Michael McAfee

Is the momentum for racial equity that built over 2020 now in danger of flagging?

I’ve heard concerns that business leaders ultimately won’t deliver meaningful change, as some struggle to translate into action their ambiguous statements about amplifying Black voices from the summer.

To dig deeper into this, I spoke this week with Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy institute seeking racial and economic equity. McAfee works with companies on their efforts in this area. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, what do you know now that you didn’t a year ago?

The thing I know that I didn’t want to accept is that corporate America is at, and must be at, the leading edge of the equity movement, whether we like it or not. And I say that because they have a $23 trillion market cap to our $1 trillion in civil society and $3 trillion in government. They have outsized power and influence. Outside of the people movement occurring, they’re essential if we’re going to realize the promise of equity. They don’t know it yet because too many are still in the charity mindset or the performative mindset. Now more than ever, if we’re going to honor the murders of George Floyd and others, corporate America must be at the leading edge of the equity movement.

I say that not just because of the things that I just said, but because they have a unique skill set that they use every day: They know how to bend the legal and regulatory framework of this nation to their will. That skill set is needed now because the problem of diversity, equity, inclusion is a design problem for this nation. It was designed to be oppressive and we’ve not fully moved beyond that. Who better than folks who have just structured the economy, made it hard for the citizenry to exercise their vote, than those very people to redesign, re-imagine a different way of being in relationship to each other? So the charity is the shift that I’m seeing people begin to talk about and think about, but haven’t fully moved into it. You’re not going to charity your way out of this.

You’re just not. And civil society has to be willing to say, you know what? We can’t keep cleaning up the mess of government causing harm or corporations causing harm. When I mean causing harm, I mean things like finance and political groups who are clearly trying to obstruct our ability to vote, where my grandmother has to stand in line for eight, nine hours to vote. That is intentionally threats to our democracy. Or even with our government entities where you see HUD putting out billions of dollars on the entitlement and competitive grant side. But then dismantling the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and making it easier to discriminate when it comes to housing. What you’re seeing is a crisis of institutional quality across the country. Corporations must lead that because of their outsized power influence and set the standards for how we should be in relationship to each other and leading the conversation on what we must become if we’re going to fully serve a multiracial democracy. And ultimately put the legal and regulatory framework in place that actually gets us there.

You said that you didn’t want to accept this—why is that?

Because when I accept it, I have to realize how gradual this fight is going to be. There are a hundred million folks plus who are economically insecure in America. That number is growing. And because of this hierarchy of human value, that is like our operating system, that hierarchy of human value is our operating system in this nation. You could be pretty indifferent to it for a long period of time before you wake up. It seems like we’ve learned to only wake up when there’s a particular tragedy. If that’s the case, I’m like, man, I’ll never realize the promise of equity in my lifetime. That number will never go down in my lifetime. If there’s anything that I’ve seen in this year, it is the tremendous harm and pain and suffering that everyday people are facing. Twenty-six million of that hundred million is white. We’re all suffering and yet we’re tearing ourselves apart. My biggest fear is that at the very time I know corporations need to be involved. I see so much learned helplessness when it comes to this issue.

Learned helplessness?

Yes. You could send rockets into orbit and figure out how to land them back on earth and all these amazing things. But you can’t figure out how to see people’s humanity.

Did you say that corporate America doesn’t realize what it needs to do?

Yes. Part of the problem is the way we’ve been educated in America. We’ve denied our history for so long that it’s natural, that people really don’t understand the depth and breadth of the problem. We barely could even talk about race up until about five years ago, let alone say something like equity, these words that we all use. Quite frankly, because we’re so disconnected from each other, folks really don’t have a mental model of what the problem is. So when these crises happen, they’re relying on crisis management companies and others who don’t have a darn clue how to begin to set something in motion. The last thing those folks want to advise you on is wading into race. They want you to try to mitigate risks by just being in the herd.

