CEOs Need to Treat Racism Like the Pandemic It Is

The coronavirus has forced businesses to uncomfortably rethink the nature of work for the perceivable future. Employers and CEOs are having to retool the idea of what a job looks like from every conceivable angle. Companies that bowed to the sanctity of offices are now considering permanent work-from-home policies. Offices that stay open are figuring out how to make sure employees are safe with measures like tracing and temperature checks without being too invasive of privacy. Eventually, we will return to offices that look and feel vastly different than the places we left in March. While employers may have gone to great lengths to develop plans that keep everyone safe from Covid-19, their work is not done. Because there’s another American crisis that requires businesses to wholly reshape their practices from the ground up.
On May 25, a video emerged of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, killing him. Since then, the country has erupted in protests and riots. We have seen innumerable videos of police assaulting Black people every single night. We’ve been inundated with the news of more killings like those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The president essentially declared war on protesters and called them thugs. It feels like war. There isn’t a single Black person in America who is okay right now. We are mentally and physically drained. We are hurt. We are scared. We are being torn apart.
Black Americans have been protesting for centuries, but this feels different. This feels like a national uprising and that America has gone to a place it’s never gone before. The country will come out of this catastrophe a vastly different nation than it was a month ago. So, just like businesses have to change their realities following Covid-19, they have to do the very same in the era of Black Lives Matter. It’s time for CEOs to reimagine every facet of the workplace by ripping apart every rule they lived by and creating a space that allows Black folks to flourish.
So what does that mean?
First, employers need to understand that the idea of treating everyone equally is a disservice to Black employees for a few reasons. One, employers simply don’t treat everyone equally. There’s just no way decades of systemic racism ingrained into everyone’s subconscious allows for any employer to look at any Black person without the implicit biases that come from differences in race. So we have to rid ourselves of that belief. Second, when white people enter the workplace, they enter it with all of the advantages this country has gifted them. Conversely, Black people enter with all of the obstacles and barriers to success we’ve been burdened by. The gap is already there. So treating us equally means that there isn’t anything being done to close that gap, which hampers the marginalized population of any workforce.
When white people enter a workplace, they enter it with all of the advantages this country has gifted them. Conversely Black people enter with all of the obstacles and barriers to success we’ve been burdened by.
This all means that, simply, Black employees and white employees need to be treated differently. We just do. Right now, in this American moment, Black people are in the middle of a pandemic that is targeting us more aggressively than our white counterparts while we watch Black death on a constant social-media loop. None of us are in the right mental space for work. This means that in times like these, we shouldn’t be required to go to work. Racism is a physical and mental health issue like the flu or a death in the family and should be treated as such in the workplace. Whether that means extra paid-time-off “Black” days or days off when incidents take place nationally, each company will have to figure out how to deal with the crippling trauma its Black employees are enduring. We have to meet these extenuating circumstances of Black workers head-on.
Just like offices need to figure out how to keep employees safe from Covid-19, we need to be kept safe from the virus of racism. That means weeding out the virus in the workplace. Questions about race, the LGBTQIA+ community, and intersectionality need to be broached as upstream as the interview process. While employees need to be a part of anti-racist training that Black people shouldn’t have to attend because those meetings are full of trauma and frustration for us. So many of us have had to train our entire lives how to work in spaces full of white people; white people need to learn how to work in space around Black people.
Companies have been called out for a lack of diversity and have responded by increasing diversity and inclusion efforts. The problem with the blanketed term of “diversity” is that it isn’t intersectional nor does it really address racial inequalities. For example, Goldman Sachs announced in January that it would only approve an IPO if a woman were on the board. That ticks off a box for diversity but doesn’t address racial inequities as, obviously, white women are included in this calculus. Half of the open board seats for Fortune 500 companies went to white women. Black women accounted for 14%. Often, white women are the prime beneficiaries of the catchall “diversity.” But companies need to be more specific and direct: Black needs to be a word that isn’t terrifying anymore.
No employer is going to undo the systemic racism that has defined the places where our workspaces reside. But creating a level playing field means approaching unprecedented times with the imagination to totally reconstruct what we’ve come to embrace as acceptable. Do these new solutions mean maybe that Black or LGBTQIA+ employees get their own happy hours on occasion? Do any conferences for minority populations in your field exist? If so, minority communities should be able to go for free.
Companies need to be more specific and direct: Black needs to be a word that isn’t terrifying anymore.
And, obviously, companies need to hire as many Black people, Black women, and Black LGBTQIA+ folks as humanly possible. Companies often point to a pipeline problem, but that’s a cop-out: A 2019 report sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley, and the Walt Disney Company said that based on the rate of college completion, there should be 50 Black CEOs at the top of Fortune 500 companies. There are four. Whatever has been happening hasn’t been working, but I imagine that if even a modicum of real, true effort were exerted for this, companies would find away.
I don’t think anyone has all the answers. But I’ve seen enough companies rethink their existences during Covid-19 to know that all the rules they used to tether themselves to are now malleable. They are being forced to get creative, to get out of their comfort zone, to imagine a radically different working world than what existed before early March. The race is no different.
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