The Reckoning Over Workplace Racism Has Begun

Black people have been pointing out racism in the workplace for years. Will businesses finally listen?
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: HuffPost, CNN, Instagram

As anger over racism builds in the U.S., a familiar pattern is unfolding: the culling of the bad apples.

Like they have been for years, Black people and other people of color are calling out not just police brutality, but also racism, discrimination, harassment and racial bias in the workplace. They’re sharing stories publicly about bosses and colleagues who have mistreated them and others. They’re pointing out that the companies that now publicly state that Black lives matter don’t bother to actually follow through by treating employees of color fairly and equally. And now after years of activism and renewed public pressure to recognize that Black Lives Matter, companies may finally make some changes.

It’s hard not to see parallels to how the Me Too moment took off in 2017, when women (and some men) shared stories of sexism, discrimination, harassment and assault. Notably, that movement was launched by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, a decade before it exploded into the mainstream.

Back then, powerful people were fired. And they’re starting to drop now too.

That’s particularly true in the media and entertainment businesses. In just the past week: The global editor-in-chief of Refinery29, a style website, stepped down after criticism of how the site treats its employees of color. That same day, the longtime editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, Adam Rapoport, stepped down after staffers condemned the magazine’s treatment of people of color. (A photo of Rapoport in brownface also surfaced, sealing his fate.)

The editor heading up The New York Times’ editorial page, James Bennet, was ousted in the wake of staffers’ outcry over an incendiary column about the anti-racism protests. There was a shake-up at the Philadelphia Inquirer, after staff complained about a headline that established an equivalence between the lives of Black human beings and buildings. Meanwhile, last Thursday, Variety editor-in-chief Claudia Eller started a leave of absence after lashing out at a former employee on Twitter who was criticizing her treatment of people of color.

That’s not even a full list. An actor on the TV show “The Flash” was fired after his racist and sexist tweets resurfaced. Four cast members from the series “Vanderpump Rules” were kicked off the show over racist actions and tweets. A player on the LA Galaxy was released from the soccer team after backlash to disturbing and racist posts by his wife about protests. The founder of lifestyle retailer Ban.Do, Jen Gotch, announced she would take a leave of absence after a former employee shared a detailed post describing both covert and overt racism at the company. The CEO of clothing company Reformation is also under fire after former employees spoke up about racism.

A reckoning could be at hand. Companies have long paid lip service to Black people and diversity, with little to show for it, even when their employees urge them to improve. Executive suites are blindingly white. But some observers note this time around could be different. As brands try their usual mix of social media sloganeering, their current and former employees are pushing them further and holding them to account.

“Black folks are having a moment where they say, I have my stories, too,” said Evelyn Carter, director at Paradigm, a consulting company that works with businesses on their diversity and inclusion strategies. “Those who have experienced racism, whether subtle, overt, individual or structural, for a long time, are finally being listened to.”

Carter said the combination of stories surfacing on social media and companies and celebrities taking swift action “feels Me Too-like.”

“In the same way we heard from women who said, ‘I’ve been sitting on this story for 15 years. Let me tell you now,’” she added.

She attributes the shift to the power of the worldwide protests around George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis last month, as well as outrage over the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot to death when he was out for a jog in Georgia, and the momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement that’s been building for years.

“I am devastated that members of my community, as a Black person, literally had to die in order for people to listen,” said Carter. “but I’m going to take every opportunity I have to use this moment to make sure that people do not forget.”

The Racism Is In The Numbers

Racism is baked into corporate America, just as it is baked into the criminal justice system. That’s clear from the numbers: There are only four Black CEOs on the Fortune 500. Just 3.3% of executive-level roles are held by Black professionals in the U.S., according to federal data. Only about 1% of the entrepreneurs who get venture capital funding are Black. (VC-backed companies often go on to become billion-dollar behemoths, typically with diversity issues, like Google, Facebook and Uber.)

“Corporate America has failed black America,” Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and a member of the board of Pepsi, and a Black man, told The New York Times this past weekend. “Even after a generation of Ivy League educations and extraordinary talented African-Americans going into corporate America, we seem to have hit a wall.”

