As the shock, sadness and anger of seeing 46-year-old George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers gave way to protests and riots across the country, Central Indiana companies began speaking out on social media about systemic racism and discrimination.
They published racial equity statements. They pledged money to help grassroots organizations already laboring to address inequities affecting Black Americans in education, health care, access to fresh foods, housing and jobs. On Twitter and LinkedIn and other sites, they acknowledged country’s racist history and called for police reform.
And in the roughly seven months since, the companies formed coalitions, emphasized their histories of promoting racial equality, took on police reform and pledged to help level the playing field for all people.
Such measures were received with hope but also suspicion.
Perhaps this was the beginning of a sincere movement that would spur real change. Or, some wondered, were these public vows merely empty platitudes, a cynical public relations ploy to tap into and perhaps even take advantage of a popular uprising.
Imhotep Adisa, executive director and co-founder of the Indianapolis-based Kheprw Institute, which focuses on social enterprise and community wealth building with a focus on the Black community, said he’s cautiously optimistic.
“State violence against people of color is not new,” Adisa said. “So as you look at that, you then have to begin to look at what is it about this moment in particular — Floyd as a particular piece of it — that heightened in a different way.”
In truth, advocates say it is still too early to know whether all the pledges will create meaningful change. But they do agree that there has been sincerity and some positive follow through in the months since Floyd was killed.
Floyd wasn’t the first Black American to have his death at the hands of police officers to captured by cellphones, police and surveillance video.
Before him, Americans saw an unarmed Stephon Clark, 22, gunned down in his grandparents’ backyard in 2018 by Sacramento police officers who mistook a cellphone for a firearm.
Motorist Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by former Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby in 2016. Philando Castile, another motorist who died the same year, was shot and killed by Minnesota officer Jeronimo Yanez. Dashcam video captured the shooting as did Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was broadcasting on Facebook Live from the passenger side of the car. Reynolds’ daughter was in the backseat.
There’s Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., in 2016. Eric Garner, put in a chokehold by NYPD officers, died in 2014. Tamir Rice, just 12, in Cleveland in 2014. And, Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009.
Others have died in custody or been fatally shot off camera, including Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Aaron Bailey here in Indianapolis.
And, just weeks before Floyd died, Dreasjon Reed was killed in Indianapolis in an incident partially recorded on Facebook Live that greatly divided the community.
His death led to an investigation that concluded he had fired at a police officer, who was not charged. But his death also brought greater attention to the larger issue here in Central Indiana.
There have been countless marches, protests against excessive use of force by police and calls for reform. So why are Central Indiana businesses moved to address racial disparities — particularly those adversely impacting Black Americans — now?
The companies each had their own reasons, but they also said 2020 — particularly Floyd’s death.
Salesforce, which has more than 2,000 workers in Indianapolis, said in an email statement that 2020 brought the inequities faced by Black Americans into a sharp focus, making it clear that much work is needed to build a workplace that looks like society and where colleagues feel safe and valued.
“We believe business can be a powerful platform for change,” the company said in a statement sent by spokeswoman Anna Kowalczyk.
For Indianapolis-based Anthem Inc., Floyd’s death was a reminder of the role it needed to have in its community.
“Following the death of George Floyd, as an organization that is committed, connected, and invested in our communities, we knew we had to take a leadership role,” Kimberly Drumgo, chief diversity officer, said in an email. “At Anthem, we constantly expect more of ourselves—in this case, to lead, to help facilitate change and to be an example of progress toward racial justice and equity.”
Elanco Animal Health, which is moving its headquarters from Greenfield to Indianapolis, said it was moved byhow deeply the issue was resonating in the community.
“Our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, including racial equality, have been ongoing for a number of years. However, seeing our community suffering so acutely spurred us to take a step further, realizing we can’t just focus internally any longer,” the company said. “We have to also lend our voice to driving change faster in our community.”
Meanwhile, Roche Diagnostics North America, also headquartered in Indianapolis, saw an opportunity.
“After the murder of George Floyd, when the opportunity arose for Roche to join other companies in a public declaration about the importance of prioritizing racial justice in Indianapolis and the world, there was no hesitation,” said Jo Lynn Garing, spokeswoman. “It was an important moment in history, and for our company, for our employees, and for our patients, we chose to take a more public stance.”
