The brutal death of George Floyd has unleashed more than a cry for police reform. It has opened wounds that can be healed only by radical, lasting change. For most Black Americans, his death is more than a brutal oppression. It is a traumatic flashback.
Having spoken with countless business and community leaders across the African American community, I can say that we feel angry, frustrated and saddened for one man’s suffering, for our own pain and for the legacy we leave our children. We have been stopped by the police unexpectedly because we are in another neighborhood. Stopped because we are in a nice car. Stopped because we are in a store. Stopped because we are walking down the street. Stopped because we want to get ahead. We have been denied jobs, denied business opportunities, denied capital for our businesses, denied quality education for our children, denied favorable credit, denied housing, denied justice and denied our dignity — all based on skin color.
As business leaders, we are complicit with this injustice. Silence has allowed it to happen — and perpetuated it for generation upon generation. Black business leaders have been sounding an alarm for years, but from the margins and not the mainstream. The results are not surprising. Black families remain clustered in separate neighborhoods. On average, the white household living near the poverty line has about $18,000 in wealth, while similar Black households have next to none. And a Black household with a college-educated head has acquired less wealth than a white family whose head did not attain even a high school diploma.
In corporate America, diversity and inclusion programs are a business imperative. Yet Blacks own only 10% of U.S. businesses, and only four Fortune 500 chief executives are Black. Companies link a diverse workforce to more innovation and better results, yet Black managers find they must work harder to prove themselves and are given assignments with lower odds of success.
So ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that robbed him of his breath, life and dignity touched off more than an eruption of mass anger about police brutality. It flared up lifetimes of frustration over generational injustice and inequity. We do not condone the violence, but the people’s message is clear: Stop. We invite business leaders to the table with civic and government leaders to rebuild just and equal cities with opportunity for everyone.
We ask businesses to take immediate action. Frankly, I am tired of hearing leaders say, “I just cannot find a Black person to fill the job.” If a business cannot immediately promote an African American person into a role, look in the mirror and ask yourself why. Then take steps so that you can promote someone. One action you can take today: Ask your procurement department to award contracts only to suppliers who have a minority partner. This one action would put minorities on a more solid footing and change the trajectory of Black and minority small businesses.
Finally, we ask citizens to exercise their political right and vote out those who do nothing, and shareholders to hold corporate boards just as accountable. Allow all of us to breathe again — peacefully.
Diane Primo is the chief executive of Purpose Brand Agency, a Chicago-based public relations, branding and digital marketing firm.
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