Carter said that after the protests in 2014 over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, she started noticing that more people in the corporate sector were paying attention to diversity issues. More consulting firms started popping up.

“The Ferguson uprising led to a lot of conversations and people putting out diversity statistics and people saying we need to do something,” she said.

There was another shift in the way companies paid attention to Black workers in 2016, said Stefanie K. Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s business school, who works with businesses on diversity and inclusion efforts.

That summer, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, an incident broadcast live on Facebook. This happened one day after Alton Sterling was also shot to death by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There was nationwide outrage, and some companies had conversations about race.

But the voices of Black employees weren’t really the ones being heard, Johnson pointed out. Instead, it was CEOs. They formed groups, issued press releases. Nothing much else happened.

“If you’ve sucked for the last 100 years and you still suck and you’re issuing a statement and planning to do nothing about it, people can see through it.”

- Stefanie K. Johnson, University of Colorado at Boulder

This time around, companies tried the same schtick. They’ve been out in full force over the past week or so, tweeting about Black Lives Matter or participating in Black Out Tuesday on Instagram. Or making relatively small donations to causes but failing to address the lack of diversity in their executive offices ― or, in the case of some of the nation’s banks, their history of racist lending practices. Many are putting a renewed effort into diversity. Carter said she’s seen a huge uptick in calls from businesses seeking help. Some of this could be earnest or could just be image maintenance.

“They call it woke-washing,” said Johnson, of the practice where companies try to appear socially aware while not making any real changes to their businesses. “If you’ve sucked for the last 100 years and you still suck and you’re issuing a statement and planning to do nothing about it, people can see through it.”

The difference now is, employees are taking to social media to hold companies to account. Many of the bosses who resigned this week did so because their employees spoke out publicly about their treatment. As workers feel more emboldened to speak, more companies are likely to be called out if their actions don’t match their stated mission.

Is your employer tweeting about Black Lives Matter while doing little to actually change how workers of color are treated? We would like to speak with you for a story. Email:

“Black employees are saying, ‘Thank you for saying that statement, but now I’m going to make sure you live up to the words you said,’” Carter said. “There’s this massive accountability that’s happening that I do think reminds me of Me Too.”

It was similar during the Me Too movement. Women in business had long pushed for change, and corporations talked a lot about how they valued women. But the numbers hardly moved. And sexual harassment was covered up ― papered over with nondisclosure agreements or intimidation. It took the work of dedicated, mostly female journalists and some brave women on Twitter to move the needle, and there’s still a lot left to be done.

That’s also true of racism. Even in the wake of the protests, not every company is willing to do the absolute minimum. One financial institution Johnson worked with in recent years refused to even say internally to its employees that Black lives matter, she said. “Our investors might have different political beliefs,” she said she was told.

This was before the current protests, but Johnson said this company ― which has Black employees ― hadn’t tweeted or made any recent statements about racism.

Plenty of companies are putting out statements while at the same time continuing to back policies that actively hurt workers of color ― such as forcing race discrimination cases into secretive arbitration, or battling those cases in court. Firing workers or retaliating against them for speaking up about discrimination is not uncommon.

Companies also continue to fight against paid sick and family leave ― policies that would help workers of color in particular ― and continue to stamp out efforts around unionization and more.

What Should Happen Now

Carter said there are many other things businesses can do to reform themselves internally ― like looking at hiring practices and seeing where biases crop up: Are the networks where you’re hiring overwhelmingly white?

Companies can audit their performance review systems and see if people of color or women are consistently underrated. Reviews are notoriously biased. Who is getting promoted? Who is leaving? Often a business will do well at the entry level with diversity ― but workers of color will leave at a higher rate. Why?

Companies can also, at a minimum, keep track of their diversity numbers and set goals for hiring and promotion. There are numerous other tactics.

Still, over the coming weeks, if the cullings continue, you can expect to see some backlash. As with the Me Too movement, there could be hand-wringing over the ruined careers of the few men and women to lose their jobs.

That’s just part of progress.

“People really react negatively when you shake up the status quo,” Carter said. “The work of amplifying Black folks and making sure workplaces are equitable is long overdue. Backlash is predictable. It doesn’t mean you should stop.”

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