In a statement, Fernando Herndon, executive director of Cummins Advocating for Racial Equity, said there is an increased sense of urgency and positive momentum to address equal rights, diversity and inclusion after Floyd’s death and related protests.
Tiffany Benjamin, senior director and president of the Lilly Foundation, said Floyd’s death spurred a moment in time that created a lot of energy to address issues affecting the community, and it’s also driven accountability for those who take on the work.
“We feel like, as a major employer in Indianapolis, we have to speak out about these issues because they impact our employees. They impact the residents of the city. They impact people we care about,” she said in an interview. “While we know that these are long-standing societal problems, we appreciate that they hurt us all.”
What did they get right?
More than a dozen corporate leaders convened to form the Business Equity for Indy Committee.
A joint venture between the Indy Chamber and Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, with support from the Indianapolis Urban League, the committee aims to address disparities in health care; hiring, promotion and leadership opportunities; and expanding contracting participation and opportunities for minority-owned businesses.
The committee includes executives from OneAmerica, Corteva Agriscience and Mays Chemical, Powers & Sons Construction Company, Eli Lilly & Co., PNC Bank, Anthem, Thompson Distribution and others.
In one of the more prominent examples, companies such as Lilly, Anthem, Roche and Cummins joined sports teams, nonprofits, universities hospitals to take the Indy Racial Equity Pledge. Unveiled in October, the executives from each company outlined actionable measures, initiatives and goals their companies would target to close racial gaps.
The pledges are documented on a website, where the companies also mark their progress. Roche, for example, said it would collaborate with local and national organizations that are focused on improving the health and wellbeing of racial and ethnic minority populations.
On its progress, the company notes its partnership with the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery patient support program to provide underserved cancer patients with transportation to treatment and appointments.
And in the fall, it began working with the American Heart Association to address high blood pressure as a health disparity impacting people of color in Indianapolis. It also became a local sponsor of the American Diabetes Association’s Project Power, a virtual afterschool program to slow the trajectory of childhood obesity.
Anthem pledged $50 million over a five-year period to address racial injustice and health disparities and contributed to the Central Indiana Racial Equity Fund to support organizations focused on addressing inequality.
As for Salesforce, it vowed to invest $100 million in Black-owned companies by 2023. It also said it would donate $200 million and one million volunteer hours to advance racial equality and justice over the next five years.
For Indianapolis, this includes a $225,000 donation to the Indianapolis Urban League and $500,000 in new grants to Indianapolis Public Schools to support professional development for educators and racial equity training for teachers.
Meanwhile, Lilly pledged to increased the share of Black Americans in its U.S. workforce from 10% to 13% to align more closely to the nation’s demographics.
The company also vowed to double its annualized spending on Black suppliers and vendors over the next two years. The website, however, doesn’t say how much the company currently spends on Black vendors.
Soon after Floyd’s death, Lilly also committed $25 million to combat racial inequity and 25,000 volunteer service hours from its employees to do the same thing.
“These are long-standing issues. No one denies that,” Benjamin said. “But this is a moment in time where everybody feels like we should be working together to do something. And we’re pretty, pretty serious about changing things and making the world a better place.”
Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow is a clinical assistant professor of business law and management at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. She previously served as the vice president of diversity and inclusion at the NCAA, was director of affirmative action at Purdue University and director of diversity and inclusion at Rockwell Collins. She still works with C-Suite executives.
Westerhaus-Renfrowsaid she’s never seen Indianapolis businesses collectively respond to racial inequities the way they have publicly after Floyd’s viral death.
“I really have never seen anything like this where they are committed to building these community partnerships,” she said.
For Westerhaus-Renfrow, the pledge is unique because it centers on building inclusive communities around Indiana and includesworking to reduce detrimental health disparities. It also emphasized the Black community.
“Their pledges are inclusive of all, but they did identify that there is a very core and significant disparity for African Americans in the state — in regards to the incarceration rate, homeownership,” Westerhaus-Renfrow said. “They also went into education, prosperity, and health care.”
She called the acknowledgement bold and indicates that the companies understand they have a stake in building an inclusive community.
If there’s anything missing, Westerhaus-Renfrow said she didn’t see any pledges for increasing diversity among executive leadership and corporate boards.
She wants to know the how, when and who will measure the corporations success.
“I mean it says they’re going to do all these things, but how are we going to measure success? Is it going to be, is it going to be more homeownership? Is going to be better ILEARN? And then when we come back and see how well you did?”
