Corporate Commitments to Racial Justice and the Public’s Disconnect
By Laura Horsley
Senior Director of Marketing and Communications
Public Affairs Council
In 2016 the Public Affairs Council polled its senior-level members on the pressure they were experiencing to become actively engaged in social issues such as discrimination, environmental sustainability, human rights and access to quality education.
The “Taking a Stand” survey showed that 60% of respondents said they had felt increased pressure from stakeholders to get involved. In 2016 that felt like a lot of pressure.
Jump to July 2021 when the survey was conducted again, and that increased pressure is now felt by 91%. Given the pronounced call for government, business and citizens to in fact take a stand on pressing social justice and environmental issues, 91% feels less surprising than the 2016 number, despite the leap of 31 percentage points.
What’s interesting to track, though, is the priority shift for corporate America. In 2016, environmental sustainability and access to education ranked at the top for corporate engagement. And while both issues still rank high, they have been outpaced by civil rights issues of race, gender and sexual orientation equality (see chart below). Over 84% of the companies surveyed are currently engaged in these issues, compared with 78% that are engaged in environment and sustainability and 58% that are involved in education. The leaps are impressive. Sexual orientation rights involvement grew from 59% in 2016 to 85% in 2021. The biggest growth, however, was for issues pertaining to racial equality, which saw a surge of 34 percentage points from 50% involvement to 84%.
But for whatever good the business community believes it’s doing, is the public impressed by these efforts or even aware of them? The 2021 Public Affairs Pulse survey, a public opinion poll of nearly 2,200 Americans, suggests the answer may be no.
Forty percent (40%) of Americans believe the U.S. is becoming more racist, and only 13% think it is becoming less racist. What’s more, just 22% of the public says major companies are playing a positive role in reducing racism (down from 28% last year), and 18% say they are playing a negative role (up from 14%).
So where’s the disconnect? If companies are putting more of their social-good resources into human rights and racial justice issues, and if they’re promoting their admirable work (and they are), then why isn’t the public taking notice or giving them credit? It could be the adage at work: Show me, don’t tell me. When The Washington Post reported in August that only a small portion of the $49.5 billion pledged by large companies to support racial justice issues had been disbursed and that 90% was “allocated as loans or investments they could stand to profit from,” there was concern that corporate America’s great pledge was intended more for lip service than for significant action.
It also doesn’t help that Blacks, Latinos and other people of color, as well as women, are still underrepresented in management and in the boardrooms of so many large corporations, even though most of those companies have added chief diversity and inclusion officers or similar roles, as Bloomberg reports in its most recent survey of companies in the S&P 100. The report shows that more companies are sharing their EEO-1 forms that detail racial and gender diversity within their organizations: 25 shared these forms in 2020, and 76 shared in 2021.
The hopeful message from the Bloomberg survey is that despite clear disparities still present today, the corporate programs and financial commitments in the past year or two have the potential to show results in coming years. Those programs and commitments include increased recruitment from historically black colleges and universities, more minority-owned businesses brought into supply chains, and the much-touted investments and donations.
It’s fair to give corporate America a few years to prove the results of its efforts, and we should because progress always takes time and there’s a lot of work to be done to reduce racism and make workplaces more equitable. But the business community should not expect fanfare based on its intentions alone, and companies also shouldn’t expect such accolades even if their efforts ultimately meet their intentions. That’s not what this is about.
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