From Black Panther to the Obama portraits, there’s been no shortage of things to celebrate during this Black History Month. But as February comes to a close, the ranks of black chief executives are at a low point compared to recent years.
Although the visibility of people of color in television and film has increased somewhat in the last five years, according to research from UCLA, representation of African Americans in the C-suite of America’s largest companies has been on the decline.
Just this month, Kenneth Chenault stepped down from his role as CEO of American Express and was replaced by Stephen Squeri, who is white.
That means only three black CEOs head up Fortune 500 companies, down from six on the 2012 list. The sitting chief executives are Kenneth Frazier at Merck, Roger Ferguson Jr. at TIAA, and Marvin Ellison at J.C. Penney.
The last time black representation at the top role was this low was in 2002 when Chenault was still at American Express, Franklin Raines was CEO of Fannie Mae, and Richard Parsons was running AOL Time Warner.
“The fact that we’re in this situation is a real problem and embarrassing for corporate America,” Chenault said in November.
In total, there have been just 16 black CEOs at the helm of Fortune 500 companies since 1999. Currently, Roger Ferguson Jr., CEO of TIAA, has the longest tenure of the three black CEOs on the list.
With the December 2016 departure of Xerox’s Ursula Burns (the first and only black woman to run a company on the Fortune 500 list), that number now includes only black men.
The racial diversity of Fortune 500 boards isn’t much better. Four out of five new appointees to boards in 2016 were white, according to last year’s Board Monitor report from Heidrick & Struggles.
The barriers to entry into the business world for minority talent mean that there likely won’t be many new black CEOs by February 2019. However, reports on topics from the buying power of minority consumers to the box office success of diverse films show that customers could drive change if the C-suite is willing to listen.