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Getting Real About Corporate Racial Equity Requires Confronting These Harmful Narratives

Undertaking a racial equity journey within your company may seem daunting—especially when common narratives encourage companies to maintain the status quo—but it is a necessary step for any modern company to take.

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Last year saw many corporations taking a public stance to denounce racism, but now companies need to “walk the walk” and substantiate their commitments to racial equity with resources and action. For many, a natural first place to turn is within their own company.  

As two Black leaders who have been working in financial and philanthropic spaces for years, we have seen how misconceptions about race and unconscious bias can have lasting and negative impact on business practices. Upward talent mobility for diverse candidates is often limited because people in leadership—statistically speaking, usually white males—hire who they know; underserved consumer markets go untapped because their vast purchasing power is unrecognized; and businesses owned by people of color are overlooked for procurement contracts because they don’t have the same resources as other firms. This limits growth potential for individuals and companies alike: If racial disparities were eliminated, GDP would be 14 percent higher or an increase of over $2 trillion.

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In collaboration with Living Cities, the two of us began a three-year journey to identify and counteract the harmful misconceptions that exist in the corporate sector around race. We joined with 16 other foundations, financial institutions and partners to form the “Narrative Change Working Group” to address narratives that allow racial inequities and exclusive practices to persist in the business world.

To do this, the working group surveyed 112 corporate executives from across the country, with about two-thirds of them from companies with 1,000 or more employees and identified four commonly held misperceptions around race.

1. ‘It Doesn’t Exist Here’

Unsurprisingly, most executives did not recognize that racism was perpetuated in their company’s practices. They were wholly unaware that the existence of structural racism has implications for their company, no matter their personal perspective on the issue of race. Some surveyed executives expressed “color blind” ideas that they felt counteracted racism, saying things like, “We are all the same color” or “We are very inclusive to everyone.”

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2. ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’

Knowing that conversations on race can be both highly polarizing and have high potential for missteps, a little over half of executives had come across concerns about raising issues of race with their employees and customers. The survey was conducted before the death of George Floyd, and widespread response to his murder showed that issues of race will make their way to the surface, no matter what executives want.

3. ‘We’re Already Doing It’

Around half of executives felt they were already doing enough to satisfy a conversation around race through the appointment of a chief diversity officer or the development of a more inclusive talent pipeline. Yet this often is a unilateral decision by executive without appropriately engaging and listening to stakeholders to ensure an informed and diverse plan was put in place, further perpetuating feelings of dismissal from Black and brown employees and customers.

4. ‘Rugged Individualism’

Almost three-quarters of executives confirmed their experience with an American myth as old as the country: that we are a meritocracy where those who work hard thrive. While merit is rewarded in this country, not recognizing the on-going legacy of slavery and systemic racism that Black and brown people face denies the presence of the persistent, insidious barriers to success. With demographics shifting, corporate America ignores these systemic barriers at its own peril.

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With these narratives identified, we then set out to change them. The Working Group worked with a handful of leading companies, including Prudential, to capture and share stories of success. It also worked collaboratively to begin to develop the standards and diagnostic tools to support corporate America in moving beyond surface-level engagement to a deeper, more meaningful and impactful approach to integrating equity into enterprise strategies.

We were able to take the lessons from this work back to our own organizations as we continued on our own racial equity journeys. Back when The Narrative Change Working Group began in 2018, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was squarely focused on health equity. Now, the foundation is able to explicitly name racial equity and intersectional equity as a contributor to health outcomes. Its board volunteered to undergo anti-bias training.

Prudential has been deeply committed to racial equity for decades. Last summer, Prudential deepened its commitment to racial equity with nine new steps for its workforce, for its customers and for the communities in which it operates. This includes putting the systems and resources in place to drive meaningful change, spanning talent practices, how the company designs and delivers products, its investments and public policy work, and its support of community institutions working to remove persistent obstacles to Black economic empowerment.

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Undertaking a racial equity journey within your company may seem daunting—especially when common narratives encourage companies to maintain the status quo—but it is a necessary step for any modern company to take. The two of us do this work for a living, and we do it because we have seen what it can do for a corporate culture, workforce and the communities in which we operate.

We hope you reflect on these narratives and determine which are a part of your corporate culture. If they are—and we’re sure some of them are—take steps to eradicate them and create a more inclusive and prosperous company.

Shané Harris is Vice President of Social Responsibility and Partnerships at Prudential Financial and President of The Prudential Foundation. Dwayne Proctor is Senior Adviser to the President, Equity, at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Both serve as co-chairs of the Narrative Change Working Group at Living Cities.

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