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Change the World—for Whom? Why Addressing Racism Must be a Top Corporate Priority

2020 has tested many corporations’ aspirations to be a force for social good. As we recognize this year’s Change the World list, we’re inspired by the many companies rising to the biggest challenges of our time, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and climate change.

This year’s list also features a critical and needed theme: corporations’ focus on racial equity. 

As the harm caused by climate change, the pandemic, economic inequality, state sponsored violence, and other crises continually, predictably, and more visibly accrues unequally across society, we need to ask, “Change the world—for whom?” Companies at the forefront of the quest to change the world must recognize that people of color often carry the heaviest burden from the crises of our time, and that fully addressing those crises requires companies to focus on racial equity.

Over the course of 2019, following BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink’s 2019 Profit & Purpose Letter to CEOs and the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, many CEOs voiced a commitment to purpose. These commitments have been put to the test by 2020 as COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the movement for racial justice sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Daniel Prude, and others magnified and brought to the forefront of public consciousness the deep racial inequities in society.

In response, CEOs, particularly in the U.S., have built on their initial purpose statements to release ambitious calls for racial justice, but most corporations are still grappling with how to move from using their voice to action.

It can be easy to think of racism as a U.S. problem, but don’t be fooled. While there is a specific context and way in which racism shows up in the United States, racism is a global problem with global roots. Today, we see forms of anti-Black racism throughout the world manifesting as color blindness, xenophobia, or brutal violence—be it in South Africa, Europe, Australia, or India. Further, racism, sexism, patriarchy, and colorism have their roots in centuries of colonialism and slave trade.

Through this global phenomenon people of (darker) color have been systematically marginalized. People in these communities around the world are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, suffer the impacts of climate change, experience hunger, die in childbirth, earn less, have unequal access to education, and be physically and economically impacted by COVID-19.

Centuries of subjugation of Black, Brown, and indigenous populations, and hierarchies that were justified by invented notions of race have created structures and institutions that, today, systematically create outcomes that are worse for communities of color. For example, per capita greenhouse gas emissions have historically been highest in countries that profited from slavery and colonialism. Climate change has roots in economic models, dating centuries back to colonial conquest, that prioritize near term exploitation of resources and labor at the expense of long-term social and environmental sustainability. Perversely, lower income countries in the “global south” are now also expected to bear the brunt of the physical and economic effects of climate change.

Moreover, racism intersects and reinforces a broader set of “isms” by people who experience structural and interpersonal discrimination—including along lines of gender, religion, sexuality, class, and region. Each type of discrimination merits undoing in its own right, and addressing racism will give companies ways of approaching these issues that will serve them in working against other forms of systemic injustice.

Change cannot happen until leaders commit to support Black lives and racial justice. Here are four actions to get started:

Don’t be neutral

Given how steeped inequities are in our global policies and institutions, staying neutral only means perpetuating a society that works for some, not all. Historian and author Ibram X. Kendi argues that there are not “not racist” ideas, policies or people, only racist and anti-racist ones. Being anti-racist means explicitly acknowledging the entrenchment of racism in culture, policy, organizations, industries and communities, and recognizing that specific communities of color, particularly Black communities, are disproportionately worse off as a result.

Be vulnerable 

Today’s CEOs did not initiate the historic marginalization of specific communities. Yet, they inherited its traditions and results, and examination will often reveal that companies and industries—intentionally and unintentionally; through both action and inaction—have contributed to racial inequities in the past and present. Proactively learning (from others) and publicly acknowledging how your company’s history has perpetuated racism, colorism, or colonialism is an essential starting point of this journey. This will feel uncomfortable but is critical to repairing relationships with communities and understanding how to move forward.

Invest in cross-business action 

For decades, any conversation of race in the corporate sector boiled down to HR and diversity metrics. While crucial, diversity alone is not sufficient. Companies have the opportunity to more authentically reinvent themselves as antiracist organizations by working holistically across the enterprise. The recently released CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity describes how companies can take action across three domains:

Inside the company:  Embed racial equity into the core business strategy and operations by proactively designing products and services that reach markets of color and don’t cause unintended negative consequences; implementing equitable practices in procurement and supply chain; and designing HR practices related to recruitment, wages, benefits, and advancement that take into account the disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Within the community: Business leaders can use local philanthropy, voice, and business decisions to improve outcomes for communities of color and to address structural racism in cities and neighborhoods.

At the societal level: Ask to what extent advocacy efforts perpetuate or correct inequities; are the company’s financial investments diverse; and do communications reinforce or dismantle stereotypes related to race, gender, color, etc.

Hold yourself accountable 

JUST Capital’s recent poll indicated that 61% of Americans believe that company’ commitments to advance racial equity ring hollow without any measures to hold themselves accountable. It is essential to create both internal and public-facing systems to keep yourself honest about how you address racism and advancing racial equity at all levels of your operation.

The companies on this year’s list are a testament to how businesses are taking action on some of the world’s most pressing issues, including addressing racism. But this is just the start. For companies that want to change the world—and to meaningfully do so—now more than ever they must focus on intentionally understanding and focusing on the role of racism in the crises that corporations seek to address.

 

View the 2020 Change the World List

Nikhil Bumb

Director

Chris Carlson

Director

Lakshmi Iyer

Director