Some of the country’s most prominent black corporate leaders are weighing in publicly on the protests gripping the US, drawing from their own personal histories as they call for unity and seek to reassure employees.
The chief executive officers from companies including Tapestry Inc. and Merck & Co. are hardly the first prominent executives to comment on the topic. But by calling attention to their own backgrounds and relating painful experiences of discrimination, they are adding their voices to corporate America’s call for unity and calm.
Jide Zeitlin, the CEO of Coach and Kate Spade owner Tapestry, wrote of his own personal experiences dating back to his early-20s in a posting on the LinkedIn website. He recalled flying to a racially divided South Africa after business school to advocate for disenfranchised black miners. Within a week of his arrival, he had his first contact with tear gas and rubber bullets. The lessons, he wrote, have lasted a lifetime.
“We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others,” Zeitlin wrote. “Each of these black lives matter.”
Merck & Co.’s Ken Frazier said in an interview on CNBC that the protests were sparked by public officials’ delayed response to the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25.
“What the African American community sees in that video tape, is that this African-American man, who could be me or any other African-American man, is being treated as less than human,” Frazier said, adding that it took four days for an arrest to be made.
“What the community saw, was — until they went out into the streets — this officer, much less the other officers, was not going to be arrested for what was clearly inhumane treatment of a citizen,” he said.
Lowe’s Cos. CEO Marvin Ellison wrote about growing up in the segregated South and the systemic oppression of the racial caste system his family was subjected to. He called for unity against racism and hate.
“I have a personal understanding of the fear and frustration that many of you are feeling,” Ellison wrote in a post on Twitter. “To overcome the challenges that we all face, we must use our voices and demand that ignorance and racism must come to an end.”
The small number of black voices weighing in from the top of U.S. companies draws attention to the reality that only about 1% of CEOs in the S&P 500 Index are black and progress has been mostly stalled for the last several years.
In the S&P 500, African-American directors also made up only about 1% of board members, and 37% of boards didn’t have a single black member, according to an analysis last year by Black Enterprise magazine.
Black voices also don’t appear to be gaining ground at the top of companies. Fewer than 10% of senior executives in so-called “profit and loss jobs,” or those that operate units, at the largest U.S. companies are black, according to an analysis late last year by executive recruiter Korn Ferry. The study was conducted for the Executive Leadership Council, which advocates for the promotion of African-American executives into the top executive ranks and boardrooms.
“At some point the C-Level Suite is where you get to if you have certain experience and talents,” said Karen Boykin-Towns, vice chairman of the NAACP national board of directors and a senior counselor at public relations firm Sard Verbinnen & Co. “Not everyone can be CEO, for sure, but why is it that this crop of people, who consistently perform, aren’t given the opportunity.”
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