As this moment has happened, we wrote the “CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity” right after George Floyd. It’s really started galvanizing folks around us, the Business Roundtable, Walmart, Target, Prudential, Genentech—you could go on, Mars Corporation. What becomes clear is that the staffs really want to figure this out. The senior level folks are really trying now. Something shifted with George Floyd’s murder and the energy on the street from the Black Lives Matter movement at that time where I’m hearing corporate corporate executives, CEOs talking about the structural challenges. We’re at least now to a phase where we are acquiring the right language. And it may be, if we can acquire the right language, we can put the right mental models together and then the right work.

I find it hard not to be skeptical of the proclamations by big businesses, such as the Business Roundtable statements on stakeholder capitalism and racial equity, because researchers have found those companies generally don’t treat their workers any better. How skeptical are you?

I’m going to remain skeptical and I’m going to continue to have the grace to work with folks and to prove me wrong. I have to have be in that posture. Otherwise I become a part of the problem myself. I want to be what John Gardner would call “a loving critic,” a loving critic of my own institution and a loving critic of the colleagues that I get privileged to work with. This is a results-based journey. You don’t need to say anything. It’s all about what you do. You just nailed it on your head: You don’t need to put out statements, just start with how you treat your workers. What we’re trying to get people to think about is that we can actually save you money. You don’t have to have all these PR firms trying to help you get positioned in this movement.

You don’t have to have all this charity that you’re putting out there. If you just thought about treating your workers differently, you would make it so much easier in communities. And this is the disconnect. When you think about these major corporations—and I’m talking about the design challenges—there are working folks in these companies who still can’t make ends meet, who are still being harmed by institutions every day. We said to a couple of folks recently: imagine if you just walked around the community and let your employees show you how they’re being harmed every day, you would see the system in its entirety. So I’m skeptical but I’m going to stay a loving critic because I think the thing that people need to do most, I haven’t seen: To declare a result and be as fanatical about achieving that result as they are achieving their quarterly returns. That’s why I use the term learned helplessness, because they know how to do this.

Mellody Hobson had a great quote recently about how executives get fired for not achieving the results they promise, but no one has apparently ever been fired for not hitting their diversity and inclusion targets…

It doesn’t make sense. If we’re going to move forward, this culture of unaccountability that we put in this space, if you’re going to let that stand, you shouldn’t even waste money on a DEI person. Because they can’t do anything. You’re wasting money.

When you’re talking to the board or leadership of a company, what’s the first gameplan that you advise them to follow?

The first thing is we tell them we’ll meet you where you’re at. I’m not going to let you project into me what is your responsibility. Your responsibility is to tell me the result that you want to achieve. Tell me that, then I can activate. I’m not trying to come in and train you. I’m not trying to give you a history lesson. Adults learn when they’re trying to solve a problem. So the first thing I’m trying to do is get a relationship with you about what you want to do. Because if you actually can’t tell me what you want to do, there’s no reason for me to waste my time. That’s why I need to stay skeptical.Because I know you’re then playing games. You know how to be results driven.

So if you’re going to call me in, and this is where you’re going to act like you don’t know how to read a book, you don’t know how to talk to people. You can’t find one Black or brown person in the company. Then I know you’re full of shit and I’m not going to have our brand used in that relationship. When people tell us places they want to start, then we can get activated. So things like with frontline workers, we give them flexible schedules so that they can have some consistency, making sure they have childcare supports. Walmart commissioned this report that we did with them called “Advancing Frontline Employees of Color.” It laid out over 20 evidence-based ways in which you could help frontline workers move into the middle class. Of approximately 24 million frontline workers, 9 million are people of color.

That is a blueprint right there, where you could pick any of those 20 ways of advancing frontline workers in that report. And you could begin to do those. Other times, we’re asking folks to see the harm that is unintentionally done and to lead with your leadership voice. For example, imagine if corporations began to say, we will not give any of our PAC money out if you are participating in gerrymandering. That’s hurting folks and you are suppressing the vote. Think about the ripple that would send through the political system if PACs just say here’s our standard, we will not tolerate it anymore. Don’t even need to waste any money. All you’ve done is use your leadership voice to say, this is what we expect. We recently said that to a company and it blew their mind because it’s like, Oh, it’s that simple? It’s that simple.

