Corporate America Has Failed Black America

In the past week, it has seemed like every major company has publicly condemned racism. All-black squares cover corporate Instagram. Executives have made multimillion-dollar pledges to anti-discrimination efforts and programs to support black businesses.

Yet many of the same companies expressing solidarity have contributed to systemic inequality, targeted the black community with unhealthy products and services, and failed to hire, promote and fairly compensate black men and women.

“Corporate America has failed black America,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a member of the board of Pepsi, and 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.”

With dozens of cities protesting the violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others, a national conversation about racism is underway. For black executives, who have spent their lives excelling at business while overcoming structural discrimination, the killings and ensuing protests have unleashed an outpouring of emotion. Many are speaking candidly about their private fears, as well as their disappointment with the corporate apparatus that made them stars.

Wes Moore, the chief executive of Robin Hood, a New York charity combating poverty, said he chooses his workout clothes to minimize the chances anyone will consider him, as a black man, dangerous. “I pick the outfit that I wear when I run strategically,” he said. “I wear shirts with my alma mater on it, Johns Hopkins, so people know I’m not a threat.” Mr. Arbery was shot to death by apparent vigilantes while out for a jog; three white men have been charged.

Mr. Moore said he was fed up with being one of just a relatively small number of black executives in the top tier of American business. “The list starts getting very thin very quickly,” he said. “There aren’t enough good examples. We’ve been satisfied with exceptions and exceptionalism.”

“We’ve been satisfied by putting John Rogers on every board,” he added, referring to the black investor who has been a director at Exelon, McDonald’s, Nike and The New York Times Company. “But we haven’t been deliberate about building bench and pipeline.”

Robert F. Smith, a private equity billionaire and the richest black man in America, said he has been 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.”

Mr. Smith added that for the first time in a long time, he had reason for optimism. Over the past week, he said, he has been inundated with calls from other business leaders wanting to know what they can do. “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.”

Mr. Walker, too, said the severity of this moment seemed to be shocking some companies into action. “Corporate America can no longer get away with token responses to systemic problems,” said Mr. Walker, who has been protesting in New York. “It is going to take a systemic response to sufficiently address this crisis that has been decades in the making.”

As brands rushed to align themselves with protesters over the past week, their words often rang hollow, undermined by their own actions.

Amazon called for an end to the “inequitable” treatment of black people. Yet the company has faced sustained criticism for poor working conditions and low pay. In March, it fired Christian Smalls, a black employee at a Staten Island warehouse who was demanding safer conditions while working in a pandemic, and the company’s general counsel disparaged him as “not smart or articulate.” Amazon has said Mr. Smalls violated its social distancing policy, and that the executive did not know he was black.

The commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, issued a statement saying the protests express “the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel.” But his organization has banned players — most of whom are black — from kneeling to protest police brutality, and the quarterback most identified with the gesture, Colin Kaepernick, has been effectively blacklisted. (On Friday night, Mr. Goodell appeared to reverse himself, saying, “We, the National Football League admit we were wrong” and adding, “I personally protest with you.”)

L’Oréal shared a post that read “Speaking out is worth it.” But three years ago, the makeup company dropped its first transgender model, Munroe Bergdorf, when she spoke out about racism after the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

“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.”

Companies have for the most part addressed racism only in the face of overwhelming public pressure. In the 1980s, for example, a global protest movement forced corporations including General Motors and Pepsi to stop doing business in apartheid South Africa. More often, however, companies have studiously avoided confronting the legacy of racism.

Members of “corporate America have generally not distinguished themselves as moral leaders,” said Ursula Burns, the former chief executive of Xerox and a board member at Exxon. “They generally have gone along with the flow, and for a long time that’s all we expected them to do. They were responsible to their shareholders.”

Ursula Burns in Davos, Switzerland, in 2018. “I worry every day if a policeman is near me,” she said this week.

Ms. Burns herself, despite leading a gilded life as a successful black C.E.O., said that law enforcement still makes her nervous. “I dress like the one percent. I drive like the one percent. I wear watches and jewelry like the one percent,” she said, adding: “I worry every day if a policeman is near me. They look at me as first and foremost a threat to their place in society.”

She added that with police cracking down violently on protesters, “It is the scariest moment I have been in, in my entire life.”

Even after the violence in Charlottesville, which led to an abrupt disbanding of President Trump’s business advisory councils, few companies made lasting policy changes.

