Monday, July 26, 2021

Guest Post from Alicia Plerhoples: The Anti-Racist Corporation?

The following comes to us from friend-of-the-BLPB Alicia Plerhoples.

How to Be An Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi urges individuals to undertake the difficult work to become anti-racist. In Kendi’s view, racism is not a spectator sport. One can either recognize their participation in racist concepts and institutions that benefit some and work to dismantle racism, or one participates in racist concepts and institutions to perpetuate them. As he explains in Stamped from the Beginning, the 582-page academic version of his popular press book, a person can hold both racist and anti-racist views at the same time, under an assimilationist race theory.

As a business law professor, I am concerned with whether a corporation can be anti-racist. If so, what corporate policies, processes, programs, and culture does an anti-racist corporation have? These questions are imperative given America’s reckoning with racism and in my view, the disproportionate power and excessive protections that corporations have consolidated in American law and the economy.

One might quickly jump to my second question without considering the first. Can a corporation be anti-racist? Slavery’s Capitalism authors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman identify slavery as the key driving force in the development of the American economy, including American corporations, before the Civil War. “Slavery, as the foundational American institution, organiz[ed] the nation’s politics, legal structures, and cultural practices with remarkable power to determine the life chances of those moving through society.” Corporations, like individuals, benefit from a racially inequitable sociopolitical and legal framework, including, for example, the racial wealth gap, which affects everything from who the corporation’s founders and investors are to who its employees, customers, and suppliers are. According to Majority Action, “business-as-usual can never be neutral in an economy founded on systemic racism.”

Applying Dr. Kendi’s anti-racist theory, corporations can work to be anti-racist similarly to individuals who have been impacted by sociopolitical notions of human value originating from rationalizations of slavery.

What does an anti-racist corporation look like? Racial equity is “the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identify no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares.” How does a corporation embody racial equity?

A year ago, partners at Wachtell wrote that “ESG metrics…provide valuable tools and models to help both public and private companies and their investors and other stakeholders (including employees, customers, business partners and communities) understand their progress on [systemic racism and injustice] issues.” While many engaged in ESG work focus solely on the environment (particularly given the climate crisis), we should focus ESG on anti-racism too.

The same Wachtell partners recently reflected on the various racial equity tools that they have seen corporations use during the past year. These tools include:
• Hiring for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) roles;
• Expanding DEI roles;
• Anti-bias training;
• Inclusive hiring practices;
• Audits of DEI progress and effectiveness;
• Public disclosure of DEI goals and targets, including workforce data such as EEO-1 data;
• Executive compensation tied to DEI performance;
• Supporting and increasing supplier diversity; and
• Board and management diversity.

Some racial equity tools go further, calling for corporations to undertake and publicly disclose results of racial equity audits. A racial equity audit analyzes the corporation’s “adverse impacts on non-white stakeholders and communities of color.” Indeed, the 2021 proxy season saw several shareholder proposals calling for racial equity audits. Majority Action, a nonprofit organization that supports investors in holding corporations accountable for ESG and long-term value creation, supports such shareholder proposals and maintains a list of 2021 proposals here.

If a corporation’s leadership were to adopt all of these racial equity tools, would it be an anti-racist corporation? I suspect not given external forces at play. What else would a corporation’s leadership need to do to consider itself an anti-racist corporation? As I explore these issues in a law review article and other project-based work, I would love to hear thoughts from my business law professor colleagues.

Alicia's thoughts and work in this area overlap with my own on sexism and boards of directors.  I cannot help but wonder, given that, what makes an anti-sexist board of directors . . . .  Hmm.  Something to contemplate. 

Look for more from Alicia on this as her work in this area continues.  We appreciate her publishing this post with us!

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