Corporations Fighting Racism: How Are They Doing This Juneteenth?

 In the summer of 2020, companies and their leaders issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter. They communicated their commitments passionately to fight racism. 

Corporations such as Nike, Adidas, Citigroup, and many others declared Juneteenth a holiday and give their employees the day off. 

Organizations  such as Google and Papa Johns offer implicit bias training.

Some claim the events of 2020 and 2021 altered how corporations think about racism. Yet has anything changed? 

On the eve of Juneteenth 2021, the critical question is whether corporations are actively fighting racism since their initial declarations.

Dee C. Marshall, CEO of Diverse and Engaged, believes the US experienced a "diversity tipping point" beginning, May 2020 when corporations acknowledged that black lives do matter after the murder of George Floyd. Yet skeptics say the statements are all about good public relations for brands and nothing more. They are watching for meaningful behaviors to back up the words. 

Nikki Lanier, Senior Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Louisville Branch, views this time in history as unique. "This is an entirely different normal, she says. "We've never been in a place where so many are calling for this kind of reconciliation." 

She maintains that COVID and the three back-to-back deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police led to a different experience over the past year. 

Yet both Marshall and Lanier expect companies to do more than speak empty words. They are looking for actions that will address the issues.

We Should Not Judge After Only One Year 

Asked whether they believe companies are doing enough, both Marshall and Lanier argue we cannot yet judge. Corporations have existed within a race-based society for 100 years. Therefore, we should not gauge their sincerity based on a few months.

Marshall says companies became who they are over their entire 40, 50, or up to 100-year history. Indeed, they will need more than a year to shift their whole system and culture. 

Likewise, Lanier claims we need more time before assessing whether the corporate responses offered last year are more than perfunctory and obligatory. She hopes the words are rooted in a longer-term commitment to understand and unpack "the venomous sting of racism and the many ways that it has manifested."

Condemnation is Not Enough 

Most observers agree the level of condemnation of racists acts over the past year is unprecedented. 

However, Lanier states while widespread denunciation of racism is a step in the right direction, it isn't enough. Condemnation pales in comparison to the work that must follow. 

Corporations need to support their public reckonings with a long-term plan for repair. And unconscious bias training, while laudable, should not stand alone. 

Marshall notes many companies are struggling to figure out what comes next. She says even companies with good intentions have stumbled. The deeply committed leaders acknowledge their missteps and move on. 

However, more than a few companies seem oblivious to the need for greater engagement with the issues. 

Perhaps leaders' blind spots stand in the way of meaningful action. Marshall claims they don't get it, and they don't think they need to get it because they aren't experiencing pain yet. 

In today's world, everyone is watching, and all can comment on what they see via social media. The consequences will come eventually. 

Some Companies Take Bold Steps 

While some organizations have not followed up on their public statements, others are acting. 

For example, Lanier describes the racial equity assessment undertaken by the St. Louis Fed. The organization carried out this assessment over several months. Now they are working through the recommendations. "What I am most excited about is how bold we are with this work." 

She believes companies should focus on Black lives first because they are the most marginalized group. 

Likewise, Marshall mentions several companies acting aggressively to address racism. For example, Goldman Sachs is investing $10 billion in Black women over ten years. And they are working with leading organizations representing Black women. 

Sephora conducted a study of racial bias in retail. They committed to increasing their spending with Black-owned companies by 15%. And they launched a mentoring program to support Black-owned brands. 

These two companies are among many actively addressing racism.

As we celebrate the new Federal holiday, Juneteenth, no one can say with certainty whether corporate commitments will lead to lasting change. Yet this time in our history feels different. An unprecedented number of companies spoke out, and many are stepping up. 

Will the momentum last? And will corporate actions move the needle on racism? In time we will be able to answer these critical questions.



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