Instead, generations of well-intentioned pledges by businesses have resulted in only marginal advancement for the black community. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated grim employment trends, and today fewer than half of black adults in America have a job. Black workers make less money than white workers. That is due in part to the fact that they are more likely to have poorly paying service jobs, but research also shows that highly educated black employees are paid less than their white peers.

“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.”

At many of America’s major employers, black men and women are absent from meaningful leadership roles.

The nation’s largest health care company, CVS, has no black people on its senior leadership team.

In finance, there are no black people on the senior leadership teams of Bank of America, JPMorgan (where managers in Phoenix branches were recorded making racist remarks) or Wells Fargo (which recently faced a federal lawsuit for discriminating against minority home buyers).

In technology, there are zero black members of the senior leadership teams of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

In total, there are just four black chief executives among the 500 largest companies in the country.

Many big companies have added black directors to their boards in recent years. But while board seats can be levers to effect change, they do little to shift the power centers within companies. Exxon, the largest U.S. energy company, has two black board members, including Ms. Burns — but the management committee is composed entirely of white men.

“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.”

With black individuals deeply underrepresented in Silicon Valley and largely absent at the highest levels of major corporations, little of the wealth created in the stock market or the technology boom has gone to black families. Today, typical black households have just one-tenth the wealth of typical white households, according to Federal Reserve data.

Mr. Reffkin called on companies to demand that the teams of outside lawyers, accountants and bankers they use include at least one black member.

Robert Reffkin, the black co-founder and chief executive of the real estate brokerage Compass, said that at one of his first jobs, he asked his employer why they didn’t do more to attract and promote black employees. “They said, ‘We tried so hard, but we didn’t get the return on investment,’” he recalled.

It was a clarifying moment for Mr. Reffkin, who grew determined to start his own company and went on to found Compass, which is valued at $6.4 billion.

“My blood boiled a long time ago,” he said, “when I formed the impression that most companies don’t care.”

When companies are forced to confront racism, the responses are often predictable.

“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.”

While most companies have so far stuck to the script, some have gone further. SoftBank said it would allocate $100 million to invest in minority entrepreneurs, though details were scant. Visa created a $10 million fund for college-bound black students and said it would guarantee jobs to those who meet certain requirements. PWC said it would begin publicly sharing its diversity strategy and results.

Yet many black executives say these efforts, while welcome, will be insufficient to effect lasting change.

Ryan Williams, the black founder and chief executive of Cadre, a commercial real estate investing platform, could not name a company he believed was doing enough to support the black community.

“There is no one that comes to mind that is taking the steps to truly level the playing field,” Mr. Williams said. “That’s an indictment of where we are today.”

Mr. Williams has joined the protests in New York, and said he believed that little more than luck separated him from the men whose faces are now found on murals and placards. “I could have been George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery,” he said.

Mr. Williams is among those black executives agitating for a series of specific changes to the way companies hire and promote. He called on companies to first take the basic step of disclosing diversity figures, so that progress — or backsliding — can be measured.

Mr. Smith, the private equity investor, got his first break when Bell Labs accepted him for an internship. “An internship changed my life,” he said. “Let’s change thousands of lives each year.” He called on companies to quadruple the size of their internship classes and commit to giving many of those spots to African-Americans, and then support them with mentors and sponsors.

“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.”

Few companies are forthcoming about the racial composition of their work forces. Only 40 percent of companies are transparent about the gender and racial makeup of their employees, according to Just Capital, a nonprofit that tracks corporations’ social impact. And just one company, Intel, has disclosed wage data by gender, ethnic and racial breakdowns.

Mellody Hobson, the co-C.E.O. of Ariel Investments. “We don’t get paid the same amount for the same work,” she said. “We’ve been disproportionally affected in layoffs and unemployment.”
Mellody Hobson, the co-C.E.O. of Ariel Investments. “We don’t get paid the same amount for the same work,” she said. “We’ve been disproportionally affected in layoffs and unemployment.”Credit…Guerin Blask for The New York Times

“In business we set targets on everything,” Ms. Hobson said. “Only in the area of diversity have I seen C.E.O.s chronically say, ‘We’re working on it.’”

When pressed on why their companies lack diversity, many managers fall back on the argument that there is a pipeline problem; that there simply aren’t enough talented black men and women to fill the roles.

Mr. Moore dismissed that notion outright, arguing that companies simply aren’t looking hard enough, aren’t recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, and have a monoculture that overlooks black talent.

“It’s not about a lowering of standards,” Mr. Moore said. “Think about how I hear that as a black man.”