You giving PAC dollars to folks who are then suppressing the will of the people to be able to exercise the most elegant expression of participating in a democracy is maddening. If you’re going to do that, you’re voiding out everything else you’re doing. They really are considering that now. That was a way we could come in and can say, that’s low-hanging fruit for you right there. All it requires is a leadership standard. Those are the ways in which we try to engage internally and also thinking about systemically, what is the impact that they’re having out in community. We’re clear with folks that we’re not a DEI trainer. There’s plenty of folks that can do that. We’re here trying to connect you to the aspirations of the movement and to help you achieve results with that hundred million. That’s why we are engaging. We might provide you some baseline stuff around how we got here, but diversity equity inclusion is a billion dollar industry. Hell, everybody should be trained up really well now. So that’s not how we enter, which is important difference, we don’t actually train. We come in to help accelerate your ability to get results.

A lot of the measures you’re mentioning aren’t necessarily race-specific. They’re measures that are systemic, and wind up having the effect of reducing racial injustice.

That’s right. This is where Angela [Glover Blackwell]’s writing around the curb-cut effect is so important. The reality is when you solve for the problems of the most vulnerable, you are already in a race conversation. You don’t even have to talk about it. Now, there will come points where we need to go deeper. Because if you say you want to close the wealth gap among workers, then you might have to do some specific race things or gender things, etc. But to start, we don’t even have to have a fight about race. If you get into the conversation about the hundred million, we are in a conversation about race, because it’s actually become too toxic for white folks because you designed it to hurt me and now it’s just simply spread.

Here’s a practical example of what I mean: Florida designed its unemployment insurance system to intentionally not work because of that racist Black welfare queen trope. That’s not true, nonetheless it has currency. So you go and you spend taxpayer dollars to make it difficult to access that system, never thinking that we would be in a pandemic and middle-class whites and Blacks and Asians and Latinos would need that system. So the system you designed to hurt the most vulnerable Black folks now is hurting middle-class white folks and everyone else. That is ultimately why there’s so much white anxiety in the world. The system that has been designed to actually deny me opportunity now is now denying everyone opportunity unless you have means to buy your way out of the system. Think about San Francisco. Middle-Class folks working at Google and Facebook have to make a tough choice. Can I live in that city and afford childcare? Can they live in that city and afford private school? So when you neglect these public goods, because you didn’t want to go to school next to me, you now have a big problem.

The very folks who were making a good living now still don’t make enough to enjoy all that San Francisco has to offer, because it was never designed for them and now they’re experiencing it. So when you see these articles about folks from Facebook and Google saying, I can’t make it out here—yeah, you can’t make it out here because the folks who came before you said, I want to design a world where people who look like me won’t be a part of the city. Now you are caught up in that Black/white paradigm that will keep us divided and keep that hundred million going up. You see it every time. You see it around public goods, like public education, healthcare, etc., They become unemployment insurance. They become racialized and ultimately end up harming everyone. But the way you described it is absolutely right. If we could just begin to see the folks who are struggling and design at a macro level. If you are afraid of race, you still will have taken leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else.

Have you seen any examples of measures that are getting results recently that are particularly encouraging to you?

Prudential creating portable benefits for folks and then working with state legislatures, like California, to make sure that you have the legal regulatory framework for folks to have portable benefits that we know people need to save and build wealth. We also know that they’re going to be changing jobs a lot. So the way a company looked and said, we want to address racial equity within every aspect of our value chain—they’ve been able to create a new market by doing so. You’re seeing JP Morgan Chase structure $30 billion to put out there in a far more targeted way than in the past, and to also create what they call Black pathways, to make sure that they’ve got a talent pipeline of Black folks. That’s huge. These are big steps. You see Adidas putting targets on the diversity that it wants to have in its organization by X year. We are seeing all around the country these amazing statements. We’re seeing Target do the same thing, begin to lead in this space and say we want to make sure that people of color see Target as the most favored company that’s out there. We’re seeing folks do this work that way.