Corporate responsibility v. shareholder responsibility
Historically, most businesses were an impediment to the betterment of Black Americans, said Richard Pierce, a University of Notre Dame professor and author of “Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis.” That’s the legacy of segregation.
He said historically businesses, especially retail, maintained voluntary segregation in consumer affairs while larger businesses engaged in segregated hiring process.
“Such practices continued until the mid-1970s when the Black Expo helped to highlight African American economic potential,” he said via email.
Westerhaus-Renfrow believes corporations taking part in racial pledges recognize that a diverse and inclusive workforce enhances productivity, innovation and their bottom line.
“They’re not just talking about how this pledge will help our bottom line fiscally,” she said, but also“how it actually will help us have an inclusive and more productive environment for all of our employees, which are all important.”
Westerhaus-Renfrow works with white, male C-Suite executives who often lack confidence to talk about or ask questions about diversity and inclusion because of their limited experience.
She said they’re afraid to say or do the wrong thing. A common misconception is that they are excluded from diversity and inclusion conversations and initiatives. That’s not the case. Westerhaus-Renfrow helps them understand the qualitative and quantitative benefits of diversity inclusion.
It’s about more than just hiring. Employees need to feel heard, understand that there are no winners and losers and be included in the conversations, she said.
Issues of race and policing are often viewed through a political lens. Companies that wade into the subjects could risk offending some customers, employees and shareholders.
Benjamin said Lilly and its foundation doesn’t see it that way.
She said her team handles environmental, social and governance strategy, which includes engaging with investors. They found no conflict between corporate social responsibility and shareholder responsibility.
“It’s not an either or question,” she said.
“Our shareholders want us to show that we’re operating ethically, that we are committed to hiring the best talent, that we are acting in a fair manner, and that we’re committed to the communities in which we operate,” she said. “It’s really something that shareholders have come to expect of companies.”
Herndon of Cummins said the Columbus-based company believes in the business case for diversity and sees it as complementary to the stakeholder model of corporate responsibility.
Stakeholders, he said, are more than shareholders. They include customers, employees, communities and suppliers. Each has a vital interest in the health and success of the company.
“We know diversity, equity and inclusion is our crucial strategic advantage. It is critical to our ability to innovate, to win in the marketplace and to create our sustainable success.”
Platitudes or real action?
After reviewing the Indy Racial Equity pledge, Westerhaus-Renfrow said she believes the corporations are passionate about their commitment to addressing racial injustices.
“They have the courage to actually identify the group that is suffering the most negative impacts of inequality by name. They named it. They said it as African Americans,” she said.
Others are reserving judgement.
Adisa of the Kheprw Institute said he welcomes the idea of doing inclusion better and ensuring that Black American have more than just a seat at the corporate table. But, he’s waiting to see what happens.
“One of the things that you got to really respect about market-based capitalism is that it will sell you anything,” said Adisa, whose organization includes a focus on entrepreneurship. “We should be taking a really critical look at everybody that says Black Lives Matter. What are you doing within your institutions, what are you doing at a personal level to demonstrate that black lives do matter?”
It’s not that Adisa doesn’t believe an awakening is happening — he does. Adisa sees the corporate promotions of racial equality occurring against the backdrop of a global pandemic, deep recession, Black Lives Matter and a Trump presidency frequently accused of putting forth and promoting racist and anti-immigrant policies.
“I do think there is some sincerity,” he said. “I do think that this moment is a moment to try to figure out how to, to improve on the conditions we find ourselves in. So I welcome this moment. Now with that though, what I’m not sure is that if folks are really looking for change.”
And, he’s not confident inclusion, diversity and equity in corporate space are going to lead to real fundamental change for Black Americans.
“If the folks we put in those spaces have the same philosophical orientations as the previous folks, all you’ve done was just added some color to the room,” he said. “You haven’t really addressed authentic and real change.”
Benjamin said Lilly is putting its stake in the ground.
“We know that there are people who say these problems have been long-standing, and how are you going to make real change?” Benjamin said. “Well, one of the first ways that you can force change is by to putting a stake in the ground to say what you’re going to do, and then be transparent about it.”
She said the public pledge and accompanying website allows for the public to hold Lilly and other corporate and nonprofit pledge-takers accountable.
“If we put it in print,” Benjamin said, “then you have to ask us later.”