Systemic Racism in Corporate America

by Janis Arrojado, G&A Institute Analyst-Intern
Note: This is the third post in the blog series by Janis:

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic murder in May 2020, corporate America took action to fight racism. Collectively, by August 2021, America’s 50 largest public companies and their foundations committed at least $49.5 billion to causes and initiatives that advance racial equity. However, 90% of that amount is apportioned as loans or investments that these companies can earn profits from. A total of $4.2 billion pledged is in the form of grants, which represents less than 1% of the profits earned by those companies in the most recent year. Although it is good to see that corporate America is taking strides to address racism, these numbers show how companies run the risk of performative activism, and raises questions of whether companies are making efforts internally in their workplaces to address issues of racism and inequity.

Systemic Racism

Issues of racial inequity are not new to the workplace. Corporate America operates under systemic racism, which is defined as referring to: “the complex interactions of large scale societal systems, practices, ideologies, and programs that produce and perpetuate inequities for racial minorities.” The most important component of systemic racism is that it operates on a large scale independent of individuals, meaning inequality can persist for racial minorities even if individual racism is not occurring. In the workforce, this may manifest itself in racial bias leading to discriminatory policies that impact hiring, starting pay, and professional upward mobility for people of color, especially Black Americans. People of color may face microaggressions, which are subtle behaviors impacting marginalized groups. Professional standards relating to language, dress code, and communication are rooted in white and Western ideals. People of color can face isolation and a lack of support in their workplace.

Representation Gap

Discriminatory policies contribute to a racial representation gap in the workforce. There is an underrepresentation of Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino workers at every career level above the support staff level when comparing representation in the general population. There is a general pattern showing that representation of people of color decreases as career levels rise, with Asians/Pacific Islanders being an exception, as shown in a global equality report released by Mercer in 2020.  In addition to impacting representation, racial bias impacts the advancement and experience of people of color in the workforce.

Benefits of Racial Diversity

Changing the norm of systemic racism is integral for minorities to feel welcomed and included in their workplace. Having a diverse workplace offers different cultural perspectives that can inspire innovation and foster collaboration. Additionally, cultural insight and local knowledge can create more informed and targeted marketing and production of products. Addressing the gap in racial representation is also financially beneficial, as companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns higher than their competitors.

What Companies Can Do

Corporations have power in fighting systemic racism in their workplaces. Devoting resources toward enhancing the experience of minorities through training in topics such as racial equity, unconscious bias, and microaggressions is a start. Inclusion is an integral component for minorities to feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. Through initiatives such as employee resource groups (ERGs) for different identity groups, employers can create a space for employees to feel supported and raise issues with work environments. Incorporating more equitable hiring processes is also important, which can look like asking all prospective employees the same exact set of questions in the same order. Corporations can also recruit candidates from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) to gain diverse talent.

Conclusion

Although discussing racism outright may be a taboo topic, it is important to understand how companies operate within systemic racism and how systems of racial inequity negatively impact workers of color. Being proactive in addressing systemic racism can improve the experience and livelihood of people of color and is integral to creating a more diverse and equitable workforce.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janis Arrojado is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying Environmental Science and Geography.  Her interests include corporate sustainability, environmental justice, and sustainable development. She currently is an analyst-intern at G&A Institute.

 

 

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