By Rudy Ruiz
Systemic racism is a reality African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities have been aware of for generations, feeling the very real effects on a daily basis in a myriad of ways: police brutality, criminal injustice, health disparities, job and financial discrimination, income inequality, educational attainment gaps. The list goes on. That’s the idea of “systemic.” The whole system was set up to put certain groups at a perpetual disadvantage. The question now is how to do we change it?
If it was one small organization maybe you could dismantle it and start over. Reboot the system. But how do you overhaul a whole nation and all of its industries? The task is daunting and that’s why the public attention span has usually been too short to sustain a prolonged movement for change. Most people want change, but most of those people are not in charge of the levers of capital and power.
What is needed is a broad and sustained effort backed by Corporate America. Change will have to be achieved on many fronts and levels: governmental, corporate and individual, as well as structural and behavioral. No one entity can accomplish this tall order alone, but all corporations – large and small – should pitch in and contribute, both as part of their corporate social responsibility as well as for the ultimate wellbeing of their customers, employees and shareholders.
What can a company do?
1) Start from within. Look at what your brand stands for and what you provide your customers. Talk to your employees. Convene them, not just those of color, all of them together. For a long time, people of color have talked about these issues in relative isolation, but today presents a window of opportunity to engage in a more diverse conversation about diversity itself and about how diversity is essential to eliminating racism.
2) With input from employees and shareholders, pick an issue to focus on for the long term. There’s a plethora of problems areas to tackle. It’s logical to focus on a subject that aligns with your industry, the products or services you offer, your geographic focus (if any), but it should also be a goal that your internal stakeholders can embrace and champion passionately.
3) Invest strategically in making a positive impact over time. Fighting systemic racism – or any major challenge for that matter – requires more than a feel-good TV spot or viral video. It takes deep thought and heavy lifting. It requires commitment and perseverance. Companies should be as committed to this effort as they are to product development and profitability. They should work with internal and external experts to build branded initiatives laser-focused on specific goals with clear metrics. For example, at Interlex we have helped United Healthcare and AARP educate multicultural seniors about Medicare. We’ve also supported Tracfone Wireless in bridging the digital divide. And, we positioned American Express as a partner for minority- and women-owned businesses in expanding their access to financing, capital and government contracting opportunities. What sets these initiatives apart from many of the anti-racism campaigns currently in the marketplace is that they are deeply rooted capacity-building initiatives designed to grow into movements and help overcome structural and behavioral obstacles that are a key element of systemic racism. Combining programmatic substance, culturally relevant content, and community-based partnerships, corporate initiatives can help solve complex race-related problems and disparities, altering both entrenched structures and engrained behaviors.
4) Companies must place a value on their contributions to fighting racism. Why? Because, in corporate America it is difficult to sustain any effort without some form of ROI. Leaders must agree fighting racism is not just a responsibility or goodwill lip service. It is essential to the long-term growth and survival of our society and economy and therefore it is key to maximizing the long-term potential profits of your company. Put a value on it. Agree on metrics. And execute.
5) Share your story. I’ve been surprised how many hidden gems exist within Corporate America, stories where leaders and their teams have stepped up and are contributing to the fight against systemic racism and its insidious effects. However, all too often, companies don’t do enough to share their success stories with the broader public. Perhaps this is because there is typically barely enough budget to conduct the initiatives, let alone trumpet their achievements. But sharing these stories is vital to leading by example and encouraging others to follow in your company’s footsteps. If you do place a value on fighting racism, then sharing your success will make sense as your brand benefits from the halo effect via brand loyalty and consumer engagement. When you’ve generated some results, that’s when the powerful TV spot should definitely roll out.
Finally, as you embark on this important mission, promise yourself and your stakeholders that you won’t give up. Don’t start and stop. All minority communities have been burned in the past by well-intentioned but short-lived efforts. Transforming a vision of change into a new reality takes enduring commitment. What better goal could you commit to than ending racism while growing your business with a conscience?