Until Black Americans can breathe, no American can. We, the 30 members of the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative, extend our deepest sympathies to the families of George Floyd and the thousands of unarmed Black people who have been senselessly murdered by police in our lifetimes.
Our group, founded in 2017, consists of Black legal executives working to increase (by 2025), the anemic numbers of Black general counsel in the Fortune 1000. We denounce white supremacy and racial bias of all kinds. Black inclusion at all levels of society is an American dream too long deferred.
Black lives matter at work as well.
Just as the justice system has failed Black people, American business has systemically failed to view and treat us equitably. Activated biases have resulted in our grave underrepresentation in American workplaces—particularly in leadership roles. Though Black people represent 15% of the population, we represent less than 1% (four) of CEOS in the Fortune 500. No Black woman helms a Fortune 500 company. Only 3.3% of Fortune 500 executives are Black. Many companies have no Black board or C-Suite members. This is not accidental.
Even we Black lawyers fear the police. Each of us either is or knows someone who has experienced police harassment or brutality. Several of us have been profiled. One of us has had a police officer point a gun to his head. White supremacy does not care whether we are at the top or bottom 1% of the economic ladder.
America must stipulate that the stain of white supremacy clings to this country. Only then can we all effectuate America’s contractual commitment to treat each citizen equally. Just as COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Black people, so too does America’s racism pandemic. The same strain of white supremacy that devalues Black lives infects each race-based indignity to which Black people are subjected in society.
Workplaces are societies too; microcosms in which anti-Black biases often lead to our derailed careers. The same anti-Black racism that propels murderous police beats in the hearts of many hiring managers.
If hired, we face double standards. Black “assertiveness” is “aggression.” Our “enthusiasm” is “emotional” or otherwise unprofessional.
Undaunted, we will continue to harness our energies to collaborate to eradicate injustice. Unless we work together, America never benefits from the full and unique talents of her Black citizens. For example, many (if not most) Black people have a unique super power to “code switch” for situational adroitness. This power emanates from our need to navigate environments that, too often, devalue Black lives and experiences. Therefore, many are uniquely positioned to “read a room”—excelling in leading (and following) diverse groups. These survival negotiations helped make us fluent in languages of adaptability, change, DE&I as well as subjects in which we are more formally credentialed.
We appreciate the groundswell of anti-racism corporate statements (which some of us wrote) and charitable contributions. But much more is needed. Business needs to activate its S.M.A.R.T. acronym and take Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound actions to right its wrongs.
Address and eliminate bias. “Implicit” or “explicit” characterizations are irrelevant. Only elimination matters. We recommend that businesses:
1. Hire, develop, promote and retain meaningful numbers (particularly managers and executives). Question the absence of representative numbers of Black people in your businesses. Our absence is intentional and reflective of “implicit” or “explicit” bias. There are far too many positions that “never have been held by a Black professional,” or are held by the “first Black…” or “only Black…” in many organizations. Geography and industry justifications are excuses, not reasons.
Improve talent management pipelines and processes to ensure retention and promotion. Successful employees will help to develop others. Diversify hiring networks. Being unable to find Black talent has not been a valid excuse for decades.
2. Utilize Black executive recruiters and professional organizations. We share job opportunities within our diverse networks. Include more than one Black person on a hiring slate. The “Rooney Rule” doesn’t work. Hire experts to help erase bias from the hiring, selection and employment process so that a representative number of Black professionals at every level and in every segment of the company is achieved.
The 2025 Initiative consists of Black lawyers who are ready to lead legal departments of all sizes, types, and industry. Our website (www.blackgc2025.com) includes a long list of such Black general counsel. Whatever the function, hire at the top. But don’t stop there. Commit to aggressive, sustained goals and timelines tied to compensation.
3. Listen to and improve Black employee satisfaction scores. We are human. We desire the same things as everyone else. We should be judged solely on our merits. Black socioeconomic inequality is deeper rooted and more explicit than can be addressed through “people of color” or other intersectional diversity initiatives and must be specifically addressed. The information will reveal the solution.
4. Hold employees accountable. What gets measured gets done. We challenge all companies to create metrics that reflect your culture and specific goals for Black hiring, promotion and retention as well as ensuring that biases are eliminated from these actions.
Compelling “diversity is good business” studies are decades old—more than enough time to have been activated and sustained. Companies must walk the talk—just as they do for other revenue-generating and sustention actions. Few business imperatives besides Black equity and inclusion, when met with the same lack of sustained improvement, would continue for over 40 years without being root-caused and resolved.
5. Champion Black employees. Engage Black people. Add us to your networks. Cover us with the same mantles of opportunity that you afford others in your networks. Be more than a mentor, champion Black people as you were championed.
If the above doesn’t compel course correction, simply follow (as all great leaders must) the law, ethics and morality in treating Black people like equals with the same ambitions, capabilities and fallibilities as others. Then America can breathe freely.
Felice Gray-Kemp is global general counsel for a public corporation. She also has experience as a diversity solutions architect and participant. April Miller Boise is an executive vice president at Eaton, a company that provides sustainable power management solutions. Ernest Tuckett most recently served as General Counsel Americas of global paint and chemical company AkzoNobel. Tuckett and Miller Boise are co-founders of the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative.
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