Have We Failed Black America? Its Now A Time For Corporate Citizenship.

For the last week, I’ve been overwhelmed with feelings about what’s going on. I grew up in a diverse community, went to a mostly-black high school, and live in a highly diverse city. I’ve felt anger, frustration, hopelessness, and sadness all at once.

And then today the New York Times wrote what I have been thinking: Corporate America Has Failed Black America.

As a white man, I don’t feel qualified to understand what it’s like to be black. But I know from my experience that it’s much harder than we think. And I believe, despite all the best of intentions by HR leaders and our peers, that we are not yet doing enough. 

At the center of the debate, we watched a man brutally killed by the police, awakening us to the ongoing issues of racial justice, the role of the police, and income inequality. And people woke up: we saw protests in every major city around the world. 

Many black leaders talk about all the progress we’ve made, and Barack Obama tried to inspire us about the long arc of justice. And to a degree they are right: we have seen highly diverse demonstrations in all fifty states and most countries around the world.

Yet while this civil disobedience occurred, the Federal Government tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed demonstrators in Lafayette Square. And we heard the president and Secretary of Defense say they would “dominate the battlefield,” referring to our cities (when the overwhelming emotion we see is sadness). 

Is it any surprise a WSJ poll today found that 80% of Americans believe the country is “spiraling out of control?”

UPDATE: We are now convening a working group to talk about Black Injustice and Diversity in Business:  If you are interested please email us directly. Meetings are ongoing right now.

What Are We Learning?

Let me give you my perspective.

Black citizens in this country deal with a tremendous burden. The average income of black Americans is half that of Asians and two-thirds that of whites, they are much more likely to go to jail, and they walk down the street as suspects in many communities. In the business world, they struggle to appear normal when they know their identity is always questioned.

I don’t believe we (as white people) can fully understand what it’s like, but the statistics are clear and irrefutable. The problem of racial justice has not been solved in the United States, and we have to deal with it in our companies.

When I joined IBM in 1981, my first manager was black and he was a wonderful leader. At that time, perhaps driven by affirmative action, the company was very diverse (at all levels). There were rules to make things fair. Today, as these laws are gone, people are left to their own judgment.

This week I was on a webcast with four senior recruitment leaders and most of the discussion was about how hard it is to hire “diverse tech talent.” Despite the books, programs, tools, and speeches on the topic, black Americans are still highly underrepresented in these jobs. And I know that companies work hard to fix this problem, but what leaders always say is that this is a “supply problem” – there aren’t enough African American candidates to hire.

Which gets me to the underlying issue we face. Black Americans face challenges in education, housing, and fundamental economic security. And this creates a form of stress, anger, and trauma. When injustices like Minneapolis take place, people strike out – and sometimes it turns into violence.

And the pandemic may be making it worse. Just last week, as jobs start to return, the unemployment rate for black Americans won’t budge. 

What Can Business Leaders Do?

We have to think about ourselves as more than employers – we are all global citizens. And as leaders in our institutions, we must think about fairness, justice, and trust as well as profit.

As employers, we focus on diversity, inclusion, pay equity, and minority representation. But as citizens, we have to think about justice, society, values – what is right, good, and fair.

Take a look at this cartoon, and think about where your company fits. Are you focused on equality or fairness (where the tree still has more apples on the left)? Or are you really focused on justice, where we have equality of opportunity throughout life? 

Can you ignore these problems? Today I suggest we have no choice: employees are speaking up. Adidas, for example, just had a huge backlash from employees when the company didn’t take the problem seriously. And if you feel uncomfortable talking about this issue, I encourage you to read “How White People Can Be Allies To Black Colleagues.” You’ll see that this is largely a problem of empathy, not reverse discrimination.

A recent open CEO town hall at LinkedIn uncovered the frustration, anger, and disappointment employees feel when their employers don’t pay attention. Business leaders can no longer just talk about “leaning in” or pushing the diversity agenda. We have to think about racial and economic justice as well.

Defining Citizenship In Business

How do we define Citizenship? It means going beyond the goal of making money: we play a role in society as well.

The actions we take, the way we allocate money, and the way we engage and treat people are all part of this citizenship mission.

Think about this picture, something I spoke about last year. Companies traverse this arrow over time, and some go further than others.


Everything we do as companies: how we hire and pay people, how we treat the environment, and how we create places to listen and talk – are part of our roles as citizens. In the stress of today’s economy, we have to raise ourselves above the goal of profit and growth and remember that we, too, can help change society – if we take these problems as our own.

I don’t have all the answers, but I think we know what questions we have to ask.

  • Are you paying people in a fair and just way?
  • Are you regularly reviewing pay equity by gender, race, age?
  • Are you actively recruiting and developing people in a diverse way?
  • Are you aggressively promoting minorities into leadership?
  • Are you monitoring and carefully coaching people on inclusion at work?
  • Are you providing internships and other opportunities for black and other minorities to enter your industry?
  • Are you giving employees the time and freedom to speak up, express their political opinions, and take time to protest if needed?

We are planning a major event on June 29 which we call The Big Reset Global Town Hall. It is the culmination of hard work by more than 150 companies helping to develop plans for the future.

Citizenship will be part of the agenda.

Stay tuned to hear more, and we’ll try to help you make sense of what’s going on.

(PS if you want to think more about trust and citizenship, listen to my podcast this week.)