On culture and diversity in corporate America.

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September 23, 2022

Two civil rights leaders shared some advice for corporate America: Do better.


This week, I spoke with Derrick Johnson, the CEO of the NAACP since 2017, and Fredrika Newton, the co-founder of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, former Black Panther Party member, and widow of Huey P. Newton. The pair were on hand for a breakout session at Salesforce’s Dreamforce Conference; our discussion topic was “Why Corporate Engagement Is Everyone’s Business.”


Johnson got right to the point.


“It is not only a business imperative to keep society moving, but it is also a business opportunity,” he said, citing Unilever and Procter & Gamble for creating products for and marketing to a diverse customer base. But in a political environment marked by “tribalism” and violence, it’s time to move past “uncomfortable conversations” and into the kind of real talk that addresses the current threats to democracy. “It’s on an accelerated pace,” he said, referring to the attack of Jan. 6. “And it’s because we have social media platforms that are allowed to create rules where really the business of individuals and organizations can market racial hate, radicalize people, and some of those people carry it out.”


This is all sadly familiar, Newton said. The longtime Black Panther Party member recalled the often-misunderstood work that the organization did with communities. “We need to address the needs—very directly—of the people who are in the streets.” She talked about an episode of gun violence she witnessed the day before and said the elements that create fear, homelessness, food insecurity, and despair in the lives of ordinary people should become part of the corporate mandate. “We need corporations to enlist organizations that do direct service to these people that are on the streets, working poor, homeless,” the people who cannot participate in society as creators, leaders, or consumers. “The government has failed…people in the ivory towers need to enlist the help of organizations that are in touch with the communities that they need to serve.”


I asked about the role employers have in preserving voting rights, in part, as a prelude to an in-depth story I’m reporting on a unique voter activation program the NAACP is launching in advance of the U.S. mid-term elections. I cited two areas of interest—protecting voting access for individuals and lobbying against cynical re-districting efforts. Johnson waved me off and turned up the heat.


“What the biggest part of corporate behavior is who they support as candidates, and who they are writing checks to,” he said. “Political parties are nothing more than vehicles for agenda. And that’s why you see different alignments of people over time, switching from one political party to the next. It has nothing to do with party identification, has everything to do with the agenda that the parties carry.” 


The polarizing issue is about taxes, who is getting taxed, who isn’t getting taxed, and the unmet needs created by a lack of public will. “Are we spending those tax dollars on social good to ensure that there is a safety net across the board?” Building off Newton’s example, he said, “the homeless crisis in California is outrageous… you’re really talking about the people who own homes on the backs of those who are now camping out on blankets.”


Johnson, who lives in Mississippi, said that the problems are related but highly localized. “Lack of nutrition or access to health care in the South, safe, quality living conditions in the North, you name the part of the country there’s a policy that needs to be pushed.”


But who is at the table matters, too. “You want to tackle climate change, how are you going to do it? Who are you going to convene in a role that makes sure that the room looks like society?” Johnson said.


Newton agreed. “These are hard conversations, I see that.” She said that organizations need to find ways to let their own employees help direct their resources since a diverse workforce brings a rich understanding of the needs of the communities they represent. Again, it’s local. “If you see a need in your community, what can you do to address it?”


She recalled the Black Panther’s Ten Point Plan, a policy platform that described their commitments. Way back in 1972, technology was a stated lever. “How do you use modern technology to provide health care for people? Who are you hiring to help harness technology in better ways?”


And don’t go it alone, she says. “You don’t have to do this singlehandedly. There are people working on these things. Join them.”


Wishing you a solidarity-filled weekend.


Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Jack Long.


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On point


The coming racial disparities in long Covid The pandemic revealed wide racial disparities when it comes to health outcomes; for example, Black people in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as white people to be hospitalized for Covid and nearly twice as likely to die. (Numbers for the Native Americans/Alaska Natives are worse.) Now, as long Covid is taking hold in the population—about one in five people develop long-term and often disabling symptoms—researchers are bracing for some very bad news. Across the board, people of color in the U.S. are more likely to be financially vulnerable, presenting with poorer general health and lack of access to quality health care which led to mistreatment and misdiagnoses during Covid. It's grim.
MIT Technology Review


The Air Force and Space Force announce new diversity goals, specifically to increase representation in the officer corps. It’s been almost ten years since the Air Force has updated diversity targets for places like the ROTC or the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, feeder institutions for future commissioned officers. In a memo released this August, the Air Force published “aspirational” applicant pool goals to create a military that “better reflects our Nation’s highly talented, diverse, and eligible population.” The population of the Air and Space Forces is currently 76.8% white. Detailed plans to meet the goals are due this month.
Air Force Times


Under fire for a mostly homogenous leadership, Warner Bros Discovery announces a new DEI team Even lawmakers made note of the shockingly white leadership team and board, as the newly merged WarnerMedia and Discovery seemed to shrug off any commitment to diversity in content or management. In response, the company announced a new DEI team, designed to “build on the strong foundation of both legacy companies, with established workforce programs and content/production initiatives continuing under a central strategy team.” Chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer Asif Sadiq will lead a team with specialties in global markets and overseen by execs in the workforce, pipeline programming, and content/productions. CNN is in the mix, too; let’s see how that goes.
Deadline


Bad Bunny and his grateful fans The megastar's latest video, which features an 18-minute documentary highlighting the inequities the territory has been grappling with for years, has hit all the right notes with fellow Puerto Ricans. Noelia Torres, who is currently without water or power in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, told NBC News that Bad Bunny “uses his platform to educate issues that really matter… He is always telling us to do what we want with conscience and to always fight for our dreams and fight for a better future for our island of Puerto Rico.” The new video features a documentary called “Aquí Vive Gente” (“People Live Here”) by independent journalist Bianca Graulau.
NBC News


On background


Here’s some good advice for anyone who wants to meet their diversity goals The main issue, of course, is the backlash, and not just from the in-group elites who feel blamed, anxious, or threatened by any adjustments in hiring, development, or equitable outcomes. The idea, says Lily Zheng, a DEI strategist and executive coach, is to focus on systems and not people. She walks through some real-life examples of reframing. Instead of forcing “biased hiring managers” to take corrective training to stop sourcing people who look like themselves, develop new protocols that put guidelines and expectations in place to unburden managers who want to succeed. “Make the case [using data] that the status quo is inequitable, pointing at the specific inequities you have identified, but maintain that the things to be ‘fixed’ are specific systems, policies, processes, and practices, rather than the people engaging in them.”
HBR



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Parting words


"We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology."

—Part of the Black Panther Party's Ten Point Plan, published in May 1972


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