Checking In On Corporations' Racial Justice Promises 1 Year Later : Consider This from NPR Corporations had a lot to say about racial justice last summer. They made statements. They donated millions to civil rights organizations. They promised to address their own problems with diversity and representation.

A year later, NPR's David Gura reports on Wall Street's mixed progress.

Kim Tran tells NPR's Sam Sanders that the diversity, equity and inclusion industry has lost its way.

And DEI consultant Lily Zheng talks about their front row seat to corporations varied efforts to change culture and practices.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Companies Made Racial Justice Promises Last Summer. Did They Keep Them?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After George Floyd's murder and the massive protests that followed, we saw a lot of companies that felt like they needed to say something. I mean, do you remember what commercials were like in the summer of 2020?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The American dream...

CORNISH: Cue very serious music and voice of God narration.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...It wasn't made for everybody.

CORNISH: A seemingly widespread embrace of Black voiceovers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You forgot about one very important detail - Black America.

CORNISH: Then there might be a 60-second capsule history of racism in America - maybe a vintage civil rights-era photo, footage of that summer's protests, candid portraits of young Black people smiling at the camera or, alternatively, looking contemplative.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Black dreams matter. Black voices matter. Black Lives Matter.

CORNISH: And then at some point, maybe you notice a discrete copyright 2020, the Coca-Cola Company watermark at the bottom of the screen - in this case, a commercial for Sprite.

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CORNISH: Now, that need to be out front of a national social movement, it meant suddenly companies were proclaiming themselves allies. To be silent is to be complicit, as Netflix said on Twitter. There were a lot of corporate tweets like that and a lot of commercials like that Sprite one. But there were also pledges, promises and bulleted lists of goals. McDonald's said it would tie executive pay to diversity targets. Companies from Zoom to General Electric created chief diversity officer positions.

CONSIDER THIS - company's pledged transformational change during last summer's racial justice protests. A year later, we ask, did they change? From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, June 3.

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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Big structural change is what big corporations were promising last summer. They made statements. They donated millions to civil rights organizations. And they promised to address their own problems with diversity and representation. How did that go? NPR's David Gura looked into it.

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DAVID GURA: There were many CEOs who didn't know how to respond. That much was clear to Darren Walker, who's the president of the Ford Foundation, a philanthropy that focuses on social justice and inequality.

DARREN WALKER: They had no African Americans on their board. They had no African American in the C-suite.

GURA: And Walker remembers fielding more than a dozen phone calls from executives who he says were disturbed and deeply concerned.

WALKER: There was not both lived experience and expert knowledge to advise, provide counsel and wisdom to the CEOs and the boards.

GURA: One year later, representation continues to be an issue. Just days before the anniversary of George Floyd's death, the investment bank Morgan Stanley promoted four men to senior leadership roles. It's widely understood they'll vie to succeed James Gorman, the current CEO. He's white, and so are they. At a Senate hearing, Gorman pointed to other recent promotions, and he said he's committed to diversity. But...

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JAMES GORMAN: This organization has been built over many decades, and it takes a long time for talent to rise to the top.

GURA: The Ford Foundation's Darren Walker says companies have to do a better job of finding talent and holding onto it.

WALKER: We are past the kind of token efforts of corporate America. This has to be about transformation, and transformation requires more transparency.

GURA: Of the 500 largest publicly traded companies, almost a third of them don't have one Black person on their boards. That's according to Equilar, a clearinghouse for corporate leadership data. And while that's a smaller percentage than what it was in May of 2020, you can still count the number of Black chief executives in the Fortune 500 on one hand.

A year ago, business leaders spoke out. Then they cut checks to nonprofits and civil rights groups. One of them is Campaign Zero, an organization focused on police reform founded by DeRay Mckesson.

DERAY MCKESSON: I think that for most of these corporations, money's easy, right? Like, the money is literally the least risky and easiest thing you can do.

GURA: What's more difficult is delivering on the promise of more diversity in leadership and among the rank and file.

RALPH BASSETT: I think, to be very honest, we try to not be too reactionary.

GURA: Ralph Bassett is a portfolio manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments. It's joined a coalition of financial services companies that have committed to publishing more data and to spending more money on career development for minorities.

BASSETT: We didn't want to come across as insincere or, within that context, too reactionary, such that we couldn't provide the necessary framework for driving what we view to be sustainable change.

GURA: That kind of cautiousness is common on Wall Street, where cultural change tends to happen slowly. But other companies have approached this issue with the same kind of deliberativeness. Starbucks hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct what it calls a civil rights assessment of the company's policies. And Facebook, which has no person of color among its seven most senior executives, wants 30% more Black people in leadership positions in five years.

BASSETT: We want to witness incremental progress but realize it's going to take a number of years to get to where we want.

GURA: In corporate America, the urgency of the moment, the demand for change, is sometimes at odds with what's perceived to be possible. Ebony Thomas works on improving the pipeline for talent at Bank of America. She's an executive whose portfolio is racial equality and economic opportunity. Thomas graduated from North Carolina A&T University, and she's encouraging her company to recruit more from historically Black colleges and universities like the one she attended.

EBONY THOMAS: I mean, progress is progress. And it's slow, but we still have to recognize progress.

GURA: Bank of America's CEO also testified before Congress, and Brian Moynihan highlighted company data on diversity. It succeeded in hiring more Black employees overall. That number is now in line with the U.S. population. But only 1 in 20 senior level managers is Black, and that number hasn't budged.

