A visual feature recently assembled by The New York Times reveals in stark detail the dearth of people of color, in the year 2020, in the country’s halls of power. Of the 24 people in the Trump administration, only three aren’t white. Only six of the top 25 companies in the United States are led by people of color; among the presidents of the top 25 universities, all but one is white. Over in publishing, things are worse: The editors in chief of the 10 most-read magazines are all white, as are the heads of the five largest book publishers.
But Corporate America is, if anything, highly attuned to which way the wind is blowing. As a result of the nationwide protests over police brutality and the ongoing tension between the radical demands of activists and the push by moderates to restore the status quo, a number of companies have pledged to rectify racial disparities across their leadership.
Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian, for instance, stepped down from his post in June and encouraged the company to replace him with a Black executive. Companies like Wells Fargo, Delta Airlines, and Ralph Lauren have also recently pledged to institute quotas to boost racial diversity within their leadership. “We know that we can be a force for change across this country,” Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf said in a statement about the new diversity measures. (The company was arguably a force for change of a different kind a little over a decade ago, when its practice of selling off subprime mortgages helped set into motion the 2008 financial crisis, which cost a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx families their homes.)
But the goal of these profit-driven enterprises and others is ultimately the protection of a bottom line, and a swift change-up of the demographics of their ranks at the very top is the type of reform that never seems to go very far at all. So in the place of actual change, we instead get a diversity of bad bosses, or good bosses running bad companies. Then we end up back where we started, which is the entire exercise for these firms.
We’ve been here before: In the wake of the 2017 #MeToo movement, which ignited a public reckoning over the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the workplace, a number of companies rushed to demonstrate their feminist bona bides by hiring or promoting more women into leadership. (A 2018 feature in Elle, titled “The Replacements,” celebrated the new crop of women leaders taking over high-powered positions once occupied by predatory men.) #MeToo, which was composed of what often felt like a series of parallel developments emerging from the work of victims, journalists, organizers, celebrities, and legal funds, managed to oust a number of serial abusers and elevate more women to leadership positions across several white-collar and creative fields.