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- On this week’s episode of our podcast “Brought to you by…” we look at how, starting in 1969, Black activists in Cleveland challenged McDonald’s over its role in their community.
- The question of what US corporations can do to help end economic and racial injustice has again come into focus after weeks of protests and marches after the killing of George Floyd.
- Insider Audio host Charlie Herman sat down with Linette Lopez, a columnist who writes about US politics and economics, and Marguerite Ward, a senior reporter who covers diversity and inclusion, to discuss how this moment differs from past reckonings with racial injustice, and what concrete steps corporations, employees, and consumers can take to help bring about meaningful and lasting change.
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The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Charlie Herman: How do you compare the response from companies this time compared to other times, say, after the death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, or even going all the way back to the protests that came after the Rodney King verdict?
Linette Lopez: I mean, the fact that there is a response is notable. The fact that companies feel like they need to make a statement, that they need to show that their values are with the protesters, shows you who is winning this argument on a grander social scale. The fact that the NFL apologized-ish to Colin Kaepernick, even though it kind of looked like Roger Goodell was reading from a note card, and maybe one of his kids had been kidnapped or he was under duress in some strange spy movie or something. But at least he said what he said.
Herman: But is it actually making a change? Are some of these empty promises, if at the same time the NFL is saying, “Hey, we stand with Black Lives Matter,” but we’ve also been penalizing Colin Kaepernick for years?
Lopez: Absolutely. Well, now you can call them hypocrites. The argument has changed. You’re asking an institution to live up to its own values now, and that is a different conversation than trying to change the values of an institution. And there’s more accountability there.
Herman: But what do you think has changed? Like, if you look at the evolution and the progression to get to this point, in the example of the NFL, what’s different?
Lopez: White people. White people recognize that there is a problem and that racism impacts their communities as well, that it makes this country less democratic, and that it is a violation of people’s human rights. That’s the real difference here, is that white people have woken up.
Herman: Marguerite, for some time now companies have been saying that they’re committed to doing more for diversity and inclusion about hiring, promotions, other programs. How would you say they’re actually doing?
Marguerite Ward: They’re not doing enough. I’ve talked to a number of race and racism experts, and they said that for years companies have tiptoed around anti-Black racism. They have said, “Oh, we’re hiring more diverse candidates,” but what does a “diverse candidate” even mean?
One thing that’s really coming to light right now is they’re not only talking about diversity and inclusion but they’re talking about specifically racism against Black people and what’s holding them back in the workforce. There’s more research being done by corporate leaders. And there’s more investments in programs to bring Black people to the table.
Herman: But for years now, we’ve seen programs and billions of dollars spent on diversity-and-inclusion programs. And if we’re not seeing results, what’s going to change this time? How will it be different?
Ward: What’s different now is you have a level of outrage, specifically fueled by technology. You know, we can see racism now. More people who were living in bubbles of privilege are opening their eyes and saying, “My god — it’s 2020, and this stuff is still happening on a consistent level.” People are demanding — employees are demanding — change. And so it’s not enough to talk about these programs or institute them; they want to see KPIs, they want to see, you know, where is this money going and how effective is it in increasing diversity initiatives?
Herman: Marguerite, you mentioned the word KPI — key performance indicators — and usually it’s about things like total sales or subscriptions or, you know, some sort of measurable thing. What is it that companies could do when it comes to issues of diversity to make sure that there is advancements for brown and Black employees?
Ward: So the people I’ve talked to on this are saying it’s time to tie diversity and inclusion to managers’ bonuses, to who gets promoted. And how do you do that? You start by looking at your teams to begin with: Are mid-level managers and senior level managers, are they only overseeing majority white colleagues, majority cisgender colleagues? If so, that needs to change.
So what are you doing differently in your hiring practices? Are you at least, at the very least, abiding by the “Rooney Rule,” which, you know, says that you should interview candidates from all backgrounds, specifically Black candidates and candidates who have been excluded from the table. Who is getting promoted — and why? And in turn, doing surveys with employees, how included do employees from different racial backgrounds feel? And if they’re not feeling included, that could very well tie to your compensation.
Herman: Linette, when you hear what Marguerite is talking about, some of the possible changes happening at companies, the fact that they’re coming out with statements, I mean, that’s not nothing considering that they normally don’t get involved in social issues.
Lopez: I think this is a very different kind of examination of what we need to do about racism. Before, and certainly throughout my entire lifetime — I’m 34 — the idea is that we should all try not to be racist, right? And calling someone a racist is very insulting, and people get up in arms about it, and that was kind of the way we dealt with racism as a society, as an individual issue. Now we look at racism as an institutional problem, right? We admit that institutional racism is real, and to change institutions you have to take concrete actions, right?
