Corporate America Has a Role in Fighting Racial Injustice

Corporate leaders have been pledging support for civil rights initiatives and re-examining their records on racial inequality, but critics contend that well-intentioned promises have had little effect. On this DealBook Debrief call, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Times Magazine and creator of the 1619 Project, said that “corporate America has a much, much larger role to play.”

Although hiring and promotion practices are important, “I’m thinking much, much bigger than, ‘Can we raise our Black staff from 6 percent to 10 percent?’ ” Nikole said, adding, “That’s very minimal if we’re talking about a moment of reckoning.” Companies can use their political heft to address “much bigger societal issues” like education, she noted. A push for integrating and improving public schools would have broad community benefits, including when it comes to hiring. “A lot of times you look at what companies are saying, and then you look at what candidates and issues they’re supporting, and there’s a deep incongruence there, if not hypocrisy,” she said.

When recruiting, companies tend to stick too rigidly to requirements on education and experience that ignore structural inequalities, Nikole said. “We need the person who is Black, but also has the exact same résumé and criteria as the white person, despite the fact that we know there’s a great deal of structural inequality,” she said, describing a common thought process among corporate recruiters. “The typical Black child attends a high-poverty, underresourced school,” she noted, and “they’re not going to have the same internships, they’re not going to have the same letters of reference. But that kid has worked really hard, and that kid is going to come into your institution with certain skills and knowledge and fight.”

Is there a risk for companies to not take action during the national uproar about racial inequality? The “cynical way of thinking about it,” Nikole said, is that “our country’s attention to racial injustice is very fleeting.” Public pressure on companies will determine whether they act or not. “In the end, I don’t think not doing anything has ever been that risky,” she said, “except for these kind of key moments — the end of the civil rights movement for one, and perhaps now — but that’s likely going to depend on us.”