal’s talk intriguing for this reason.

“To read about (data on enslaved people) is different … it enhances what your family already shared,” Lewers said.

During an audience Q&A, social studies teacher and Evanston resident William Korte asked Rosenthal how to teach young people their value beyond exam scores.

Korte said as a teacher, measures like grade point averages and standardized test scores suggest society hasn’t moved on from measuring people by their productivity. He said the question of what actually constitutes productivity is subjective.

“There’s all these different kinds of constructs, and I just feel it’s really applicable to the classroom, to the real world, to what we call working in 2022,” Korte said.

Rosenthal noted that narratives centering data often leave out critical perspectives. 

Sometimes, she said, data shouldn’t be relied upon to tell the full picture. Data often erases qualitative information, she added.

“We need more times when we pause and say, ‘Actually, the data is not the important thing here,’” Rosenthal said. “The number on the report card is less important than the narrative that is next to it.”

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Twitter: @lexipgoldstein

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