Defending People's Rights and Freedoms

I Can’t Breathe! From COVID to Social Injustice – Why People of Color are Suffocating

Social injustice and equality now sit at the top of the agenda of global leaders and corporate executives. Outrage on social media over the death of George Floyd spilled unto the street and into boardrooms. Consequently, rioting in major cities across the world, turned May/June into months of riots.

People all over the world are angered by a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he muttered “I can’t breathe”. Despite the COVID19 pandemic, protesters defied social distancing rules to demand social justice and equality. COVID19 is evidently not the only respiratory problem ravaging black communities.

“I can’t breathe” is a plea routinely made by black men who are placed in police chokehold in the streets of America. “I can’t breathe” were the last words of Eric Garner and George Floyd. Both men pleaded without success for a chance to survive America’s deadly chokehold. Moreover, it is not only on the streets that African Americans are struggling to catch their breath. In corporate America, minorities are also whispering under their breath “I can’t breathe”.

Would Street Demonstration Make a Difference?

The massive global demonstrations triggered by Floyd’s death, raise an important question. Would street demonstrations move the needle towards greater diversity and social justice in corporate America? Though American companies have diversity and inclusion programs, people of color are struggling to climb the corporate ladder. The change we are hoping for is agonizingly slow. Has Floyd’s death brought us to an inflection point?

Though people of color are trickling into positions of leadership, the bystander syndrome is an obstacle standing in the way of social justice. Black officers are routinely among police officers involved in the killing of unarmed black men. They watch fellow officers engage in cruel and inhumane treatment of people of color without intervening. Similarly, those in leadership positions may not be doing enough to stop discrimination and social injustice.

Too Many Corporate Bystanders to Social Injustice

For diversity and inclusion programs to succeed, companies must do more than hire a few minorities. They must embrace diverse cultures so that people of color could feel comfortable being themselves. For this to happen, negative perceptions of African Americans and aspects of their culture should not influence performance assessments. Further, for diversity to contribute to social justice, minorities should be empowered to assist members of their community. Otherwise, it would merely create bystanders.

In a Harvard Business Review article, David Pedulla asks “what’s really working?” Hiring a few people of color in strategic positions would not end discrimination when the bystander syndrome is present. Bystanders are created if, on their way to the top, black professionals are forced to reject their identity.

The corporate world has a history of rejecting the culture of people of color. Their hair style, linguistic traits, fashion and deportment have been rejected. To fit-in, blacks have been forced to shed their identity. This weakens the bond with their communities. The stereotyping of people of color contributes to discrimination. Twitter user Zakiyya, captures this succinctly in the tweet below.

Steps to take to reduce social injustice and move the needle towards equality

  1. Secure Commitment to Review Hiring Criteria: There should be clear social justice goals. Changes to hiring criteria that are adversely impacting people of color should be identified. A commitment should then be obtained from corporate leaders to review these criteria and commit to change. Since corporate leaders are pledging support to end social injustice, there should be little pushback.
  2. Examine How Companies are Meeting their Promise: One approach is to let companies set and commit to goals that can be measured. Further, this would avoid the usual greenwashing rhetoric that goes no where. Clear goals will lead to better monitoring.
  3. Focus on Industries not just Individual Companies: Instead of focusing only on particular companies, focus should also be on industries. Focusing on industries could lead to industry-wide commitment to diversity and equality.
  4. Pressure Bystanders to Act: Persons of colors who are in leadership positions should be celebrated. However, they should also be some pressure to take action to end social injustice. They should not be mere bystanders.

The Legal Industry should provide leadership for Social Justice

Racially Diverse Jury

Law firms should lead the fight for social justice in the courtroom and the boardroom. In the courtroom, they could balance the scales of justice to ensure abusers are penalized. Through effective advocacy, the judicial system could be a forum where victims receive justice. Many of the major riots were sparked by discontent with the justice system.

Beyond the courtroom, law firms have to put their houses in order. They must ensure that their employment practices are not discriminatory. They cannot rely on a revenue model that is based on prosecuting companies in other industries for racial discrimination while being guilty of the same practices. We have to take the beam out of our own eyes before castigating others.

The Corporate legal departments (CLDs) that big law firms get business from, are now scrutinizing the corporate social responsibility (CSR) of law firms. Pressure from activists and street demonstrators is driving this change.

Diversity is an imperative for Big Law Firms to Maintain Market Share

In its 2019 State of Corporate Law Departments report, Thompson Reuters and Acritas warn that law departments at big corporations will play an important role in increasing diversity at law firms. American companies are hiring law firms that align with their corporate social responsibility policy. One way they are doing this is by ensuring there is diversity in the legal teams they hire. About 29% of companies that hire law firms are requiring information on diversity. So, law firms that do not take diversity seriously will begin to lose market share. This is forcing law firms to sign on to the Mansfield Rule which promotes diversity.

The Mansfield Rule Certification measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered at least 30 percent women, attorneys of color, LGBTQ+ and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions” – Diversity Lab

What the Diversity and Inclusion Movement Means for Big Law Firms

Law firms can no longer evade corporate social responsibility. To maintain their B2B and B2G clients, they have to implement CSR that aligns with their clients’ values. For the moment, many firms have created a broad category they call minorities and people of color. The Mansfield Rules allows them to lump women and people of color into a single category and report an aggregate 30% representation in the workforce. This means, a firm could boast of satisfying the Mansfield Rule without having a single African American as a partner or in positions of leadership.

If you take a look at the profiles of partners of many of the top firms, you wouldn’t find any African American. African Americans are also under represented among associates at top firms. The indication from the 2019 State of Corporate Law Departments Report is that firms that lack diversity will lose business to competitors with racial diversity.

Law firms should embrace diversity because a number of studies found that diversity leads to greater innovation and productivity. Innovation is another factor that is influencing which law firms companies hire to fulfill their legal needs. This so because innovation is important for the provision of legal services.

It is not surprising that Acritas founds, in its 2019 State of Corporate Legal Department Report, that greater diversity in legal teams leads to better results for CLDs. A culturally diverse legal team is also likely to connect much better with juries that are usually diverse. So, it is time for the legal industry to step forward and lead the transformation.

A Few Take Aways

  • Protest against social injustice and wealth inequality is transforming the culture of corporate America but the rate of change is very slow. Therefore, corporate leaders are tuning in from C-suites and boardrooms and are taking note. However, a lot of work still needs to be done for diversity and inclusion to become part of the DNA of influential companies.
  • As diversity and inclusion become more embedded in corporate culture, companies will insist on diversity along their supply chain. This means that firms that serve B2B and B2G market segments will lose business if they do not build a diverse workforce with a sense of belonging.