Executives across industries sent companywide emails to employees and released public statements expressing outrage about Floyd’s death, police brutality in black communities and other acts of anti-blackness in America. I have never seen so many corporate communications about systemic racism. Some CEOs have even boldly declared that Black Lives Matter in statements and media interviews. And then there was #BlackOutTuesday, the day several companies posted just one thing to their social media accounts: a black square.
The goal, of course, is for customers and others outside those companies to find all these gestures compelling and believable. But many black employees find them confusing, at times even laughable, because such pronouncements and headline-garnering investments are so terribly inconsistent with their firsthand experiences in workplaces that have long devalued their lives and professional contributions.
Last week, the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center hosted a national forum on demonstrating care for black employees; more than 3,300 people from across the country and a multitude of industries joined us virtually. We organized this forum in less than 24 hours because our center was inundated with outreach from executives, almost all of whom were white, desperately seeking our advice on how best to support their black employees during the uprisings. Black professionals also were contacting us asking if we could offer some guidance to their managers and leaders on ways to reconcile the anti-blackness that people are protesting in the streets with the anti-blackness that routinely occurs at their workplaces.
For more than a decade, my colleagues at the center and I have conducted research on racial climate in companies and other organizations. Consistently, black workers share stories with us about white colleagues touching their hair without their permission; asking them if it is okay to use the n-word in their presence; confusing them for other black employees with whom they have no resemblance; disregarding them in meetings; discarding their contributions to team projects; refusing to hire more black people; and retaliating against them when they attempt to call attention to workplace racism. Almost unanimously, they tell our research teams about having to work twice as hard to get only half as far as their white counterparts in climbing career ladders. Despite sometimes being more qualified and accomplished, black employees say white executives overlook them for promotions and make more significant personal investments into the career ascension of white workers, especially men.
Black participants in our studies also tell us that racial stratification in their workplaces sends a clear, painful message about who matters and who doesn’t. Federal statistics show that black employees in every industry tend to be concentrated in the lowest paying, least powerful positions. Eighty-nine percent of CEOs and 79 percent of executives, leaders and managers in the U.S. workforce are white. All of this strongly conveys to black professionals that their lives do not matter at work — hence their doubtful reactions to company statements about George Floyd. In reflecting on her skepticism about the sustainability of the current moment, one black female panelist during our forum who leads diversity and inclusion for a tech company invited white professionals in corporate America to prove her wrong.
In a CNN interview, Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky acknowledged Silicon Valley’s chronic problem with racial diversity, most especially in board member and executive-level positions. Tech is not the only industry with this problem — it also plagues banking, the legal profession, journalism and health-care management, to name a few. This was fairly well-known before our current moment of racial unrest. For years, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative here at USC has published reports about Hollywood’s terrible record on black underrepresentation on screens, behind cameras and in entertainment studios. Chesky told CNN that he and too many other executives are “now realizing we could have done so much more. … There’s not been enough action. I think the time for boldness is now, and we’ve got to take significantly more action.”
But why was there so little action before now?
If leaders want to seriously convey that black lives do indeed matter at their companies, there’s a lot they can do. They could take strategic steps to recruit more black professionals, ensure black employees have equitable opportunities for advancement and promotion, routinely assess the workplace racial climate and take meaningful actions to improve it, mandate companywide professional learning experiences on a range of diversity and inclusion topics, invest considerably more financial resources into black employee network groups, ask black people for feedback and input on how to make the workplace less racist — and hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for acts of anti-blackness. Anything short of this will weaken the credibility of the values they’re now so loftily proclaiming.