Can private business lead the way in lifting up the economic fortunes of African Americans, Latinos and other disadvantaged minorities?

The chief executives of major corporations are asserting strongly that they want to do so, both in our region and the rest of the country. They’re responding partly out of moral and ethical concerns amid the current nationwide reckoning with societal racism.

But the executives also say that racially inclusive economic growth is in their self-interest. That’s because businesses increasingly depend on Blacks and Latinos for their workforce and customers as the White share of the population shrinks.

“The business community is seizing this historical moment,” said Sheila Johnson, chief executive of Salamander Hotels & Resorts and co-chair of the new Inclusive Growth Strategy Council of the Greater Washington Partnership, or GWP.

“Our region needs to chart a comprehensive course that prioritizes inclusivity and equity in order to recover and reach our full potential,” she said.

It sounds great. But is it just talk, or will private-sector leaders follow through in ways that make a difference?

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Businesses would have to make fundamental changes in their practices. They would have to recruit and promote more Black and Latino people to managerial and top executive positions. Shift vendor and supplier contracts to minority-owned companies. Locate offices and plants in minority neighborhoods.

It’s especially important that companies work with educational institutions to ensure that more Black and Latino people get digital skills. Otherwise, executives say, they won’t have enough candidates to fill the tech-dominated jobs of the future.

Those are all potential goals of the new GWP inclusive growth council, which has the muscle to foster real improvement. The GWP is a heavyweight group, made up of CEOs of many of the region’s largest companies. The council includes executives of Capital One, Northrop Grumman, Deloitte and Microsoft.

But such changes would risk disrupting companies’ White-dominated workplace culture. Some would cost more money. They would challenge a lamentable reality that business owners have often profited by pigeonholing minorities in lower-paying, less desirable jobs.

Since the racial climate changed 11 months ago with the murder of George Floyd, large corporations have increased their philanthropic donations to racial-justice causes and issued lots of public statements about their resolve to promote change. But a Brookings Institution report in March said there has been less practical progress in key areas such as hiring and procurement.

“Business rhetoric remains ahead of company performance,” Brookings said, citing a study by KKS Advisors. “Companies have yet to make enough demonstrable improvements for their workers, customers, suppliers, the environment and local communities.”

Despite these caveats, we must applaud the companies for committing to racial justice, while taking care to hold them accountable for their promises.

The GWP says it wants to work with elected officials, academics and other community leaders to craft a blueprint so our region can become the nation’s “most diverse and inclusive economy” within 10 years.

“As a region, we don’t have a strategy for inclusive growth,” said GWP Chairman Peter L. Scher, a vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co. “Let’s put a long-term plan in place. What do governments need to do, what do companies need to do. . . . There are parts of our economy that we’re just not reaching.”

The council also plans to develop a “dashboard” of economic indicators to measure how the region is doing on racial inclusion. It would track statistics such as small-business survival and homeownership.

It also wants to provide more support for minority-owned small businesses, such as by sharing back-office services like human resources and tax preparation.

We have a long way to go. According to the Brookings Metro Monitor, the Washington area ranks 51st among the 53 largest U.S. metro regions over the past decade in “racial inclusion,” which measures the gap in economic progress between White people and people of color.

The region fares better by some other statistics, such as Black people’s representation in management and business ownership. But Amy Liu, a Brookings vice president and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program, said Black people still are significantly underrepresented in those fields.

Our area “ranks at the bottom as an economy that works for everyone, and at the bottom as working for people of color, at a time when the region is already majority non-White,” Liu said.

“Having talent come from Black and Latino communities is at the heart of the region’s future,” she said. “There’s a huge opportunity for this region to have a different growth model, in which you can be a high-tech, high-innovation economy that lifts up the talents and assets of Black and Latino communities.”

The GWP says eliminating the gap between White and Black people in the poverty rate in our region would raise 237,000 Black people out of poverty. Doing the same for homeownership would mean 260,000 more Black households get the opportunity to own a home. Closing the racial wealth gap would add $35 billion to $50 billion to the region’s economy by 2028.

Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and chair of Starbucks’s board of directors, has said that the nation is entering the third phase of its effort to achieve full civil rights for Black people and that the challenge “has landed at the feet of corporate America.”

The first two achievements were emancipation in the Civil War and the civil rights laws of the 1960s. She said the challenge now is to eliminate structural racism in the economy.

The nation’s African Americans apparently agree. A survey of 30,000 Black Americans by the Black Futures Lab found their top priority — ahead of ending police abuse — was raising Black workers’ wages enough to support their families.

If anything drives real change, it would be companies’ recognition that racial progress is vital to their bottom line.

“There are a lot of people around the DMV who believe in this from a moral standpoint,” said Jason Wright, president of the Washington Football Team and co-chair with Johnson of the GWP council. “Even if you don’t give a damn about the moral and ethical side, this is almost an economic imperative.”