Mr. Reffkin called on companies to demand that the teams of outside lawyers, accountants and bankers they use include at least one black member. Compass has made that commitment, he said, and has also developed lists of black contractors for other services, such as photography.

142 COMMENTS

  1. Hey would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m having a hard
    time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs
    and I’m looking for something unique.
    P.S Sorry for being off-topic but I had to ask!

  2. After looking into a few of the blog articles on your site, I
    truly like your technique of blogging. I saved as
    a favorite it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking
    back soon. Take a look at my web site too and tell me your
    opinion.

  3. I blog quite often and I really appreciate your content.
    The article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to book mark your
    site and keep checking for new information about
    once a week. I opted in for your RSS feed as well. adreamoftrains web hosting companies

  4. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you happen to be a great author.
    I will always bookmark your blog and will eventually come
    back later in life. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great job,
    have a nice afternoon!

  5. What i do not realize is in truth how you’re no longer
    actually much more well-appreciated than you might be right now.
    You’re so intelligent. You already know thus significantly in terms of this matter, produced me in my
    view consider it from numerous numerous angles. Its like men and women aren’t fascinated except it’s something to do with Girl
    gaga! Your individual stuffs excellent. At all times take
    care of it up!

  6. Hey would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with?
    I’m going to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a difficult time
    deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something
    unique. P.S My apologies for being off-topic but I
    had to ask!

  7. It’s perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy.
    I have read this publish and if I could I want to counsel you few attention-grabbing issues
    or advice. Maybe you could write subsequent articles regarding this article.
    I wish to read more things approximately it!

  8. I need to to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed
    every little bit of it. I have got you book-marked to check out new stuff you post…

  9. Hi there! I know this is kind of off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site?

    I’m getting tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform.

    I would be fantastic if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

    My homepage – http://Www.Doctorslounge.com

  10. Link exchange is nothing else except it is simply placing the other person’s blog link
    on your page at appropriate place and other person will also
    do same in favor of you.

    my blog Cyrus

  11. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very smartly written article.
    I’ll make sure to bookmark it and come back to learn extra of your useful info.
    Thank you for the post. I will certainly comeback.

    My blog :: Ajff.Co.Kr

  12. My developer is trying to convince me to move to .net
    from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the expenses.
    But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using WordPress on various websites for about a year and am anxious
    about switching to another platform. I have heard good things about blogengine.net.
    Is there a way I can transfer all my wordpress content
    into it? Any kind of help would be greatly appreciated!

    Feel free to surf to my web site – Wwii-archives.org

  13. Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for
    sharing!

    My web page: maxurance.com

  14. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article.

    I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for
    the post. I will definitely return.

    My blog: Jenny

  15. It’s actually a cool and useful piece of info.
    I’m satisfied that you just shared this useful information with us.
    Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks
    for sharing.

    Feel free to surf to my homepage :: Ttlink.com

  16. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I truly enjoyed reading
    it, you are a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog
    and will come back down the road. I want to encourage you continue your
    great work, have a nice evening!

    Here is my web-site :: Darin

  17. Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve be mindful your stuff previous
    to and you’re just extremely magnificent.

    I really like what you’ve obtained right here, really like what
    you’re stating and the way wherein you are saying it. You make it enjoyable and you still care for to keep it smart.
    I can not wait to read far more from you. This is actually a
    wonderful site.

    My web blog; free online casino slots

  18. I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your site. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit more
    often. Did you hire out a developer to create your theme?

    Outstanding work!

    Also visit my blog post :: http://Ttlink.Com

  19. Hi! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which
    blog platform are you using for this website? I’m getting tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues
    with hackers and I’m looking at options
    for another platform. I would be awesome if you could point me in the direction of
    a good platform.

    Also visit my web blog: Annett

  20. We’re a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community.
    Your site provided us with valuable information to work on.
    You’ve done an impressive job and our entire community will be thankful to you.

    Also visit my page: Howard

  21. Hiya! Quick question that’s entirely off topic.
    Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My weblog looks weird when browsing from
    my apple iphone. I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to fix this issue.
    If you have any suggestions, please share. With thanks!

    My blog post – korea online Casino

  22. Hello there I am so thrilled I found your weblog, I really found you by mistake, while I was
    browsing on Aol for something else, Regardless I am here
    now and would just like to say kudos for a marvelous post and
    a all round interesting blog (I also love
    the theme/design), I don’t have time to look over it all at the moment but I have saved it and also
    added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to
    read much more, Please do keep up the fantastic job.

    my blog post: Learneng.top

  23. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my
    end or if it’s the blog. Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here