And you make rules and you install different people at the top. It’s a very action-oriented anti-racist movement. Not one that kind of says, “OK, you need to examine yourself, and maybe make some Black friends.” This is an anti-racist movement that requires people to do something about the institutions.
I personally have no patience for convincing someone’s uncle at Thanksgiving that they don’t need to be a racist. I don’t have time for that in my life, but I do have time for making sure that schools are integrated. I do have time for making sure that judges are promoted who see equal rights as an important thing. I am interested and making sure that companies are transparent about diversity.
Herman: Yeah, but does that work? For some time now Silicon Valley companies have been coming out with their diversity numbers and they have not changed much at all, they’re still pretty dismal — not to pick one particular industry, but there’s a lot that are like that, that have for years now said, you know, “Here are our numbers and we want to do more.” But they aren’t. So how do you make sure that in this moment, it just doesn’t pass, and that it actually is sustained.
Lopez: But we weren’t demanding more than that either. I think it’s up to the employees to demand more. It’s up to customers to demand more, to vote with their feet, to vote with their wallet. But that first step is transparency. And then the next step is, what do we demand once we know what’s going on?
Herman: So Marguerite, a CEO of a company comes up to you and says, “Well, how do I make sure that I keep this commitment going?” What do you tell him or her?
Ward: So I actually just asked that question from a number of Black and brown HR consultants and leadership consultants. I said, “What are some actionable steps?” And the first was exactly what Linette said: Start being transparent. If you have a problem, recognize it. You can’t push it under the rug anymore. And that means doing a survey of how many Black and brown employees you have. So the first step is transparency.
And the second step is really addressing your recruitment. If you’re only hiring from Ivy leagues, you’re probably hiring a certain type of person. What about HBCUs, historically Black colleges and universities? Are you recruiting just from your social networks? If so, that’s problematic because a lot of us run in homogenous circles. So get transparent, check your recruitment, and then check what you’re doing to make sure that Black and brown employees are not only in your office but are succeeding.
Do they feel included? Are they being microaggressed? Which is subtle forms of racism or indirect forms of racism. If so, you need more than just a one-off unconscious-bias training. You need to integrate that into all employee handbooks, into all training, and you need to make sure you pay particular attention to Black and brown employees’ careers, make sure they’re excelling.
Herman: So that’s from the leadership point of view. Now, if you’re an employee, what can you do to try and make sure that this movement doesn’t lose steam?
Ward: So you can absolutely put pressure on your leaders and HR teams. I’m sure that most people listening know that they have company-wide meetings where their leaders speak and you can ask questions. Stand up and ask questions and demand answers.
As an employee, if you’re in an employee resource group — such as Black and brown employees, or women employees, or differently abled employees — propose a letter and send it to management, making sure that leadership is really advocating for change. Employees will listen if the CEO is saying, “Listen, we have a problem and we need to address it.” If it’s only coming from HR or a diversity-and-inclusion leader, people might not be as willing to listen.
Herman: Linette, what is it that consumers can do to make sure that the companies are actually making changes?
Lopez: You’ve got to stay informed and make sure that if you have a commitment to anti-racism, that the products you buy and the companies behind them also stand for that too. I think one way to keep this momentum going, and like I said, at an institutional level, is to enshrine anti-racist practices.
To make sure that you have rules for hiring and firing that consider racism. That make sure that you have an environment where people feel comfortable talking about racism or reporting racist things when they see them. That is how you continue anti-racism is you institutionalize it so that it becomes a normal practice.
Herman: How much do you think, when you see companies coming out and making these statements in support of Black Lives Matter, that the companies are really going to follow through? How much can we trust this moment?
Lopez: I don’t — I don’t trust companies at all.
Herman: So what does it take? What would it take for you to begin trusting them that they’re actually going to make these changes?
Lopez: I’ve got to see it. I’ve got to see it. And until we see it I don’t think anybody should rest easy.
Ward: I think that’s where the work of journalists particularly comes into play, where if we don’t lose this moment, if we continue to embrace anti-racism, that’s when we’re going to continue to talk to sources who say, “Listen, there’s a big problem at company X” or “Listen, you know, at company Y they’re not doing what they were saying.”
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So that’s where we can continue to apply pressure. Linette said it really well when she talked about your money should align with your values. And if you’re someone who truly is committed to being anti-racist, then you buy products from companies that you know are truly anti-racist. And that’s all about staying informed.
Herman: Marguerite and Linette, thank you so much.
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