Last week, Sen. Tim Scott made headlines in his rebuttal to the President’s State of the Union address when he declared that “America is not a racist country.”
As Gerald Seib wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week, Sen. Scott’s remarks—and the swift rebuttal from others on both sides of the aisle, including my good friend, former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, showcase a reality: The conversation on racism isn’t anywhere close to being finished. In fact, the real conversation on racism is just getting started.
Our new Trust Barometer data puts a finer point on that reality, highlighting a divide that continues in America. When asked whether racism is primarily an individual problem or a systemic one, over half of Americans continue to believe that racism comes down to racist people, not racist systems. Only Black Americans and those 18-34 identify the problem as systemic.
In his response to Sen. Scott, Mr. Steele shared a view that is pervasive among Black Americans, and one that I both share and have experienced firsthand: Institutions, and the systems they create, are often the sources of racial discrimination.
For Corporate America, understanding the problem as systemic is the first step to creating the change that Black audiences, and others of color, hope to see.
Consider where we find ourselves:
- Just 1 in 3 respondents see American institutions making progress in addressing racism over the last year. 18% think things have actually gotten worse.
- 46% of Americans, and over half of Black, Latinx, and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Americans, agree with the statement that “with few exceptions, the business community has done very little in the way of concrete actions to address systemic racism in our country”—a two-point increase from August of 2020.
- When our respondents were asked to rank brand performance across sectors, no sector was ranked by the majority of Americans as “doing well” in addressing systemic racism.
- Less than 1 in 4 American employees trust their CEOs to tell the truth about racism, diversity, equity & inclusion within their organization. This is substantially lower for Black American employees at 14%.
To be clear: There have been points of progress. Notably, the number of American employees who feel that their employer has made progress in combating racism in the workplace has increased by 17 points since last August.
But this progress has largely been made up of the initial work, focused on ensuring representation and accelerating hiring practices for Black and Brown talent. The work that comes next is the harder part. The companies that win will take hard and necessary steps both internally and externally to ensure that we move beyond representation and tokenism, into a world where voices and communities of color are authentically portrayed, elevated, and given a chance to succeed.
That means the next phase of work falls not just to corporate leaders and their teams, but largely to brands – the external representations of America’s corporate institutions. For CMOs, it means moving beyond addressing symbols and into addressing systems. In our research, campaigns like Dove’s Hair Love (a long-range advocacy effort to ban race-based hair discrimination) and Ajinomoto’s #TakeOutHate (an advocacy effort to increase dining at Asian restaurants amid COVID-fueled anti-API racism) represent the potential for brands to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations in a world of belief-driven buyers.
For CEOs, it means the hard and necessary work of building trust across multicultural communities, embracing their newfound status as voices of social change—specially for employees—while navigating the risks associated with newfound political lightning rods. I am an optimist. But if there are moments that give me pause when I think about the role Corporate America must play moving forward, they’re the moments when clients ask me when this will “calm down” or “blow over.” Our data paints the picture of an environment that’s become more charged, more divided, more impatient and more ready to vote with their wallets and talents. This environment will only intensify.
For brands and corporations, the opportunity is to see last year’s reckoning as the first step in a long journey, one that must continue and one that will have many hard steps ahead. Those that embrace this view will reap the words—not simply of moral conscience, but of loyal customers, empowered employees, and a society that embraces their leadership.
Lisa Ross is our U.S. CEO.