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CORNISH: That's NPR's David Gura.

There's a whole industry that's focused on making the type of change those companies are promising - DEI, three letters we're hearing a lot. They stand for diversity, equity and inclusion. And the DEI industry, it's big.

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KIM TRAN: It's a collection of folks who are in various different industries. They work in HR. they work in the legal profession. Some of them are like myself. They're academics. And they're all kind of under this umbrella of working toward organizational equity. It is an incredibly nebulous definition.

CORNISH: This is Kim Tran, who spoke to NPR's Sam Sanders. She's a DEI consultant. And she says the roots of what is now a multibillion-dollar juggernaut started during a prior moment of racial reckoning.

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TRAN: When diversity, equity and inclusion began, it was in response to the, quote-unquote, "affirmative action call" by JFK.

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JOHN F KENNEDY: We hope in the next few days to have an executive order forthcoming which will strengthen the employment opportunities both in and out of the government for all Americans. And it will be followed, as time goes on, with other actions by the federal government to expand employment possibilities.

TRAN: And that was in response to the Black American civil rights movement. You had a lot of change happening around the same time. You had the Civil Rights Act. You had the Voting Rights Act. You had, you know, these calls for affirmative action.

CORNISH: But Kim Tran says the ideals that sparked those new changes very quickly became tied up with other concerns.

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TRAN: What happened was companies got really scared of litigation. So they create a whole bunch of trainings and a whole bunch of people to do these trainings. And most of the time, those folks are housed in human resources, but they're not the people who actually created this idea of racial justice or equity or equality in the first...

SAM SANDERS: And they aren't the ones doing the hiring in many of these instances.

TRAN: Oh, my gosh, no.

CORNISH: Tran says that today, many of these efforts missed the mark completely.

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TRAN: A lot of DEI feels like performative allyship (ph). I went to the training, and then I put the hashtag up, and then we did a Pride Month, and everybody feels great about the work.

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CORNISH: Lily Zheng has had a front-row seat to the wide range of approaches that companies have taken in response to last summer's racial justice protests, from the purely performative to commitments to structural change. So we wanted to talk to Zheng about what they've seen, what to avoid and whether things are really changing. Zheng says, you have to start in early 2020 when COVID hit and the economy sputtered. DEI LinkedIn - it's kind of a scene - well, it was filled with people talking about being laid off.

LILY ZHENG: COVID was a tsunami hitting the DEI space. I would venture a majority of the DEI practitioners in-house and consultants who I know worked with companies were laid off, lost contracts, had their work indefinitely paused.

CORNISH: Then came the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota, the national media attention and the protests that spread from coast to coast.

ZHENG: A lot of corporations that talk to me - and I can only really talk about those experiences - said, Lily, we're getting a lot of incoming pressure from our own employees internally and also some pressure from our customers and clients that we've never seen before externally. Can you come in and help us talk about these topics. Now, the interesting thing is I actually didn't accept most of these requests. And even the few that I talked further about, they largely dropped off.

What I saw from the folks who reached out to me, they didn't wait to hear a response from me to act. I think the pressure was too high. And, in fact, some of these companies, which I won't name, put out social media messages. They wanted something quick. They wanted something speedy. And I suppose I just wasn't fast enough to meet their demands. And many of these companies later were, you know, criticized for being performative in their approach.

CORNISH: What are some consistent mistakes you see companies making when they try and work on issues of diversity, on issues of equity?

ZHENG: Well, that's a big question. I think the...

CORNISH: Sounds like there's a lot of mistakes (laughter).

ZHENG: Well, of course, there's a lot of mistakes. I mean, why would my profession exist if companies were doing it right? So one of the biggest ones, I think, is that they will allocate a laughably small amount of money where they will put the burden of change on unfunded volunteer groups like DEI councils. But the consistent failure across all of this is to treat DEI like any other major primary business function deserving of headcount, deserving of budget, deserving of decision-making authority. And that shift has only happened, I would say, very, very recently.

CORNISH: What about the flip-side criticism? - in that you're hearing more and more people say, you know, this sounds like bringing - just bringing a certain kind of progressive politics into the workplace and indoctrinating people in that politics. Kind of - what's your response to that?

ZHENG: Well, companies have never been isolated from politics. And when I talk about politics, I refer to conversation about society, social issues, economic issues. Companies have always weighed in on these things. That's the whole definition of lobbyists. Companies have already been bringing politics to work in every sense of the word since their inception in the U.S. And the fact that companies are being forced to, sure, call it move left is in response to the fact that there is heaps and heaps and heaps of data showing that newer generations care more and more about companies being socially responsible, caring about their social impact. And this, I think, is a very reasonable shift for companies to take given all of this movement happening in our broader society.

CORNISH: Where is it going next? And what do you see in terms of, like, is this a turning point?

ZHENG: I can't - I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you exactly where the field is going to go. What I think is interesting is this question about social justice, about the role of company in society, is unlikely to end. I think we're going to see rather than a unspoken de facto status quo where we don't talk about politics in the workplace, companies being more and more outspoken about whether they are social impact, social justice companies that care about the world or whether they are companies that on the record, on the books, perhaps proudly, say, we don't talk about these issues here.

And that, I think, is going to be a pretty interesting force when it comes to where people choose to work, when it comes to larger impacts on the labor market. I don't know what that's going to look like yet, but I think those trends are going to continue playing out the way that they are now.

CORNISH: Diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Lily Zheng.

You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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