The companies you mention are some of the biggest companies in the country. What’s the role of small- and medium-size businesses, which generally have less resources or profits to contribute to the movement that you’re talking about?

First of all, they can use their voice. They know their communities. They know people are hurting and being harmed by institutions. So that leadership voice is essential to begin to speak out on the things that you’re seeing that should change. The second thing is around thinking as much as you can about how you can get to a living wage. How can you provide ownership opportunities? Are you recruiting at a wide variety of places for talent? Those are basic things that we all can do. Are you making sure that your pay doesn’t just totally lift off too high from the lowest paid person in your employ. Those are the types of things that they can do. Local leaders could use their voice to help people understand how charity isn’t sufficient and that the elected leaders must do something.

Imagine if small business owners say, you know what, we’re gonna start putting pressure on the city council. For a really good example, imagine small businesses in Flint, Michigan saying, you know what, we’re not going to contribute any more money to any candidate that doesn’t agree that when they get elected they’re going to pass a bond measure to fix these pipes so these kids can stop being poisoned. That voice would be transformative because right now we’re still poisoning kids. Yet in three, four years, we’re going to be complaining that we don’t like the results we’re getting for them academically, when we already know how lead poisoning impacts us cognitively. These are real world examples where their leadership voice in, the communities that they serve every day would be powerful.

I’ve been hearing concern that the momentum around racial equity from the summer might be flagging. What is your level of concern or optimism?

I think all movements have ebbs and flows, and this is a role for civil society. We’re not going anywhere. This is our life’s work. This is my vocation. So I need to have an organization that’s built to endure when you’re in season and when you’re not in season. And that’s the beauty of the movement, you know, poor people, poor whites, poor Blacks, poor Latin folks, poor Asian folks, all of us—they never stopped fighting. They were fighting long before the Black lives movement came along. They fight in the Black lives movement and they’ll fight long beyond it. That’s the beauty of what I know is going on, which is people can say whether it’s a movement or a moment and all of these things, but what I know is this, if you build the right institution, you’re going to be able to continue to do great work when it’s fashionable and when it’s not.

Our job is to be able to seize these environmental jolts, seize upon them and move the work a little further. When you have that moment, that’s our job.That’s why you’re focused on results. When these moments happen, you can step into them. Yes, corporations are going to ebb and flow here, just like government does, quite frankly. But civil society is that anchor, we’re that consciousness. We’re going to continue to be pushing and pushing hard. That’s why I’m so glad that if there’s been one thing that I’ve seen come out of this movement, at least with wealthy donors, is that they’ve stabilized a lot of institutions to continue this fight in good ways, even my own. When you think about MacKenzie Scott Bezos’s investments, she’s positioned many of us to wage this fight for many more years, without having to worry about, can I do this work or do I have to try to fit it into a $25,000 bucket to get some money. These are amazing things that have happened in this moment where social justice equity organizations, civil rights organizations are a little stronger and can wage this fight over the long term.

We talked about the role of leadership. What can just regular employees and middle managers do on this front?

They can begin to lead by asking the right questions and using all of their savvy and grace and wooing capabilities to ask questions like who benefits, who decides, who pays, who owns, who’s harmed, who’s being left behind. If we start asking ourselves those questions, we’re going to start getting answers. If we center a population before we start trying to have strategy conversations, we will be taking a revolutionary act. That revolutionary act is to keep that hundred million at the forefront of all of our conversations, so that we’re actually designing for them, in addition to whatever else we want to do, That is so important because if we had done that with PPP or with PPE or opportunity zones, we wouldn’t have had these gross misfires. But everyday folks are not asking themselves the question, who are we designing for? And then who benefits, who pays, who’s owns—all those questions. Until you ask those questions, you’re not really crafting strategy, you’re just being responsive. That’s what everyday folks can do to make sure that this issue stays front and center in their organization.

