Protest march/Black Lives Matter (300429)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

In 2020, corporate America pledged billions to confront systemic racism in response to the racial justice hailstorm that was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Fast forward to 2022, electeds and civil rights activists are glad to keep the pressure on giant companies through a modern oversight tool—racial equity audits.

Racial equity audits call on the leadership of major companies, such as Facebook and Amazon, to analyze the company’s impacts on civil rights, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and the impacts of those issues on the company’s business. And then of course, make it public, voluntarily.

“Transparency remains a key component of American markets,” said Congressman Gregory Meeks, who was a part of a team that took on requesting diversity data from America’s largest banks in 2019.

“In light of the most meaningful conversation our nation and corporate America has had on race in decades, we must not squander this moment of change. Instead, companies should work cooperatively with their shareholders to ensure corporate rhetoric around race matches corporate reality.”

Laura Murphy, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer who pioneered business civil rights audits, said that these audits are powerful tools to creating visceral change within corporate America.

“I do believe that this is the next wave of civil rights advocacy because the courts are increasingly unfriendly to civil rights,” said Murphy. “It’s very difficult to get anything through the United States Congress and various state legislators, and so we need voluntary efforts by corporations to address civil rights concerns.”

In 2016, Murphy filed the first ever racial equity audit against AirBnB because there were allegations against the company that Black app users were having more difficulty booking rooms on the platform.

In 2020, her audit of Facebook led to the company adding an entire civil rights division. Previously, it was harder for certain groups to see employment or housing ads, and minorities were more targeted for voter suppression or misinformation on the census count, said Murphy.

Thanks to Murphy getting the ball rolling on the legal and business front pre-pandemic, others at the state and city level were primed to take the same actions.

In New York State, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli oversees the state’s $267.8 billion pension fund. He recently announced that he filed proposals that ask Chipotle Mexican Grill, Dollar General
Corporation, Dollar Tree, Inc., Match Group, and Amazon.com for racial equity audits on behalf of shareholders, or the state’s retirees.

Last year, DiNapoli also filed for Amazon to release an audit, where a strong showing of shareholders supported it at 44%. That never happened, sources said. DiNapoli said he wanted to tackle Amazon first because of its ever growing presence in people’s lives, it being one of the largest companies in the state’s holdings at $3 billion, and the controversy surrounding Amazon warehouse workers and its employees of color.

Vox reported that Amazon has a racial bias problem permeating the company’s promotion practices, not to mention the ongoing struggle Black employees face in their efforts to unionize in warehouses located in Alabama and Staten Island.

An Amazon spokesperson said that they “don’t have any comment on the shareholder proposal right now” in response to the Amsterdam News’ request for comment. They added that they have set ambitious DEI goals focused on increasing diversity in hiring, building an inclusive work environment, and ensuring equitable access for all.

“It’s not adversarial,” said DiNapoli. “We want them to make money but we want them to be a good corporate citizen because we believe that when they have good corporate practices, including on DEI, they are going to be a good investment for the long-term.”

In New York City, under former City Comptroller Scott Stringer in 2021, the city’s pension fund called on 67 companies to match their public statements with concrete audits of their actions, said a city shareowner report. As a result, at least 13 company boards adopted search policies requiring the consideration of women and racially/ethnically diverse candidates for directors or chief executive officers (CEOs).

Newly elected Comptroller Brad Lander co-signed racial equity audits as an excellent tool to get companies to disclose diversity data. Lander committed to engaging with companies to ensure they are assessing their business practices and taking steps to fight back against racial injustice. “We’ve seen corporations across the country make pledges for racial equity, and they must be held accountable for those promises,” said Lander in a statement.

Hyper locally, BLM Brooklyn Branch President Anthony Beckford said he finds it hard to trust that any real progress will be made quickly. Beckford said only one major tech company reached out to him, and he’s prepared to hold forums with large companies and small organizations to discuss the pledges made at the height of the racial justice movement.

“It’s funny how talk is when the heat is raised,” said Beckford about the need for urgency. “We need actual oversight to make sure there are no loopholes or anyone trying to take advantage of them. They have to be held accountable.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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