We collectively watched in shock and horror the unjust, preventable, and devastating murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020; murders that are not unique, unfortunately, but rather steeped in the storied history that is America. The theft of their lives spurred a global racial reckoning where millions across the globe demanded change and progress in the movement for racial justice.
The call for change led to extensive commitments from the business community, pledging to do their part. According to a study from McKinsey and Company, Fortune 1000 institutions pledged approximately $200 billion towards advancing racial justice. By October 2022, this number skyrocketed to $340 billion.
Now, three years later, what have these corporate commitments produced?
Some companies have lived up to the promises they made three years ago. For example, Colgate-Palmolive compiles data to identify opportunities to advance recruitment and retention of employees, with a target of 50% diversity for each candidate slate. Lowe’s has also published its work on diversifying its supply chain.
But while tangible progress has surely been made, the pace of turning wholesale commitments into action has slowed down significantly since 2021. We have seen massive reductions in corporate giving by Fortune 1000 businesses, alongside a vast decrease in public pledges to support racial equity.
We have also seen external pressure increase against diversity, equity and inclusion (“DEI”) efforts and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investments due to the coordinated politicization of these priorities. We have seen many headlines discouraging ESG policies and slamming companies that value equity and equality with the label “woke” agendas.
Corporate positions focused on diversity or equity work have had high rates of turnover and resignations at many top corporations due to a lack of institutional support. From my extensive conversations with CEOs, right-wing efforts attacking diversity or equality are fueled by intimidation tactics that are not merit-based. Their hope is to cause enough discontent around equity and inclusion that corporate leaders choose to walk away as the heat rises.
As a result, we are left with legitimate questions as to whether some of the corporate statements supporting racial justice in 2020 were simply performative and/or transactional for the time.
My advice to corporate leaders has been consistent: Yes, you should invest in initiatives that foster equity, equality, and inclusion because they are the right thing to do, but they will only be sustainable when we view them through the lens of investment, not philanthropy. And as we continue to see the workforce get younger, more active, and more powerful, leaders cannot ignore the expectation of leading with values.
This requires more transparency around investments that align with those values. You cannot fix what you cannot measure, and the truth is that it is difficult to discern how many corporations have actually followed through on their commitments. Often, the specifics of the funding allocations have not been transparent or trackable. This lack of reporting can prevent companies from maximizing their impact and makes it nearly impossible to quantify the benefits of these efforts.
Companies that publicly publish progress reports on their equity and diversity efforts put positive pressure on others to do the same. This push also comes from CEOs who are vocal in their advocacy and who serve as models of what C-suite leadership looks like. Paid Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), in which employees lead initiatives on equity and diversity, can empower employees to provide strategic input on the allocation of a company’s financial resources.
Boards have a role to play as well. According to Bloomberg Law,, nearly 40 lawsuits have been filed against large companies for failing to follow through on their equity and diversity goals. These lawsuits have been developed through shareholder derivative proceedings, in which investors claim that a company’s false claims regarding equity and diversity investments or inability to meet specific related goals have led to substantial declines in its stock value. Many of these investors recognize that these progressive initiatives would have contributed to prosperous outcomes.
The influence of consumer opinions should not be underestimated, either. By amplifying their voices and commitment to companies that have taken tangible steps toward supporting racial justice, the public can also play a role in ensuring that corporations follow through.
Finally, more companies should be engaging with organizations like the Global Black Economic Forum or those that can guide them into taking action toward corporate racial equity efficiently and effectively. Working with our Academy for Advancing Excellence will equip organizations with leadership insights to ensure that racial justice is at the forefront of investment strategies.
CEOs, employees, and public/private stakeholders can collectively generate dialogue and action that will make workplaces safer and more productive environments, driving economic and social change. This change may start in the boardroom, but it will reach deeply into the fabric of our society, catalyzing opportunity that lifts people up and makes the promise of a true opportunity economy real.
Alphonso David is President & CEO of the Global Black Economic Forum. He previously served as chief counsel to the Governor of New York and has served as an adjunct professor of law at Fordham University Law School and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.