Is your business model anti-racist?

No more passing the buck.
No more passing the buck.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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Recent polls suggest that, in just over a month, somewhere between 15 million and 26 million people in the United States have participated in protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people. Demonstrations have taken place in rural areas, small towns, and big cities. They have been incredibly diverse. And now, there is evidence that Black Lives Matter is the biggest movement in US history. Two-thirds of American adults say they support Black Lives Matter, with 38% saying they strongly support it. It is no wonder, then, that many companies felt compelled to respond.

Quickly, our inboxes and social media feeds filled with statements from CEOs, brands, and celebrities making new and renewed pledges to fight racism and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Pressure for companies and organizations to do better came from the inside as well as the outside, with many corporations and nonprofits receiving backlash over perceived hypocrisy. In the media industry, for example, public disclosures by workers about racism led to prominent firings and resignations.

A lot of the disclosures, in the media sector and beyond, were related to hiring and promotion practices, and racist company culture. And, across sectors, many action commitments—both in response to the protests and to criticism from workers and the public—seemed to focus in this realm as well.

Apple publicly pledged to create an entrepreneurship camp for black software developers—addressing the talent pipeline—and to increase its procurement contracts with Black-owned suppliers.  And PepsiCo said it would increase its number of Black managers by 30% by 2025.

From my own work leading diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at a collaborative of foundations and financial institutions working to close racial income and wealth gaps in US cities, I was not surprised to see companies responding to protests against racist state violence and complaints of institutional racism by rallying around diversity, and specifically representation.

Representation is a comfortable starting point for companies setting out to address racism. As a goal, it offers easy measures of progress. It is less complex than, say, inclusion, which requires understanding and addressing employee satisfaction and internal power dynamics. And it is certainly easier than addressing the specific demands of the protesters, such as defunding police, which would require companies to reckon with their relationships with policing and carceral systems, and with their complicity in creating and perpetuating conditions that contribute to police violence against Black people, including economic inequality.

But is diversity, as a corporate goal, commensurate with the scale of the problem? Does it fulfill the responsibility that many would argue companies must take to repair past harms to Black communities and other communities of color—harms like mortgage and small-business discrimination, predatory lending, and the creation and dissemination of racist narratives? To that, I would answer with an emphatic No. 

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Getting beyond the performative statements

To be sure, diversity is an important priority. But representation is insufficient, particularly if efforts are not made to transform culture and decision-making processes. To address institutional and systemic racism, companies must look beyond their hiring, and even beyond what happens in their own workplace. What about the programs, products, and services they put into the world?

Some companies made gestures toward answering this question in their statements following George Floyd’s death. FitBit, for example, committed to “driving research projects that address health conditions that disproportionately affect Black people specifically, including COVID-19.” IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon all pledged to stop either investing in or  sharing facial recognition software with police, though in the case of Amazon, the commitment is only for one year. And Bank of America announced it would spend $1 billion over four years to address racial and economic inequality.

However, just as internal diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts must be broad and all-encompassing, so too must efforts to address bias and racism in a company’s external work.

Many of the banks that are pledging solidarity with the Black community and promising grant funds to civil rights and racial justice organizations have long histories of discrimination in lending. Indeed, as the economic recovery from Covid-19 is being shaped, Black small-business owners in the US are being blocked from federal aid programs because of limits set by banks. And while Silicon Valley companies add the #blacklivesmatter hashtag to their official bios, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit are being accused of spreading hate speech and misinformation that puts the lives of people of color at risk, while Amazon has been under fire over worker safety during the pandemic.

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Four questions for would-be anti-racists to reflect on

If companies want to make real the words they have put on paper—and not be seen as hypocrites by the large percentage of the US population supporting the Black Lives Matter movement—they will have to do far more than launch one new program, change one sub-brand’s name, or make a few adjustments to their customer-service protocols. They will have to go further than token initiatives.

While much has been written about how to increase diversity, less has been said about what a comprehensive strategy for changing programs, products, and services might look like. Of course, internal processes and external work are connected. A company is unlikely to meaningfully change on the outside if it does not make sincere moves to change from within. If a company does not listen to or care for its Black employees, why would anyone believe that it would listen to or care for its Black customers?

Companies that are sincere about wanting to be anti-racist, and are ready to take a comprehensive look at their external work, might ask themselves the following questions that I have found enormously helpful, both in my work at Living Cities (a collaborative of foundations working to close racial gaps) and in consulting and advisement work I have done with nonprofits, local governments, and private-sector companies:

  1. How have our programs, products, and services left out or harmed communities of color in the past?
  2. Reflecting on that past, what potential adverse impacts or unintended consequences on communities of color could result from our current, and future programs, products, or services—and how might we work to address them?
  3. Have stakeholders from communities of color been meaningfully involved and authentically represented in the development of our programs, products, and services?
  4. How might we work to ensure that communities of color benefit from our programs, products, and services, and how might we maximize those benefits?

These questions are by no means exhaustive, but they can serve as a starting place—as a way into necessary conversations about changing how companies do business, beyond token initiatives. The questions are most effective as part of a company-wide effort to reckon with the past, examine the present, and plan for the future; they should be embraced by leadership as part of decision-making processes, and asked in an ongoing way as new programs, products, and services are designed and launched.

The recent protests have been received by many companies as a call to action. But pressure is rightly mounting to do more. Companies should expect workers and customers to demand accountability for commitments made, and to push for new commitments that go beyond internal practices to question the way they do business.