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Perspective | Magazine

Why words aren’t enough from companies claiming to support Black Lives Matter

The bar for public reckoning has been set low in the United States. But real change is possible if companies examine their own past failures.

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Racist killings at the hands of police are nothing new in the hundreds of years of US history. And yet a visitor from Mars might assume something unusual happened when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May. In recent weeks, as thousands of people have protested the continued police killings of Black Americans, many organizations have made statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Where was this outpouring of concern and commitment to racial justice when 22-year-old Rekia Boyd and 12-year-old Tamir Rice were killed by police, or when Eric Garner couldn’t breathe?

Solidarity statements allow companies to invest in good will without investing in substantive change — a practice also known as diversity washing, or reputational laundering. What organization wants to be accused of being pro-racist or complacently silent?

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The bar for public reckoning has been set low in the United States. Public efforts at recognizing and committing to dismantling systems of oppression and institutional racism remain often trivial at best. In many corporate statements, familiar themes have emerged: calling out racism, standing with “the Black community,” and speaking up as “allies.” Twitter’s savvy slogan is particularly notable: “Racism does not adhere to social distancing.” But that isn’t enough.

If history is any guide, without a road map organizations will fail to act in meaningful and sustainable ways. And yet, based on our research at Harvard University’s Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project, we remain cautiously optimistic that real change is possible.

Companies must first be honest in their solidarity statements about their own past failures. Tech news company The Plug is collecting statements from hundreds of the biggest US tech companies alongside their publicly-available racial diversity data and philanthropic spending on racial justice causes. Cambridge-based software company HubSpot, for example, boasts that it believes in “equality and justice.” Yet only 3.3 percent of the company’s employees are Black, and just 1.3 percent of Black employees are directors. Clearly it has a lot of work to do.

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For all that white individuals must do to become antiracist — changing their beliefs and behaviors, giving up privileges and status — so, too, must organizations. Each company must change the rigged rules. That starts with listening to stakeholders of color, especially Black ones, who work for you or use your goods and services. Believe them when they call out racist policies and practices.

When white leaders lean in to antiracist change, they step down from boards and replace themselves with people of color. They lower the financial barriers of doing business with Black entrepreneurs, including adjusting insurance liability and transaction fees for smaller companies. They lobby congressmen for legislation that targets racist policing practices and housing policies. They embrace the need to pay higher taxes to ensure all schools can teach and educate the best workforce in the world.

Every company should track its overall percentage of Black employees, including those in senior leadership and on boards, as well as the actual expenses funneled toward ending systemic racism. Leaders must reckon with, for instance, why their company may overcharge Black customers for goods, services, and access to credit. Or why their enhanced security surveillance of Black shoppers is no different than racial profiling by the police. They must also recognize that all of us — individuals and organizations alike — are interdependent. The racial oppression in society mirrors and catalyzes racial oppression in the workplace.

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Such accountability standards are not new, either, but like police reforms they haven’t been widely adopted. The Government Alliance on Race and Equity has been working with local governments for several years to help them identify inequities in their policies, and to implement “results-based accountability” as a tangible means of measuring racial equity progress. The nonprofit Interaction Institute for Social Change’s “mapping the territory” tool helps organizations apply a racial equity lens to their culture, governance, and operations. One of the nation’s leading antiracism training nonprofits, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, requires an analysis of institutional power along with developing leadership as key drivers of antiracist change within organizations.

Too often the business model itself is the problem — even at nonprofit organizations. The Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity found that only 8 to 9 percent of grant dollars awarded by nonprofit foundations reach communities of color. And only 8 percent of grant dollars awarded by national foundations went to nonprofits led by people of color, according to The Greenlining Institute, which fights for racial and economic justice.

At most companies, even internal efforts to improve diversity are superficial at best. Diversity officers are typically overburdened and under-resourced, often working alone without real decision-making power to affect the company’s bottom line. And some diversity leaders are punished or pushed out for driving real change. For all the affinity groups, diversity programming, and antibias employee trainings they lead, their function within human resources rarely affects the way companies pursue profits or helps to hire or promote more senior Black leaders.

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The perpetual goal of achieving diversity cannot be a substitute for redistributing organizational power and pursuing racial justice in society. What’s painfully clear about diversity and solidarity statements is that they are a lot easier to write than to follow. After all, most everyone has both.

Pursuing antiracist change isn’t easy or comfortable. Organizations must account for their own exclusionary histories and their ongoing policies and practices in perpetuating systemic racism. They must be held accountable to the public they serve.

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Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and directs the Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project. Erica Licht is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, an antiracism trainer, and a senior researcher at The IARA Project. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.