Corporate America Has Failed Black America

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Action is needed more than words to change the systemic issues within American corporations.

Many companies that are now claiming to support the initiatives against racism have contributed to systemic inequality, according to the New York Times.

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, recently issued a statement saying the protests express “the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel.” However, the NFL has prohibited players from kneeling during the national anthem and essentially blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he started kneeling to protest police brutality. Goodell recognized this and continued saying, “we, the National Football League admit we were wrong” and adding, “I personally protest with you.”

Most major corporations have posted a black square on their Instagram or released statements condemning racism, but these corporations need to take action. “Most of these corporate statements were put together by the marketing team that was trying not to offend white customers and white employees,” said Dorothy A. Brown, a law professor who studies economic injustice at Emory University in Atlanta. “It’s complete B.S. It’s performative.”

“Corporate America has failed black America,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a member of the board of Pepsi, who is black. “Even after a generation of Ivy League educations and extraordinary talented African-Americans going into corporate America, we seem to have hit a wall.”

Robert F. Smith, a private equity billionaire and the richest black man in America, recently stated he was overwhelmed by conflicting feelings. “I am saddened, I am angry, I am upset and I am determined,” he said. “I run through that wave of emotions every minute.” Smith has been contacted by other business leaders looking to help. “This is the first time in my life I’ve seen not just empathy, but engagement,” he said. “This is unacceptable, and other C.E.O.s are asking how they can get involved.”

Companies must now address these issues rather than just recognizing them. “Corporate America can no longer get away with token responses to systemic problems,” said Mr. Walker. “It is going to take a systemic response to sufficiently address this crisis that has been decades in the making.”

In the past, pledges by businesses have resulted in marginal advances for the black community. Currently, less than half of black adults in America have a job. Statistically, black workers make less than white workers even if they are as educated. “We don’t get paid the same amount for the same work,” said Mellody Hobson, the co-chief executive of Ariel Investments and a board member at JPMorgan and Starbucks. “We’ve been disproportionally affected in layoffs and unemployment.”

Black men and women are not in leadership roles at some of the top names in Corporate America and there are only 4 black chief executives in the largest 500 companies in the country.

  • CVS has no black people on its leadership team
  • Bank of America, JPMorgan, and Wells Fargo have no black people on their senior leadership teams
  • Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have no black people on their senior leadership teams

However, many companies have added black directors to their boards. Board seats do not have as much power within the company as some might think. “We are put into these positions that are honorific, because they want our presence,” Mr. Walker said. “But we are not given authority and resources.”

Companies typically follow an agenda when a racism issue arises. “The playbook is: Issue a statement, get a group of African-American leaders on a conference call, apologize and have your corporate foundation make a contribution to the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League,” Mr. Walker said. “That’s not going to work in this crisis.” Even with some companies doing more, some still believe it won't be enough.

“Boards should hold themselves and management accountable for specific objectives around recruitment, retention and promotion of African-Americans and other minorities,” said Mr. Walker. “Only when companies and management are accountable in ways that are quantifiable will we see real systemic transformation of corporate America.”

When companies are asked about their lack of black employees, they typically state that there is a pipeline problem and that there aren't enough black men and women to fill roles. Corporations need to look harder for black employees by recruiting at black universities. “It’s not about a lowering of standards,” Mr. Moore said. “Think about how I hear that as a black man.”

“There seems to be a quest to get back to a level of normalcy. But that’s not good enough, because normalcy meant exclusion, it meant looking at disparity and shrugging,” said Mr. Moore. “The thing we should be aiming for is a new normal that’s grounded in justice — not just criminal justice, but economic justice.

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