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Corporate America Spent The Last Year Reckoning With Racial Inequality

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The killing of George Floyd was a galvanizing moment, and companies also took action. Business leaders spoke out. They donated millions to civil rights organizations, and they promised to address problems with diversity and representation inside their own companies. But one year later, have executives done what they said they would do? NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: 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 today, 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 tried 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. Well, 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: Today, 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 one in 20 senior level managers is Black, and that number hasn't budged.

David Gura, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY SONG, "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.