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Walking in Harm’s Way

Fewer black corporate leaders appear willing to advocate on behalf of their peers

headshot of Rosalind (Roz) Brewer

Sam's Club CEO Rosalind Brewer came under fire for demanding diversity in her corporate team and Sam's Club suppliers. Where were the defenders of diversity?

The existence of corporate diversity and inclusion programs is to ensure the inclusion of all people—black, white, brown, yellow, male, female, straight and gay—at every level and across all disciplines of the company. The purpose of diversity is not to discriminate against white men, but rather to enrich the organization with diverse ideas and experiences that is reflective of both the customer base and the communities upon which they serve.

[RELATED: 40 Best Companies For Diversity]

Apparently, these facts were lost on the people behind a recent malicious and misguided backlash against Sam’s Club and its CEO Rosalind Brewer, when she made it clear during a CNN interview that commitment to diversity is demanded of her team, as well as of suppliers of Sam’s Club. Brewer expressed a leadership position shared by hundreds of other CEOs (the overwhelming majority of whom are white males) that diverse and inclusive workforces and suppliers make for better, more competitive companies.
Furthermore, this is not a matter of idealistic, wishful thinking or hopeful speculation but a track record of proven performance by the world’s top corporations over the past several decades.

I commend Brewer, who was recognized as our 2012 Corporate Executive of the Year, and shared her insights on executive leadership at our Women of Power Summit, not only for her unflinching, candid, and unapologetic stance in support of diversity as smart business, but also for being a great example of the benefits of hiring and promoting diverse corporate talent. I also greatly respect that Walmart and its President and CEO Doug McMillon stood firmly with Brewer, in light of the company’s establishment of a supplier diversity initiative more than a decade ago. “Roz was simply trying to reiterate that we believe diverse and inclusive teams make for a stronger business,” said McMillon. “That’s all there is to it and I support that important ideal.”

I am, however, bothered by the deafening silence from other black corporate executives of like position and stature when Brewer was under attack. Besides Walmart, and a few select C-suite executives from other major corporations, who else came to her defense? Where is the outspoken black corporate leadership? Where was the response to the backlash against Brewer and Sam’s Club (including calls for a boycott) from some members of the Executive Leadership Council and other professional organizations founded on the principles of diversity and inclusion expressed by Brewer on CNN?

We once counted on a generation of African American executives in positions of corporate leadership and board service to walk in harm’s way in order to open more doors of opportunity and inclusion for others. I called them our Buffalo Soldiers—the original champions of diversity, inclusion, and opportunity for African Americans as employees, executives, and suppliers. They included the likes of AXA/Equitable’s Darwin Davis Sr., General Motors’ Leon Sullivan, and MillerCoors’ Virgis Colbert. Brewer and the current generation of corporate leadership literally stood on their shoulders to reach the C-suite positions and corporate board seats they enjoy today. Sadly, black corporate leaders willing to walk in harm’s way and unequivocally advocate on behalf of other African Americans seem to be a vanishing breed.

To quote a great African American leader regarding the need to take action: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said,  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

That anyone today could view a commitment to inclusion as racist, is further evidence that the battle against racism, intolerance, and the presumption of white privilege has yet to be won. That’s why we still need African Americans in leadership positions in corporate America who, like Brewer, are not afraid to stand up and speak up for what’s right and fair. We need a new generation of Buffalo Soldiers willing to walk in harm’s way.



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