Despite years of diversity programs and pious pledges by corporate America, the ranks of African-American chief executives running a Fortune 500 company remain maddeningly very slim: There are only five black CEOs on the 2020 list, which debuted last month.
They include Marvin Ellison at home-improvement retailer Lowe’s (No. 44), Kenneth Frazier at pharmaceuticals maker Merck (No. 69), Roger Ferguson at financial services company TIAA (No. 81), René Jones at M&T Bank (No. 438) and Jide Zeitlin at Tapestry (No. 485), who became CEO of the company that owns Coach and Kate Spade in September. The only black woman to ever helm a Fortune 500 CEO was Xerox’s Ursula Burns, who stepped down in 2016. (Last year, after the 2019 list was published, Mary Winston served as interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond for several months.)
That means that black CEOs make up a tiny fraction—just 1%—of the Fortune 500 despite African-Americans representing 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to the most recent government estimates. In all there have only been 18 black CEOs on the Fortune 500 lists since 1999. The peak was six in 2012.
With social unrest, protests, mass arrests, and curfews rocking America’s largest cities in the wake of the most recent gruesome videos of treatment of blacks at the hands of police, Ellison and Frazier were among those to speak personally about the crisis.
Ellison, who had previously been CEO at J.C. Penney, tweeted about growing up in poverty in a small town near Memphis, raised by parents who had to endure the hardships inflicted by Jim Crow laws.
“I have a personal understanding of the fear and frustration that many of you are feeling. To overcome the challenges that we all face, we must use our voice and demand that ignorance and racism must come to an end,” Ellison wrote in a note to Lowe’s employees on Sunday.
Merck’s Frazier, who in 2017 resigned from President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council, citing Trump’s tepid and widely criticized response to violence in Charlottesville, Va., when white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups descended on that city, also spoke in personal terms.
“What the African-American community sees in that videotape is that this African-American man, who could be me or any other African-American man, is being treated as less than human,” Frazier told CNBC on Monday morning, referring to the video of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis, being fatally pinned down by a police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes last week.
He also said social turmoil was ultimately bad for business and the economy. “We can’t have this toxic environment for much longer.”
Correction: This story originally omitted the CEO of M&T Bank in its list of Black CEOs.
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