You earlier said that businesses need to lead around racial equity. But what about the role of the government, especially now with a new US administration entering office where some measures could be prioritized?

Ultimately this work needs to be situated back within government. That’s government’s role. But the problem is business has weakened government’s ability to perform. You’ve seen the assaults on HUD and HHS and the CDC over years long before we got to the Trump administration. Government is weakened. It can’t do this right now, but it needs to. When I talk about being on the leading edge, corporations need to be demanding that our governing institutions are rebuilt to be able to serve that hundred million plus. What you hear me saying is that until that time, we need corporations to do their work. This is where I am saying we must always be a loving critic—I am not that hopeful even with this new administration because we still haven’t learned to say race in our politics, when it comes to doing positive stuff. We say race when it comes to scaring the hell out of people.

Given all that will be on this administration’s plate, I think you’ll see some nice gestures. But they won’t be the deep structural things that we need. The reason why I say that is not so much an indictment of this administration. Think about the tragedy of our people only deserve $600 a month after they’ve waited months, think about the cruelty of that. When you look at all these other countries paying 80% or 90% of workers’ wages, more than 17 million people are facing imminent eviction, and those are mostly Black and brown folks. I just don’t believe that we’ve evolved so far that we will allow this administration to focus on those folks.

The danger is do we try to do the quick political wins or do we try to wage a fight over some really big structural things? That’s going be the tension. But this is why also corporations need to join with civil society to hold electeds accountable for this agenda. The problem that we have right now is there, is a constituency for what I’m talking about, but it’s not an activated and mobilized constituency yet where people really pay attention. It only seems to get energy when somebody is tearing up something in the streets. That’s what we’ve got to evolve from now. This is why we’re getting ready to start scoring electeds and beginning to build that power base, to hold folks accountable, because otherwise it will not.

You’re going to start scoring elected officials on their their records on race?

Yes, on achieving racial equity, on achieving things for that hundred million. With that, you get to racial equity in that hundred million. If you can solve the problem of what’s designed to hurt Black folks, you’ve solved the problem of what’s causing everybody else to be harmed as well. That’s the racial equity angle. What people need to understand is the thing that we are chasing is all in the equity definition. I’m not advancing equity if I’m just serving Black folks. But what I know is if I don’t serve Black folks, I’ll never solve the problem because the world was designed to harm me.

The 100 million people you’ve mentioned includes who exactly?

There’s a report called “100 million and Counting” commissioned by MasterCard. There were approximately 106 million people at the time when we did that report living [below] 200% of [the federal] poverty [level], so living in or near poverty. It’s one in three people in America.

What should the business agenda around racial equity be for 2021?

The first thing would be to free democracy from capitalism. The will of the people must be able to be expressed unencumbered at the ballot. The second is to see the systems that are harming their employees and to begin to speak out on them locally, align their local philanthropic investments with their leadership voice, to set a standard of how people will relate to their employees locally. Then the third is to get into the third rail of all of this, which is tax policy. We’ve got to design an economy that is more equitable. The free market has shown us it just can’t be that. So we’ve got to get to a place where those of us who have means are paying our fair share and we are designing a legal and regulatory environment that lifts up that hundred million. Plus it’s a prosperous environment. There are blueprints out there. Maybe no more than five years ago, the Children’s Defense Fund and the Urban Institute commissioned a report called “Ending Poverty Now.” It listed six to seven policies that will reduce poverty by 50%. These things are already on the books already, income tax credit, etc. That’s what I mean, companies could take that off the shelf, dust that report off, and use it today. But it’s going to require new revenue.

When you talk about the second point, systems that are harming employees, what’s in that bucket?

Over-policing, insufficient healthcare, poor educational infrastructure, inadequate physical space outside, lack of parks and things like that in some neighborhoods, and unaffordable housing. These are basic things that, while we may want to get fancy, that hundred million is still right there. Food, clothing, shelter, a job.

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