When it comes to diversity in corporate America, there seems to be a consistent, illusory pattern. Every few years or so, a number of major corporations contort its definition, expand executive titles, and—in the process—divert such policies and practices from their original intent. With this paradigm shift, ironically, African Americans have become the conveniently ignored minority.
Our numbers have been reduced as our position continues to be diluted—from the plant floor to the boardroom. I found the remarks from actress Viola Davis when she received her historic Emmy to become the first African American female to be named Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series—yes, in 2015—so fitting in capturing the current state of corporate diversity: “Let me tell you something. The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” To me, that statement was the most palpable of the ceremony, resonating with millions of people of color.
So … news flash: African Americans cannot gain senior management positions, board seats, or grow their businesses to prime contractor status if opportunities aren’t available and corporations don’t offer unfettered access for those who possess the qualifications, talent, and drive. As Ronald C. Parker, president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, the pre-eminent organization for global black leaders, stated at the release of its white paper on 21st century global leadership: “With only six black CEOs currently heading the nation’s largest corporations, and only 15 total to have ever held those positions, there’s still a long way to go before corporations reap the full value of diversity at the top.”
It is my strong belief that America cannot truly realize its greatness without the participation of African Americans at all levels. Time and again, we have demonstrated the tangible benefits of our industry, innovation, and persistence in the pursuit of excellence.
We have continued to represent the ultimate game changers in sports, from Jackie Robinson to Serena Williams; in the arts, from Sidney Poitier to Misty Copeland; in the executive suite, from Harvey C. Russell to Kenneth I. Chenault; and global leadership, evidenced by the rise of Barack Obama to president of the United States—the most powerful position on this planet. That level of high performance has been replicated every time the doors of opportunity have been cracked open.
How can it be that African Americans hold only 3.2% of all senior management positions? How can it be that 30% of the 250 largest corporations of the S&P 500 don’t have a single black corporate director? How can it be that hundreds of corporations that allocate billions to contract products and services often spend less than 1% of those expenditures with African American firms?
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