Corporate America Agrees Black Lives Matter. What Comes Next?

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Major companies have drafted policy and value statements, made pledges and taken other actions in the name of countering racism. What does it amount to?

In a DealBook Debrief Live at Home conversation earlier this month, the columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin talked about some of those measures with Nikole Hannah-Jones, a domestic correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and the lead creator of The 1619 Project, which examines the consequences of slavery. These are edited excerpts.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody, are the things that you’re seeing businesses do meaningful?

It depends on the business. It’s easy to say Black Lives Matter. It’s easy to put statements out, and I do think symbolism is important. But we also know that if this moment is really going to be transformative, symbols are not going to be enough.

I think about a place like Sephora. Its leaders committed to really setting targets to diversify their supplier chain to promote and help more Black businesses and Black entrepreneurs to get shelf space, and also committed to looking at their own corporate structure. Who is being hired? Whom do they have in higher levels of management? I think those things are more substantial.

But I don’t think that we are going far enough. I think corporate America has a much, much larger role to play in a capitalistic country, in the pressures that it can be applying.

What are the things that you think a Fortune 500 company can do, not just on a moral basis, but on an economic one as well?

Let me just start by saying that this is a moral issue, right? The racial injustice, and particularly economic injustice, that Black Americans face singularly is a moral issue. But I also understand that we are talking about corporations and that the bottom line is often the most important thing, so you do have to make an economic argument.

Corporations should be looking at the people they’re hiring, the people they’re promoting, if they are using their power to help Black businesses to get a foothold in the economy. All of those things are very important.

But what’s much more important to me is: How are corporations using the power that they have in Congress? The power that they have to force the mayors of cities to do things to make the cities more equitable?

What would it mean if major corporations decided that they were going to join the fight for school integration? It’s actually a good recruitment strategy that you don’t have to have your executives forking over $30,000, $40,000 a year for private school because you’re fighting for quality public schools.

So I’m thinking much, much bigger than, you know, “Can we raise our Black staff from 6 percent to 10 percent?” That’s very minimal, if we’re talking about a moment of reckoning. There are much, much bigger societal issues that corporations often drive and that corporations certainly could be pushing at a bigger level.

Let’s talk about one of those, perhaps the biggest, which is reparations. What role you think that businesses can or should play in that dialogue and debate?

What racism was designed to do was actually justify the economic exploitation of Black Americans, first through slavery, then through our system of legal segregation. Because of that, Black Americans have 1/10th to 1/100th of the wealth of white Americans.

What the polling shows is the vast majority of white Americans are opposed even to the idea of reparations, and in order to get Congress to take this issue seriously, you have to be able to move the needle on how Americans are thinking about it. We know that corporate lobbying can be very effective in that way.

House bill H.R. 40, which was a reparations study bill, it’s now a bill about how actually one would implement reparations, has been introduced in Congress every year for 30 years. It’s never made it out of committee. Now could be the moment when corporations decide this is the issue that they want to take on and promote, and also be willing then to have their own practices and their own roles in maintaining racial inequalities scrutinized.

Recently Netflix devised a plan to deposit up to 2 percent of its cash holdings, about $100 million, into Black-focused financial institutions with the idea that that money will therefore get lent out to African-American entrepreneurs and others who wouldn’t necessarily have access to that capital.

What did you make of that?

We know that Black communities suffer from being under-banked. We saw this with the paycheck protection loans, that Black people, Black business owners, couldn’t even gain access to them, because they don’t have access to traditional banking.

So that, to me, felt like a very real thing that companies could do. And I am hopeful that other corporations that are serious about this moment are actually serious about investing real capital in novel ideas like it.